robots early learning

3 reasons to introduce kindergarteners to robots

Three teachers share their thoughts and experiences on implementing coding and robotics in early education.

The children we teach were born with technology as a part of their lives. They don’t know a world without touchscreen phones and computers in every room. In today’s world, saying that subjects like coding and robotics “are for ‘big kids’” is like saying “reading is for ‘big kids.’”

As Robin Ricketts from The Steward School points out, if we wait until students are in middle school to hand them a book, we have not only devalued reading, we’ve also missed out on the opportunity to make reading easy and fun. The same is true of STEM literacy, which can no longer be considered optional.

Children need to actually touch, manipulate, and experiment with objects in order to fully understand them. Robots bring this physical interaction to the potentially intimidating process of understanding engineering and programming. If we add in the social interaction of working with friends, we can deepen the understanding through conversation and the sharing of ideas.

Lynne May Lim: To Transform Toys to Tools for Learning

In my kindergarten classroom, students refer to themselves as problem-solvers and develop persistence in working through challenges. One of my favorite parts of teaching is watching young students transform from using robots as toys to working with them to accomplish a task. My students learn about robotics and coding using KIBO, a friendly robot created by KinderLab Robotics.

When children are this young, our goal is to provide the materials to make connections between what they are learning in the classroom and the outside world. For example, we went on a field trip to visit the fire station as part of our unit on community. Back in the classroom, I set up streets and houses using masking tape and blocks, then asked children to program their “firefighter KIBO” to fight fires. They chose which “burning house” they wanted KIBO to respond to and programmed it to land exactly in front of that house.

Students love robotics because they get immediate feedback and gratification. The experience is multi-sensory and hands-on, and feeds on their imagination. Over the course of the robotics curriculum, students’ thinking and understanding about machines and robots expands. Their vocabulary also grows to include words like “collaborate,” “robot,” “program,” and “do work.”

One tip I always try to keep at the front of mind is that young children recognize new technologies around them at the same time as their older counterparts. Even if they are not the ones behind the controls, they are watching, listening, absorbing, and learning from the sidelines. Never underestimate young children!

(Next page: 2 more reasons to incorporate robots into early learning)

Diana Traylor: To Prepare Students for Jobs that Don’t Exist Yet

My co-teacher Michael Scalese and I were sold on the idea of including robotics and coding in our elementary classrooms after a workshop on implementing robotics curriculum in an early childhood Montessori classroom. Research has highlighted the importance of exposing young children to STEM early on to ensure that they avoid stereotypes and other obstacles to entering these fields in later years. In the modern Montessori classroom, the question of where and how new technologies fit in has become a growing matter of debate. One way to expose young children to STEM in a developmentally appropriate way is through the use of robotics. Robotics is an engaging way to foster interdisciplinary explorations and personal connections through the use of technology.

In 2015, our classroom was the center of a case study on how to effectively implement robotics with a Montessori twist. The results concluded that an effective curriculum “…should include materials that emulate traditional Montessori tangibles, a teacher who is comfortable and confident with teaching robotics, and a collaborative student environment.” The study dives deeply into our implementation of robots while studying ancient Greece. This year, we plan to study the Incan culture. Integrating robotics into our classroom routines did not require us to take time away from teaching standard curriculum—we used robotics as one of many entry points for our students to explore the content.

Someone once asked me, “Where do you see your students in 20 years?” I see them in as many diverse fields as their individuality dictates. Teaching today requires an open mind. In the future, our students will apply for jobs that don’t exist yet. Preparing them to analyze and find solutions to problems, face challenges with flexibility, and manage change teaches them skills that will ready them for new opportunities. Today’s generation of inquiry based-learners will be well-suited to finding jobs that challenge their problem-solving abilities, and they will advocate for themselves to get what they want out of learning.

Robin Ricketts: To Connect Stories and STEM

It seems logical that today’s students should become familiar with the construction and use of robots. After all, even though we can’t predict exactly what the world will be like in the future, we know that robots and humans will increasingly work side-by-side. Whether in factories, farms, hospitals, airports, banks, or grocery stores, just about everywhere physical labor is involved, the workplace our children will enter will look vastly different than our own. Even if robotics weren’t an inevitable economic force, as an early childhood technology specialist, I think there’s a strong argument that robotics provides an amazing foil to teach children about the softer sides of being a successful adult.

One of my favorite robotics lessons is the introduction of the KIBO to our junior kindergarten. We read the book Boy and Bot by Ame Dyckman, and talk about the differences between real people and robots. I show them just the body of the robot and they are excited to see the circuit board and batteries inside. I don’t show them a built robot or tell them how to put it together. Instead, I give each group a box of parts, including motors, wheels, and a light, and allow them to explore for themselves.

As the children work together to figure out how to build it, there are a plethora of conversations about possibilities, negotiations, and plenty of risk-taking going on.  Inevitably, within 15 minutes, we have a classroom full of working robots. They are all slightly different in construction and performance, but they are all moving across the floor in one way or another.

I use a lot of stories to explain the concepts of algorithms, repeats, events, functions, and conditionals to my students. They all come straight from real life so the children can relate to them. These concepts may sound foreign, but when you start to draw connections with real-life events, they become normalized and easier to understand.

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