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robotics problem solving

Can robotics teach problem solving to students?

STEM expert details 4 tips for using robotics to teach students problem solving.

Throughout my 35 years of teaching, I’ve watched students grow up in what I lovingly call the “worksheet generation.” In this environment, students are accustomed to a very structured style of learning, where they are handed a worksheet, then asked to turn to page five in their math book and solve problems one through 15. This approach, however, often teaches students there is only one right answer and limits meaningful engagement and creativity.

My teaching experience has taught me that it is no longer possible to prepare students with the 21st century skills they will need for the workforce without moving away from this paint-by-numbers approach. Instead, teachers must develop curriculum that inspires students to not only find new solutions, but to also test their solutions, and improve on them, through trial and error. This can be done using hands-on learning tools like robotics, which intuitively teaches students how to problem solve using critical thinking.

The question is: how can teachers create a robotics curriculum that not only breaks students out of the “worksheet generation” mentality, but also shows them the possibilities of learning with trial and error? Here are four tips for teaching students how to problem solve using hands-on robotics as a tool:

 1. Set the expectation up-front that there is more than one answer.

Students today are accustomed to tests where the questions only have one right answer. When these same students are given a platform like robotics from which to learn, it can be a challenging process because they may not be used to the open-ended questions they face when working with robotics. Teachers should set the expectation up-front that there is more than one right answer and the first solution you try will probably change by the time you finish.

This teaches students the very important process of iteration to help find a solution. Students may have to try something that doesn’t work, but it is guiding them towards a solution that will work. Once students begin to feel more comfortable with the idea that trial and error are part of the process, they begin to look at the project more openly. This is how students start to learn the problem solving process that is crucial to honing 21st century skills: imagining, testing and improving.

(Next page: Robotics for problem solving tips 2-4)

 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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