5 Benefits of Introducing Robotics to Elementary School Students
By Qing Hua, CEO
When I introduced robotics to my elementary kids, I didn’t expect that one day they would assemble their own IKEA storage units. In the same way that they handled their robotics parts, they quickly located the instructions, gathered the tools, identified the parts, and just started assembling. Within an hour, they put together their own first IKEA sets, and declared: ”this is fun!”
Having spent the last several years in the field of education robotics, I often get asked what the value of robotics classes for elementary school kids is. A quick answer would be: robotics gives kids opportunities to learn technology while not being glued to screens, reinforce their coding and other academic skills, increase their patience and tenacity, gain a better understanding of the world they live in, and practice transferable skills such as creative thinking, communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills.
Let me explain each of these points in detail.
Benefit 1: Learn technology while not being glued to screens
Research has shown that hands-on learning benefits our kids’ brains and mental strength. Our kids are spending an average of 6–9 hours a day on screen. Robotics is a great choice for them to learn technology while not spending the entire time on the screen. With that idea in mind, we researched education robotics on the market and found that they mostly fall into two categories: construction and coding. Popular products such as LEGO, VEX, RoboRobo, Makeblock are considered construction robotics; products such as Sphero, Ozobot, Dash and Dot are considered coding robotics.
Since many young learners grow up putting Lego blocks together and making Play-Doh sculptures, it is very natural to start their robotics learning with building. Students follow the instructions to assemble the parts to make them work mechanically. Students usually take 30~90 minutes to get the robot built mechanically correct. They also work to make sure that the electronic components are connected correctly. Then there is the coding, in which kids program how they want their robots to react to the inputs it receives.
It is very common for students to get things wrong the first time. They need to reread the instructions, troubleshoot, and redo some steps. Once students are comfortable with following instructions, they can create their own robots out of their own imaginations.
Benefit 2: build robots to reinforce academic content areas beyond coding
We have seen creative educators use robotics in many ways to help students reinforce coding, math, reading, and spatial skills. For example, to code a robot to move from point A to point B, students work with distance, speed, duration, and direction, all things they have learned in a math class. The coding process presents them with an opportunity to work with multiple parameters to achieve their goals. The robot movement then gives them instant feedback on whether what they observed is consistent with what they intended. For students Grade 3~5, this is an opportunity to practice reading and comprehension. Students K2 who do not yet read can rely on pictorial instructions to examine various components.
Students have also experienced that even when both their math and coding work are correct, the robot may still not behave as they had designed it to do! In the process of troubleshooting, they may find that the parts have been put together wrong, or the electric parts are connected incorrectly, or that they misread an important instruction, or they forget to power up the robot! Making a robot to work gives students so many opportunities to practice persistence! Witnessing the robot finally strides across the floor gives students a strong sense of pride and confidence.
Benefit 3: making robots to grow positive mindsets
One of our STEM partner schools used building robotics as a Problem Based Learning project in a 4th-grade math class to help students learn math and reflect on why students seem to have more patience when it comes to building a robot but less tenacity when it comes to solving a math problem. Students reflected on the process and shared that they have a strong desire to see the robots move, light up, and make a sound while math didn’t bring them that satisfaction. The innovative teacher then asked students to celebrate their capability to be persistent and embrace the growth mindset and encourage students to transfer what they have learned in one area and transfer it to other areas of their studies.
I have an educator friend who thinks that robotics is an inefficient way of teaching kids coding. I agree and disagree. I agree because if our only goal is to teach coding, then certainly the time spent on finding and sorting robotics parts, putting them together, troubleshooting, reworking are all overhead. However, at Build A Robot, our philosophy is not to teach kids a single skill, but to help them build a strong foundation of combined transferable skills. From that perspective, we have observed that building, connecting, coding, troubleshooting, and presenting their work in a group setting have been very beneficial for kids to grow many skills that they would need to be competitive in the ever changing world we live in.
Deep learning is often inefficient but worth every minute. From a technical skill building perspective, it reinforces student’s understanding of the concepts we want to teach them. From a problem solving skill and growth mindset building perspective, building robots really does require students to block a set of time to get into deep learning mode to build and create. Many times, after a robot is built, our students are reluctant to disassemble and build a new one because they really did commit hard work to make the robot work. Eventually the desire to build something newer and better will win and off they go: tackling a more complex project!
Benefit 4: learn robotics to gain a better understanding of the world we live in
At Build a Robot K12, in our curiosity and connection discussion time, we ask students questions such as what they like to do in their spare time and how they see robots and coding will help solve problems they encounter in life. A common response is that students would like robots to do their homework and chores. We then explain that many online learning tools are providing various ways for students to understand and apply their knowledge more easily, so that doing homework would be not as intimidating or boring. A student who likes camping brought up the work of carrying things from the parking lot to camp ground. “Maybe we could build a mobile robot to help us carry stuff.” Another one added that they could wear LED lighted camping clothes when it gets dark while out camping. During COVID, our middle school students used micro:bit to build a prototype distance buzzer. When students get closer than 6 feet, an alarm goes off.
Software is eating the world. “For true revolution to happen, we need software plus hardware,” said Tony Fadell, father of the iPod and co-founder of Nest. In the recent A16z podcast, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel recounted the “machine” that made the vaccine. By “machine”, he meant the platform, the technology, and the moves behind the vaccine’s development. Giving students opportunities to understand the physical world powered by technologies is critical to help them become future problem solvers and leaders.
Benefit 5: learn robotics to build transferable skills
As the complexity of the world we live in increases everyday, developing innovative solutions in a vacuum is impossible. Collaborative Creating is consistent with our human nature to socialize. Working in a group gives students perspectives of how their peers interpret and process information, how they could brainstorm ideas and contribute each person’s unique strength, and together work on a project to solve an authentic problem.
The Build A Robot K12 philosophy is to help students build skills in multiple areas. Communication skill is a critical skill for kids to gain so they can express their ideas and opinions clearly and collaborate effectively with others. When it comes to building robots, we ask students to present their robots to the team. Usually at the end of each session, students take turns to explain their work. Over the years, we have observed that quiet robot builders usually take so much pride in their work that they become more open to share their work. The communicative students usually share a great deal of details about what they have learned and built. Students learn from each other and become better at communicating in a collaborative environment.
If you are interested in robotics classes for your kids, please visit our course page.
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Founder & CEO
Qing is passionate about fusing education, technology, industry, diversity, and human empathy to make this world a better place through education. Before starting Build a Robot K12, Qing worked in the telecommunication industry for 15 years as a senior engineer, engineering manager, and a product manager. Qing holds a MBA and a MS in Telecommunication from University of Colorado at Boulder, a MA in Communications from University of Delaware, and a BS in Electronics Engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She currently serves on the Colorado Department of Education Gifted Education State Advisory Committee. Outside of work, Qing enjoys books, new tech, music, the outdoors, and exploring new places and cultures.