Content and elective teachers looking to incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as well as computer science (CS) into their curriculum can consider robots and robotics while still keeping the instructional focus of their class.

For example, to enhance a literature lesson, students can represent the journey of literary characters through programmed robots. In math class, students can find distance and speed traveled and calculate the time to run a program for their robot.

Moreover, teachers do not have to abandon their entire curriculum to participate in STEM. Instead, implement one project or performance task a semester, and connect it to learning in your area for no more than two to three weeks at a time. Keep things simple, and focus on fun and the intended learning.

Here’s how to start, along with resources and recommendations.

Connecting Robots to the Classroom

In the real world, robotics is a branch of engineering that involves the conception, design, manufacture, and operation of robots. This field also overlaps with CS.

In the classroom, educational robots are excellent for teaching kids fundamental engineering design and programming skills while allowing them to see and interpret code results in real time. Additionally, we can tie in literacy, physical science, and mathematics (among other topics) while helping them develop professional skills such as planning, teamwork, and perseverance. Here’s a handy infographic uplifting the skills we can help learners develop.

To keep the learning authentic, here is some context we can make for students:

  • In commercial agriculture, robots navigate farmland, harvest crops, and care for plants independently and in conditions difficult for humans.
  • In health care, artificial intelligence and augmented reality improve wayfinding for disabled persons using robotic exoskeletons.
  • In the automotive industry, robots with powerful mechanical arms assemble cars and perform precise installations.
  • In space exploration, remotely operated vehicles capture data and footage from space and on other planets.

Choose Your Robot

When teaching robotics in the classroom (not after school), choose robots that require less elaborate builds and not a lot of cleanup.

The following companies offer options for all grades at various price points:

  • PBS Kids: Build a bot with Curious George for grades K–5.
  • Bee-Bot: Help K–5 students program journeys with robots.
  • Sphero: K–12 students can program the mini-robot ball to draw shapes, spell, and learn how to code. This at-home guide makes it possible for parents to help, too.
  • Ozobot: Provides K–12 coding options with or without computer screens and ties in content learning.
  • Lego and Vex also offer solutions for learners of all ages to build bots—these are especially popular with hobbyists and those involved with competitive robotics.

A Framework for Getting Started

Take these four calculated steps to help your students familiarize themselves with the technology in tandem with understanding key concepts and programming, regardless of your robot or platform.

1. Know the hardware. By exploring tutorials through play, students can learn how to identify and categorize the major components of their robots. Good categories to begin with include structure, motion, electronics, and other tools. Be sure to provide an explanation for each category.

2. Build the robot (when applicable). This is a great entry point for students new to robotics, and many younger kids will love this step.

3. Learn the functions of gears, motors, sensors, and other components. This step helps significantly to elucidate key concepts in automation and robotics engineering into practice and provides context for the use of the components associated with the robot you choose.

4. Learn how to program. Most devices will have built-in missions, which enable students to see how to make the robot move with motors and respond to touch or motion with sensors. As they become more accustomed to the built-in programs, they can start making their own programs using visual programming blocks. For example, the block coding option in the Sphero Edu app is built on Scratch—check out this tutorial I created for first-time programmers.

Utilizing a Performance Task

Implementing an entire robotics unit may be a bit much or appear daunting for a content teacher—therefore, try a performance task where the product your students create is a program that enables their robot to complete a task. See this link for a template inspired by the GRASP (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Products) model by Jay McTighe, along with my example for you to reference as you design your own.

When designing your performance tasks, here are some logical curricular connections for content teachers to consider.

English language arts

  • Help students make connections between writing with correct grammar and coding with proper syntax when programming robots.
  • Help a character in a story solve a problem (such as traveling a specific distance, using gears strategically to navigate through or around difficult terrain, or using sensors to alert impending danger) by having students think analytically in their designs.
  • See a sample lesson by Wonder Workshop.

Mathematics

Science

  • Design, build, and program robots to investigate solutions and solve problems.
  • Students work in design teams to collaborate with others and share ideas to investigate, create, and test the best possible solutions.
  • Students explore real-world scientific questions in topics ranging from earth science to physics.
  • Students develop and test hypotheses.
  • See a sample lesson by Lego.

Social studies

  • Students explore careers in robotics.
  • Students learn the production and distribution of goods using robots and create simulations.
  • Students can use robots to program a journey across a floor map.
  • See a sample lesson by KinderLab Robotics.

Jorge Valenzuela is also the author of Rev Up Robotics: Real-World Computational Thinking in the K–8 Classroom.

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