Research shows that teaching using computer science concepts and using robots in the classroom has a direct influence on children’s skills development in four major categories: cognitive, conceptual, language and social (collaborative) skills. Robots used in the classroom encourages interactive learning, making children more engaged in their learning activities. It is important that we can effectively use robotics as a tool to engage students with digital technologies and in the learning of hugely useful computer science skills.
What is robotics?
Essentially, a robot is a mechanical device that can be programmed to follow a set of instructions.
The robot has a processing unit, sensors to perceive its environment, and motors and actuators for movement. It may speak, make other sounds, or flash with lights and colours in response to the environment as per instructions. Robots need the ability to follow programmed instructions and not just be controlled remotely.
Why should it be taught in schools?
There is considerable anecdotal evidence that students respond well in subjects involving coding and the programming of robots.
Plenty of resources are available on the internet for parents and teachers, for example, robot kits, such as Lego Mindstorms and Vex Robotics, simple programmable robots such as the hugely popular Sphero balls (the SPRK+ and updated Bolt), and banks of lesson plans for teachers and school staff. Sophisticated (and expensive), engaging robots such as the NAO robot are also available.
Here are five reasons to teach robotics in schools:
- Children find it fun
There are lots of several competitive ways to engage a range of age groups that can channel their interactive and competitive instincts in a positive way. For example, asking children to build a robot from a Lego set and then running a race to see which robot goes fastest works well.
In my experience, the two most engaging ways of introducing IT and DTHM in the curriculum are robotics and computer game design.
- An effective way of introducing programming to students
Programming can be too abstract. By having to control a physical robot and seeing what goes wrong, students learn what robots can and can’t do. They also learn the need for precise instructions. Robotics helps address the growing demand for teaching science, technology (especially the DTHM curriculum), engineering, arts and math (STEAM) in schools. As well as simply and effectively teaching digital technology directly by programming the robot, students also learn about science, engineering and maths and get an understanding of how these subjects link together.
- Provides skills relevant and useful in future employment
There’s no doubt that there will be a need for people to be involved in programming mechanical devices in the foreseeable future. By programming robots, students can discover if they have aptitude and interest in the job market of the future. This is recognised in NZ in the DTHM curriculum and it is expected that all yr1-10 students are exposed to the curriculum in schools by 2020.
- Suitable for children with a range of abilities
Utilising a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) robots can be used to engage a huge range of students with a large range of abilities and interests. For example, there is considerable evidence (http://scazlab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/annurev-bioeng-071811-150036) that robots are particularly suitable for engaging with children on the autism spectrum. Children on the spectrum respond to the calm, clear, consistent interactions that robots can provide. The tasks that are designed to engage learners with specific learning needs actually work for all students.
- Simplifies a complex technology
Many stories in the media concern robots. There are many points of view when it comes to robot technology and the use of robots around the world. It is important that there is more understanding of what machines can and can’t do. This is the best way to address fears and concerns about technology.
Experience in trying to build and program robots gives an appreciation of their capabilities and strengths.
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