What it Takes to Integrate Robotics and Coding into the Classroom

These technologies are making inroads and improving STEM opportunities in K–12 school districts.

It starts with a game of Robot Turtles, a board game by Thinkfun that’s being used at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, Ill., to teach kindergarteners the basics of coding.

“It helps explain the step-by-step nature of coding,” says Todd Burleson, resource center director for this Winnetka Public Schools District 36 elementary school. The game serves as an on-ramp for students, introducing technology into their educational journeys. Within HWS and District 36’s other four schools, this is the first step of a journey that will touch on coding and robotics at each grade level.

While this exposure to robotics has been eye-opening to some parents of children at the school, it is right in line with the Horizon Report: 2017 K-12 Edition put out by the New Media Consortium and Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) last year. Robotics was identified as a key technology development that would drive technology planning and decision-making in schools in the very near term of one year or less. The report reflects the activity already taking place in many schools — the building of robotics programs and development of curriculum that will prepare students for a future that is increasingly focused on science, technology, math and engineering (STEM).

Schools Get Started in Robotics

District 36 started small with its robotics program. “We had three of our school directors do pilots in their schools,” says Winnetka Public Schools Director of Technology Maureen Chertow Miller. “We gradually got every school on board and integrated. We are in our third year where we have total participation.” Each elementary school in the district has a makerspace within its resource center (and the fifth-to-eighth grade students have access through a related studies course), where all the robotics activities are happening.

Prairieview School, part of Community Consolidated School District 46 in Hainesville, Ill., started its robotic program on a smaller scale. “I started with coding about three years ago, with the Hour of Code tutorial by code.org,” says Kirsten Innes, information specialist at the school. “Then we enrolled students in courses on the website. We did that for a couple years. When we needed to take it to the next level, it felt very natural to go from coding to robotics.”

While getting started can be intimidating, financially and otherwise, Miller advises: “Don’t think about it in terms of cost. There’s plenty you can do on a tiny budget. Start with small initiatives. Buy one robot, start with the online coding or set up a small club. Just get a small thing happening, and build from there.”

“My personal learning network is key to my success with integrating robots into our activities,” Innes says. “I use Twitter a lot. Wonder Workshop, Sphero, Ozobots — they all have lesson ideas on their web pages. But a lot of it is student-driven. There is so much self-discovery going on with the robots. Ask ‘What can you make the robot do?’ I try to maintain an atmosphere where the students feel they can’t do anything wrong.”

Expose Students to Progressive Technology

With District 36 and Prairieview a few years into their robotics programs, each school has taken a similar approach to exposing each grade level to progressively more complicated robots and coding opportunities.

“After Robot Turtles, we introduce Kibo, a robotics kit from Kinderlab Robotics,” Burleson says. “The kids snap blocks together, and that’s the code. And it’s inputted via a laser scanner on the bot. It teaches the basics of block coding.”

And as the children continue to move up through each grade at Hubbard Woods School, they are exposed to new robot and coding activities: Blue-Bot by Terrapin Software, which allows direct input of the code into the robot; Dash and Dot from Wonder Workshop, robots that require block coding to guide their movements and activate different sensory features; and Sphero, a device that supports both block coding and JavaScript inputs and allows even more sophisticated movement opportunities for children to control.

HWS recently started its Drone Academy for fourth-graders. “We are using quadcopter mini drones,” says Burleson. “We follow the Drones 101 curriculum from Tynker. The kids are using block coding to program the drones to fly autonomously around obstacles, adjusting for speed, angle and velocity.”

Prairieview uses Sphero, Code and Go Robot Mouse by Learning Resources, Bee-Bots from Terrapin, Ozobot, Dash and Dot from Wonder Workshop and Cozmo by Anki, Innes says.

“My approach is I have a basic beginning lesson that I use with each robot at each level. After that, the students add to it,” she says. “The students will build out a maze and teach the Ozobot how to navigate it. They programmed the Sphero to create shapes and then made a video out of that. With bilingual first and second grade, we work on spelling sight words using Bee-Bots. I make a chart and ask them to come up with an equation for learning their words. They then take my basic idea and they expand on whatever I come up with and improve it.”

Integrate into the Wider Classroom

One of the key learnings that both HWS and Prairieview schools have taken from the early years of their technology programs is the value of integration — taking the technology and working it into the rest of the students’ curriculum, and their wider world.

“With my example of the bilingual students learning their spelling sight words, we start with a simple lesson — learning the words,” says Innes. “But it’s the technology that then makes the lesson intriguing. You have to spell the word, and you have to get the robot to do the work for you. You have to code the robot to move around the grid to each letter and spell out the word. So, the lesson works on multiple levels.”

In District 36, “We have makerspaces in the resource centers of each elementary school, that’s where the robotics activities are happening,” Miller says. “We are collaborating with the classroom teachers, bringing some activities into the classroom while continuing to teach in the makerspace. The way we think about it, the makerspace is the experimental lab, and when we find things that work, ways to integrate the robots into a lesson, we are then transferring those learnings to the classroom.”

Burleson works with the science facilitator to make that happen. He said they try to integrate what’s going on in the classroom as much as possible and build on the concepts already being learned there.

“I work with our science facilitator directly,” add Burleson. “While it isn’t always a specific relation, we try to integrate it to what’s going on in the classroom as much as possible.”

“We frame our activities around design thinking,” says Miller. “With robotics, we have design challenges. We are integrating that design thinking into other learning areas. One example: We recently were using Spheros to assist with teaching art. The students were learning about Jackson Pollock. And they used block programming to get the robot to roll paint across a canvas.”

Use Student Tech Ambassadors

By all accounts, the robotics programs are being embraced by students; so much so that students are becoming ambassadors for the programs.

“At our family coding night at the school, we recently added robots to the program,” Innes says of Prairieview. “This provided an opportunity for the kids to share what they know. The turnout was tremendous. We didn’t have enough room for everyone.”

“With other teachers that are less tech-inclined, we are doing outreach, having students presenting on what’s available and happening in robotics and other technology,” Miller says about District 36. “We did that at a recent teacher institute day. The teachers rotated through our resource center, seeing different presentations from students. All our students are now STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) ambassadors. They know it better than anyone.”

Kirsten Innes/Prairieview School
Apr 12 2018