Easy and Fun Ways to Teach Robotics Through Inquiry Learning

When you hear the word “robotics”, what comes to mind? R2D2? The Mars Rover? Wall-E? Rosie from The Jetsons? Or perhaps your Roomba comes to mind. Either way, robotics is gaining prominence as we discover new ways to get things done and make our lives simpler. Robotics and coding are increasingly important subjects that students are being taught as early as elementary school. In Ontario, for example, students are now taught the basics of coding in grade 1. In the U.K, their coding curriculum, including the use of coding-related language and terminology, begins at age 5.

For students to access the knowledge and understanding of robotics, it needs to be taught simply. More often than not, students hear the word “robotics” and associate it with “really smart people”; this shouldn’t be the case. With careful planning and a brush-up on the basics, teachers can easily and effectively teach this subject to elementary students.

What is “Robotics”?

Simply put, robotics is the study of robots, which are machines that can be used to do jobs. It is the sector of science and engineering that is dedicated to designing, building, and using robots. Robots are typically used to substitute or replicate human activities. They are gradually gaining capabilities that make life with robots a more realistic concept for the future. At its core, studying robotics requires students to have a basic understanding of coding and computer science.

Coding, at its simplest form, is telling a computer to do what you want it to do. This is done by giving the computer simple step-by-step instructions for it to follow. Coding allows students to investigate problems, problem-solve, and communicate their findings. It also requires the use of computational thinking, which refers to thinking about problems, patterns, and automation to develop solutions. Nowadays, there are many wonderful resources for teachers to consult to get to grips with coding language and computer science. Anyone can learn to code and apply their understanding in a variety of ways. For example, students can share their understanding through journals, interactive stories, digital portfolios, website creation, and more!

Computer science is the study of how computers and computational systems work. It looks at how to manipulate and encode information. To understand how robots and AI works, it is first important to understand the concept of computer science and what computer scientists do for a living. For example, a computer scientist may maintain databases, and they may use programming languages (languages that are used by the computer to carry out commands) to do this. Furthermore, some computer scientists use computers to control machines (robots) to perform tasks and contribute in some way to the betterment of society.

Why is Robotics Important?

There are several reasons why learning about robotics is important, not only for students, but for teachers as well. Robotics (along with computer science) is a great way to teach students to make decisions, reflect on their solutions, and develop a variety of life skills. It also helps develop the so-called “Four C’s” of the 21st century skills: communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Here are some other benefits that teaching robotics provides for students:

Soft-skill development

Robotics offers the opportunity for students to practice problem-solving, creativity, and teamwork. Although robotics can initially be challenging for students to grasp, their ability to persevere and take risks, as well as overcome obstacles will improve. Furthermore, students have plenty of opportunity to focus on the process of their coding and computational thinking and are able to see the direct links between their input and the machine’s response. It is so important for students to be able to see immediate outputs as a result of their inputs and to respond effectively to change or alter their input to suit the purposes of the activity. Other soft-skills that robotics teaches students are resilience, cooperation, and a variety of important communication methods, including both verbal and written.

Applications in real-life

Robotics is quickly becoming a crucial component in many corporations and companies around the world. For example, NASA uses robotic arms on spacecraft to move large objects in space. They also program robots to do work that humans would not be able to; for example, using rovers to explore the surface of new planets. In hospitals, robots are used extensively to perform delicate surgeries and make them less invasive for patients. A further example is using robots to improve the quality of life during recovery from surgery or treatment for depression or other mental illnesses; the PARO Therapeutic Robot is used extensively for this purpose. Robots are also used to help fight forest fires, package and deliver mail, carry out household tasks, and detect and defuse landmines in war zones.

Future jobs

Students now begin studying computer science and coding at a young age, but as they get older they will become more aware of how impactful the study of robotics is in the workplace and to the prospect of future jobs. Acquiring skills to be able to understand concepts like physics, biomedicine, and autonomous engineering are important in helping students grasp the importance of robotics in our daily lives as well as in the foreseeable future. Having the conceptual knowledge of how robots work and how to program them can open the door to opportunities that we haven’t even thought of yet. The more knowledge a student has and the more opportunity they have to develop important computational skills, the more confident they will feel. Perhaps they will find new ways for robots to positively impact our lives! 

Easy Ways to Integrate Robotics into your Lessons

Robots have been around in pop culture for a long time. Popular robots include Rosie from the T.V show “The Jetsons”, and R2D2 from the movie “Star Wars”. Others include Optimus Prime, Wall-E, and many others. Books are filled with far-off lands and planets that include robots of various sizes and capabilities. As time has progressed, however, what we classify as a “robot” has expanded. For example, our expectations for what robots can do in terms of building a car have grown substantially. Once, they could only fasten together parts of a car, but now they are responsible for everything; from its design all the way to its safety-testing.

It is important that students not only understand the definition of “robotics” but that they also understand how robots are used in everyday life. In addition, teaching students the concept of Computational Thinking (the set of thinking skills and approaches essential to solving complex problems using computers) will help students become familiar with coding environments and the commands of a programming language. At its core, computational thinking relies on abstraction. An example of abstraction would be when we are learning about dogs. Our understanding doesn’t include all the differences among different breeds of dogs; rather, we create a simplified, abstract model of what a “dog” looks like.

Cost-Effective Robotics Instruction

Shows like “Robot Wars” have become very popular, especially among adolescents and teenagers. Competition-based learning can be an effective way of getting students to apply their skills. However, organizing a robotics competition in class can be expensive. Furthermore, purchasing Lego kits or robotics education packages are not always cost-effective, especially if you have a large class!

In this case, there are some cost-effective workarounds. For example, web-based simulation software, such as The Virtual Robotics Toolkit, can be useful in the classroom. It allows students and teachers to practice their robotics skills before splurging on a physical robot or robotics package. A subscription license costs $50 for an entire year. Another great robot simulation game is Xemo, which offers students the tools to create different motion patterns for their robots and perform simple tasks, gradually increasing in complexity. There are several instructional videos available on their website as well. Furthermore, Experiments with Google is a cool place to browse for fun games, experiments, and projects to complete online (some are robotics-based and some are not).

There are plenty of other websites, programs, and services that help teachers confidently and successfully teach these concepts to students in an engaging way. Here are some of my favourites:

1. Scratch

This is my all-time favourite website for introducing students to the world of coding and animation. Students can create interactive stories, games, and animations. In doing so, they build on their skills of creative thinking, problem-solving, reasoning, and collaboration. The website offers excellent educator guides and activity plans (including printable step-by-step coding cards) to help teachers confidently run a Scratch session in their own classrooms. Students can also access simple tutorials on their own, and browse the ideas page for more inspiration. It is very user-friendly and I’d recommend it to any teacher starting out in the coding world.

2. LittleBits

These kits are fantastic and offer students so much flexibility and freedom to create awesome little trinkets in the classroom (or at home). The family company is Sphero, who are well-known for their high quality, easy-to-use products for students in elementary and secondary schools. They also offer a comprehensive elementary school implementation plan to help teachers plan for a progression of skills, as well as a page full of activities that students can follow at school or at home.

3. Tinkercad

Tinkercad is another great online option for introducing students to the world of design technology. It is a free app that introduces students to 3D design, electronics, and coding with the goal of inspiring kids to imagine and design anything. They also offer free lesson plans that are ready to use for online or in-person teaching. Tinkercad also runs contests (almost 1,000 at the time of writing this!) in partnership with Instructables that students can participate in.

4. KiwiCo

I’ve ordered quite a few of these for classes I’ve taught in the past. I even had a few parents ask about ordering them as presents for their kids for Christmas! They are hugely popular with students of all ages. KiwiCo is a monthly subscription where you receive a kit of your choice each month. (They also offer educator plans and pricing). While not every “line” is geared towards Robotics, both their Tinker Crate and Eureka Crate provide hands-on STEM projects which include working with scientific principles and the incorporation of real-world problems. For example, some boxes include the materials and instructions for building a hydraulic claw, a walking robot, a cantilevered lamp, and an electric pencil sharpener. They are super fun and easy to follow and have always been a hit in my classroom!

5. iRobot

iRobot is a great website that offers products for classrooms and accompanying lesson plans, activities, and how-to guides. I have not personally used it in my classroom, but after browsing through their programs and tutorial videos, it is definitely one that I have bookmarked for future units!

Classroom Materials

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Robotics and Inquiry Learning

When it comes to inquiry learning, robotics can open the door to so many different pathways for learning. In fact, inquiry learning has deep roots in scientific discovery learning. It can lead to so many interesting questions about the process of coding and engineering, as well as the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding our adoption of robots in our daily lives. Infusing technological teaching with robotics gives students the chance to think more deeply about how robots and technology can impact our lives. Not only do students get to understand how to design, build, document, and program robots, but they also become equipped with the skills and content knowledge to transfer this understanding to the “real world” in a meaningful way.

Learning about robotics can occur as a unit-long project or inquiry, and it can also be taught in short bursts. For example, during Language Arts or Science, you could share a news story with students that is related to robotics or computer science; perhaps there is a new discovery or device that is being used for space exploration. You could even casually discuss new technology that is available – for example, phones and gaming consoles. Delivering bite-sized bits of information and small bursts of conceptual knowledge can help to build a strong foundation from which to build upon as the school year progresses.

Something to remember about teaching robotics is that oftentimes, teachers are on the same knowledge level with students. This is a unique opportunity for students and teachers to collaborate and learn together, since teachers will likely be more heavily involved in the learning process if they are unfamiliar with the content being taught.

Inquiry Questions about Robotics

I have always enjoyed facilitating conversations about the future, and making connections between students’ lives and the role of robotics in their lives. Some questions I’ve posed to students included:

  • Would your life be positively or negatively impacted by robots?
  • How could robotics be used as a force for good in the future?
  • In what ways could our reliance on robotics cause unintended consequences?
  • What needs might be met with an increase of robots in our lives?
  • How are our/your needs currently being met by robots?
  • Why is it important to learn about computer science? How might knowledge of this subject be useful to us in the future?
  • What trends do you notice in the world of computers, coding, and robotics?

Robotics Inquiry Ideas

Here is a short list I’ve compiled with some ideas for starting a robotics inquiry in your classroom:

  • Facilitate an activity where students program a robot to complete a task, thereby putting themselves in a situation where the robot is “acting”; students try to think like a robot and reflect on their thoughts on how a task should be completed. Ask students to reflect on their work – both positives and critiques, and discuss their findings from different perspectives in a group
  • Ask students “In what ways do computers talk?” and introduce them to PencilCode, a program available online that teaches students about professional programming languages using an editor that lets them work in blocks or text to create art, music, games, and stories. Advanced students can challenge themselves to invent something as extravagant as a new computer program! Lots of activities and PDF guides can be found on this page too.
  • Task students with creating a sequence on Scratch. Ask students to record their observations and log their changes as they figure out what codes to input. If possible, have students screenshot their work, or videocast their process to share with others. As an extension task, have students record a video explaining the importance of learning to code, and the possibilities it can lead to
  • Develop questions that stem from the Scratch Task Cards and let students choose the one(s) they will focus on
  • NASA has created several lesson plans for students in grades 3-12, ranging from STEM builds to designing space missions to Mars! 
  • StemWorks has a bank of activities for teachers to use with their students; some of these include making a Smart Umbrella (requires a 3D printer), a Mechanical Grabber, and a Hovercraft!

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