2. Be specific about what skills and tasks you are grading.
Once your students understand that learning with robotics is about trial and error, it is beneficial to talk about how they will be assessed. For example, I frequently reassure my students that I’m not grading them on whether or not their robot is able to move forward or if it can stand up. I’m looking more at how they articulate their thoughts and suggestions, communicate as a team, and listen to each other’s ideas. If something isn’t working, how does the team adapt and brainstorm a new idea? How does the team collaborate to put the new idea into action? By assessing how the team collaborates, students are given the opportunity to improve their ability to reason, engage in argumentation with peers, and learn to leverage others’ ideas.
3. Start with small activities and work your way up.
Learning how to build robots can be intimidating to students (and teachers!). I’ve found it helps to start with smaller activities first so students get used to critical thinking and the building process.
One activity I enjoy starting my students off with is putting them in groups of four and giving them a bag filled with marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti noodles. I then tell them to build the tallest freestanding structure they can make. Building structures using these types of everyday items makes students more comfortable because it is okay if something breaks or doesn’t work correctly the first time. Once students are comfortable with what to expect from the problem solving process, introducing robots into the lesson plan becomes an exciting challenge. It is important to give students the opportunity to “test the waters” and get comfortable with a more critical way of thinking first versus having them dive right into the deep end of the pool with a complicated project.
4. Debrief, contemplate and reflect.
When using robotics in the classroom, it is imperative to debrief with your students as a group after every activity. This enables students to share and reflect on what worked well and what could be improved for the future. It also shows students that there is no single perfect way to build a robot and the learning process is all about iteration.
For instance, I once judged a classroom robotics competition and had a young student who unfortunately did not receive enough points to win an award. As judges, we debriefed with all the contestants and pointed out areas of improvement. The next year, I was a judge in the same competition and the student came back—but this time she was named our Grand Champion! When I spoke with her after the competition, she told me she had taken all of our feedback to heart and tried new solutions to ultimately make a stronger robot.
Using robotics to teach students problem solving celebrates the idea of “try, try and try again.” Discussing the importance of trial and error to find the solution, being specific about how they will be assessed, starting with small activities and debriefing with your students, will teach them that success truly comes from what’s gained along the learning journey. The lessons learned along the way in perseverance, creativity and collaboration, will build confidence in these youth well beyond the four walls of any classroom.
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