Mentioning programming and robotics in school often becomes a source of distress, even for experienced teachers. The anxiety is rarely caused by the difficulty of the subject, but rather by the lack of time and information. For convenience of all interested parties, here’s a guide containing the most important requirements and instructions on how to organize a robotics workshop in school.
The very first step is finding a bit of information on programming and robotics. Note that we don’t have in mind completing a professional programming course; basically, the teacher should understand the basics and the potential this knowledge could have for her students.
In broad terms, students will be able to benefit from learning coding in two areas: professional and personal.
The former category is quite straightforward and visible in many statistics regarding the job market. According to the European Commission already in 2020, there will be a shortage of 900 000 ICT specialists1 in the EU alone. If this future seems still far away, let’s take a look at another part of the analysis: today, almost 90% of all job positions available on the market require at least elementary IT skills.
The research conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development anticipates an even greater revolution. They claim that in around a dozen years, when today’s students will become adults, they will be employed in positions that haven’t been created yet.2. It also means that various other skills, such as computational thinking3 and programming competencies, are growing in demand.
Actually, it shouldn’t be surprising. Modern technologies are practically everywhere, we exploit them in every area of our lives. They exist to make tasks easier, but to use them, you must know how.
Benefits received from learning programming are not limited to career. Children exposed to this subject gain not only knowledge and skills needed in a workplace.
Above all, programming is finding and building a road, which allows you to reach a designated point. Coding encourages a conscious thinking method that shows children how to solve problems easily and efficiently – be it in the code, or in the everyday life. What’s more, using code develops parts of brain responsible for memory, concentration and foreign languages,4, which can certainly help with acquiring other skills.
How does robotics fit in? It can become a great introduction to mechanics and physics. Instead of sitting in front of a book, children can observe many phenomena while having fun. How transmissions function, in what way the gravitation influences the construction, how sensors and motors work, what slows down the robot, what makes it move faster… all while playing.
No matter what career your pupil decides to follow in the future, learning programming and robotics will never be a waste of time.
More and more Europeans share this viewpoint. Every year, growing numbers of European schools introduce coding into their national curriculum. This applies to both primary and middle schools.
Although this change is not surprising, especially in the light of arguments described above, a new subject gave rise to new concerns. Unfortunately, it’s a natural consequence of insufficiently preparing educators for a completely new challenge.
Alterations in the curriculum pushed many teachers into unknown waters, with only one instruction – “carry it out”. But how? We’re happy that students have an opportunity to learn coding, yet we somehow forgot about teachers. And teachers are an essential part of this deal. Without them, children won’t be able to gain the necessary education.
It’s time to underline that teaching a subject from the field one specializes in is completely different from teaching a completely new topic, especially if you lack the instructions. Of course, it is possible to educate yourself on your own, on the condition that you have enough time for full-time studying. However, even if you manage to learn how to code, you won’t necessarily find out how to transfer this knowledge onto others, children especially.
At present, there is no program and no in-depth training that could truly prepare a beginning teacher for teaching programming. Fortunately, there’s also another way, one that allows even beginners to efficiently conduct a coding class. All you need is willingness to experiment and to rely on experience of others.
Current situation in education field, as well as stories of teachers, inspired us to create a short guide for all those, who might be interested in teaching robotics and programming. Read on to find out what’s most important when organizing your robotics workshop in school.
EDUCATIONAL ROBOTIC KITS
The first step to organizing your robotics lab is choosing the right equipment. You should consider age, knowledge and capacities of your students, as well as possibilities of the set, its durability and cost. Often, you must also reflect on limitations of the set – unfortunately, there is no one perfect set that will fit any workshop.
Solutions currently available on the market can be divided into three major groups: programmable robotic toys, self-assembly kits, apps and digital solutions. Turn by turn, we’ll try to describe their general characteristics.
Programmable robotic toys (e.g. Dash&Dot, Ozobot, Thymio 2, Cozmo) are visually pleasant and you can program their behavior to a certain point. These closed constructions usually constitute a whole. Their cost varies greatly. Price of one robot ranges between $50 and $300, without any accessories or add-ons – total cost depends on the producer.
These robots are a good solution for the youngest students. They help pupils to easily and cozily familiarize themselves with machines, which will become even more widespread in the future.
However, you should remember that a large part of “educational robots” available on the market have more in common with fun toys than with real educational tools. While they allow pupils to understand basic programming commands, the construction and processes occurring inside remain a mystery.
Young constructors start experimenting eagerly and early; unfortunately, they may get discouraged just as quickly, if there’s no possibility to modify the device. Moreover, the design of closed robots sets limits to programming. A mechanical construction cannot perform all commands and students receive no explanation why.
On the plus side, robots of this kind are usually quite sturdy and, in some cases, can be upgraded with interesting accessories. For example, Dash&Dot offers launcher and building brick connectors. These are simple tools, but can successfully extend and enrich classes.
Self-assembly robotic kits
The next solution involves self-assembly kits. Brands such as LEGO, VEX, Lofi Robot, or Mbot are among the most often purchased ones. It’s not really surprising.
In addition to all benefits of robots, these sets allow teachers to introduce elements of mechanics and physics; they also develop spatial orientation during the building process. Nonetheless, if you decide to use self-assembly sets, you should take into account several points.
Firstly, you should consider the difficulty of the set. You must be sure that construction and programming will be easy enough for your group. Try to see it from a student’s point of view: do you think that putting elements together is intuitive, simple and easy?
Secondly, we advise to check whether the set is modifiable enough to fill at least one school semester. While you’re at it, see what additional parts are available. Some may consider purchasing in advance. Next, you should pay some attention to the set durability. Parts produced by some brands (e.g. VEX, Lofi) wear out sooner than later.
Another essential thing before buying the set is checking the software. Is it free? Is it legible for all students in your group? Can you program the set in another software?
Let’s take a look at Arduino sets. They truly have lots of possibilities, since you can connect them with basic electronic elements outside of the set. Arduino is even applied in commercial solutions in IoT, drones, car modifications, etc. The starting set already provides you with quite a lot of options, so its price is appropriate (€79.90).
However, if you want to create a robotics workshop that incorporates STEM fields, where one learns not only programming, but also mechanics and math, Arduino is not the best choice, because there are no mechanical parts. Obviously, you can research and gather mechanical parts on your own, but it will require a lot of time. Moreover, it must be underlined that only advanced students will know how to work with these parts; if one cannot use a toolbox, she won’t be able to connect these elements. Also, learning with Arduino requires prior knowledge on electronics, otherwise your students may easily damage delicate parts.
Our team also had the opportunity to work with mBot sets. They have several useful advantages. For instance, these sets are simpler in construction than Arduino and all needed elements are contained in one box.
mBot STEM sets were prepared with schools in mind and contain enough elements to create several robots. These sets also focus on electronics, so don’t expect many mechanical parts. Ultimately, this could hinder children’s creativity. Note that mBots aren’t recommended for very young kids, because, in this case as well, students must know the basics of electronics to freely use the set. mBots have an interesting solution in the shape of a cover for the “brain” of the robot. It makes the microcontroller more resistant to damage, but other elements, like sensors, are completely bare.
Another well-known brand in the educational robotics is LEGO. Sets produced by this company come with benefits that are hard to beat.
One, kids know how to use LEGO bricks. Two, sets contain several electronic elements and a multitude of mechanical parts. Three, they are great at stimulating creativity. Also, from all the sets we tested out, these ones are the most resilient solution for teaching robotics.
Therefore, it’s not unexpected that we chose LEGO for teaching. We decided to focus on Mindstorms and WeDo series. If you’d like to know more about them, you should read this LEGO WeDo 2.0 review, or attend one of our webinars.
Purely digital solutions
The third solution for introducing programming into class involves using digital tools, such as Scratch, Tynker, Alice, or Code.org. Their popularity is best shown in numbers.
Unfortunately, purely digital solutions come with some disadvantages. Firstly, they aren’t suitable for youngest pupils, because they are more advanced. Secondly, many children understand programming concepts more easily, when they can experience these theoretical ideas in real life. And of course, some part of gratification is lost.
Your student won’t be able to see how the robot she built with her own hands starts taking its first steps. It’s really unfortunate, because experiences like these motivate to learn more.
EQUIPMENT AND SOFTWARE
Naturally, construction parts aren’t enough. In order to program robots, students will need computers and properly selected software.
There’s no need to invest in brand new computers, but before you purchase robotics sets, you must definitely take into account their system requirements. It may happen that your school relies on older hardware. In such an event, we recommend to take a look at older robotics sets. Usually, they have a similar educational value, but they don’t force you to replace all of your hardware.
More information on this topic and a detailed comparison between older and newer version of LEGO WeDo sets can be found here.
While planning to buy robotics sets, you should remember that using the programming application might come with a cost. You need to pay for, for example, LEGO Education Mindstorms EV3 programming app, or the older software compatible with LEGO WeDo 1.0 sets. Additional apps, where you can program LEGO Mindstorms, VEX and Arduino constructions in C language, aren’t free either. If you want to use ROBOTC app, you must pay $49 monthly for every computer workstation.
Fortunately, there are also free solutions. An interesting one involves using the well-known Scratch VPL for programming LEGO WeDo robots. This extension was created and made officially available by MIT – more information about it here. The mBot sets can be freely programmed in mBlock environment, which was based off Scratch. Also, there’s a possibility to use experimental extensions available on ScratchX, but it’s riskier than using the official programming software.
Some schools have tablets at their disposal and they surely can work great with younger students, especially if you’re using WeDo 2.0 or Lofi ROBOT sets.
However, programming software can differ between computer and tablet versions. Let’s take Mindstorms EV3 software as an example. It is available on tablets, but in a trimmed version, which doesn’t include all options you might know from its computer version. Therefore, if you’re considering buying hardware to go with your robotics sets, we absolutely recommend laptop computers. This is the most flexible solution, which will work with almost all robotics sets currently available on the market.
PLAN FOR THE LESSON
Let’s assume you’ve already prepared robotics sets and equipment. Everything was successfully activated and configured. What next? You need to create a lesson plan. In this aspect as well, you have several choices:
If you have sufficient knowledge of the subject, experience and (most importantly) have enough free time to prepare yourself for the classes, you can create the entire program on your own.
If you have no knowledge or experience, but are very eager and have tons of free time on your hands, you can prepare the program on your own – by adjusting and modifying sources found on the net.
Regardless your knowledge level, if you cannot sacrifice hundreds of hours for preparation, yet want to conduct high quality classes, you should consider ready-to-use materials and exercises prepared by RoboCamp.
We won’t delve into the first case. If one has wide knowledge on programming and a lot of free time to prepare herself for classes, she won’t even read this article, because she already knows everything described here. Instead, we will focus on the second and third case.
The Internet can become a great source for inspiration. As a teacher, you can use materials originally created by robotics enthusiasts and accommodate them to you students’ needs and your lesson time frame. Moreover, the majority of robotics sets come with several lesson ideas included in the kit.
However, they are usually insufficient for start, or simply aren’t suited to your student’s current needs. After all, how are you supposed to teach robotics throughout one entire semester with just 3 robot models?
If you want to have a functional curriculum, you best test everything out yourself. Exercises published on the internet sometimes include an estimated time and instructions, but they are not always reliable. Too often, open-source exercises are reviewed by people, who look only on the photos of the completed construction. Some even contain errors. For a constructor, who is used to building by relying only on pictures, it’s not a big problem; but for a student, a blunder in the instructions can put him in quite a predicament, especially if there are time limitations.
Only by building and programming on your own can you truly learn duration and difficulty of a given exercise. This method also helps the teacher to learn what challenges her students might face – a trump card during class! Nonetheless, in order to create an entire curriculum by following this method, you need to work for many hours and have constant access to robotics sets and programming software.
The easiest way is to rely on ready-to-use lesson plans. RoboCamp team prepared a solution that has it all: introduction, theory, step-by-step building and programming instructions. What’s more, all of the most important mechanisms such as gears, movement transmissions, transfer of information from electronic modules and others are explained separately. And since our educators tested out this method in class, we are sure it actually works.
How to start a RoboCamp lesson? All you need is a working computer connected to the Internet. The teacher logs into our e-learning platform through a browser, then shares selected educational materials with her students. One can share an entire exercise, or sections of it. Every exercise is divided into sections: Learn – theoretical introduction to the topic, Build – robot building instructions, Explore – detailed explanation of mechanical elements, and Code – thorough programming instructions for the selected robot. Teacher can display them on a whiteboard, or share directly with students, who can work at their own pace. Simple, isn’t it?
TEACHING IN PRACTICE
To teach robotics, the teacher must also meet certain requirements. The most important thing is to remain enthusiastic about the entire endeavor. Although working with children can be exhausting, it gives a lot of satisfaction.
As mentioned before, someone who teaches the basics of programming doesn’t need to know how to program professionally. If one has well-prepared educational materials of high quality, they merely need a hint of energy and some experience with teaching children. Becoming acquainted with the basics of programming before starting classes is advised – if only to be able to provide better support.
When working with numerous groups, we recommend teachers to pair up. Even though conducting class by two teachers at once may seem redundant, teaching in pairs assures effective learning and efficient realization of the plan. For example, one teacher can focus on explaining theoretical concepts and tasks to the entire group and meanwhile, the second teacher can concentrate on individual students and problems. Applying this approach is not compulsory, but facilitates work and guarantees that all of your students will understand the material, especially in numerous groups.
As far as improvements for robotics and programming classes are concerned, you should pay some attention to workstations – for students and teachers alike.
Above all, every workstation should include a convenient computer and a wireless mouse. Due to the character of the classes, teacher will often have to move around, so a “mobile” mouse will definitely be useful.
Another important thing for the teacher is to be able to observe how students work. It’s unachievable in the standard classroom, where desks are in rows and students are looking directly at the blackboard. The best solution is to move desks against three walls, in the “u” shape. Students should face the nearest wall
This solution has several advantages: first, teacher can see her students’ current progress either from the middle of the room, or even from behind her own desk; second, students concentrate on their own work, they aren’t distracted by others; third, the middle space of the room can be used for testing robots, or anything else you need at the moment. All of the above improve students’ comfort and aid teacher with group management.
More information about organizing classes and workshop layout can be found in our teacher handbook. It is available on the RoboCamp e-learning platform, after gaining access to the demo course.
In summary: if you want to start programming and robotics classes, you need robotics sets, computers or tablets for programming the construction, an Internet connection for lesson plans, genuine willingness and perhaps a projector. Once you already have a place and computers, the remaining cost does not have to be high at all. And the wide knowledge from a wide variety of STEM fields and hours of fun are absolutely worth it!
If you would like to learn more about organizing robotics and coding classes, or if you’re looking for a specific cost estimate, take part in our free webinar.
Understanding Source Code with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging by Siegmund J., Kastner C. et al. ↩