The Robots Are Coming! Though Not Like In The Movies

Step into most modern classrooms today and it won’t take long to realize that school has changed. It has changed so much, it may even illicit some jealousy; that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. During my time as a Computer Science teacher in Ontario, Canada, a common refrain from parents of my students was “man, I wish we had stuff like what you have when I was in school!” or “I wish I could have taken a class like this!” In today’s schools you will certainly see iPads and laptops. In some you may see students using video games like Just Dance! for Physical Education or software such as Photoshop to design the yearbook. 3D printers are becoming a common sight in more schools to allow teachers to reinvent the Art and Science classroom. Maker spaces are re-inventing what it means to do hands-on learning. In addition to all of these amazing tools, don’t doubt you may also run into a robot or two. Yes, robots.

There is a vocal and growing subset of educators who believe passionately that coding should be taught in every classroom and even as a core curriculum subject. Some go so far as to push for a time allotment in the classroom that puts it on par with first language instruction. The arguments for this are numerous and cover a gambit of factors both politically and economically. It goes a little something like this: We have a responsibility to prepare our students for careers of the future. The future is uncertain in terms of what our current students are going to be doing for careers, but there are a few things we do know based on what we are experiencing now. The number of unfilled jobs in programming and technology related fields in North America is massive, in the millions. The need for programming and technology related roles in the workforce is only bound to grow as we continue to advance as technology encroaches on fields with which it had little contact previously, think agriculture. It goes without saying that there are technology related fields which currently exist and will experience massive growth in our students lifetime, space is a good example of this. We need to start students on a path towards a role in programming and technology in order to compete in a more global economy where the difference in population alone all but assures that China and India (in particular) will be capable of finding the people they need to fill those roles and define themselves as the world leaders in technology related fields. Because of this we need to significantly ramp up our programming education so that students find their passions at a younger age, and hopefully those passions lead to careers in technology.

Enter Robots.

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Educational robotics, and the coding to operate them, have exploded in popularity to respond to this call to action. Not only do robots fill the core need for programming education, they have filled the engagement gap that exists between learning to code, and using that code to actually do something. It is incredibly hard, on the best days, to get students fired up about school work. Put a robot in their hands, and teach them how to use code to operate it, and that robot becomes, possibly, one of the most effective learning tools in the classroom today. Between Dash and Dot by Wonder Workshop, mBot and Codey Rocky by Makeblock, and the countless other brands of robots in schools now, students are being exposed earlier on to not only learning to code, but getting a sense for how coding and robotics may play a role in their future. Throughout North America, many provinces and states are integrating digital literacy, computational thinking, and computer science, directly into Math, Science, and even Social Studies lessons, and using robots to do it in a blended learning environment, says Ramy Ghattas, CEO of Logics Academy, one of Canada’s top providers and trainers of educational robotics. As our world becomes increasingly automated, and as knowing code becomes a more critical workplace skill, many see robots as the path forward.

Learn to Code, Code to Learn

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Speaking to Ramy from Logics, he explains that their approach to teaching using robots is segmented into two key concepts: Learn to Code, and Code to Learn. Learn to Code is the more self-explanatory of the two and the concept that has been around the longest. This involves using a robot, say Dash and Dot, to learn the critical concepts of coding such as algorithms, variables, conditionals, and functions. Fun lessons are crafted to keep students engaged and enjoying not only playing with the robot but learning the coding concepts as well. New lessons are constantly being added and these lessons have a learning curve to keep students challenged and on the road to a solid programming foundation, well before they even finish Elementary School. A well crafted Learn to Code curriculum does not have to be delivered by the Computer Science teacher either. Logics Academy for example, provides step by step instructions, and a teachers guide, as well as in depth professional development, so that any teacher who is interested in delivering programming lessons in their classroom can do it as painlessly as possible. Since most schools, especially at the elementary level, do not have Computer Science specific teachers, this type of delivery and format is perfectly suited to the teacher-librarian or classroom teacher who has a small amount of time in a week to deliver Learn to Code content, and needs it to be as turn-key as possible. It has never been easier to teach students how to code.

Code to Learn focuses on using robotics, computational thinking, and a foundational knowledge of coding (courtesy of the Learn to Code curriculum) to perform tasks and activities, or complete assignments in Math, Science, Art and even Language. Lessons are closely aligned to regional curriculum be it Common Core in the US, or provincial standards in Canada, as well as ISTE standards. By offering standards-aligned lessons using robotics, teachers now have a tool that clearly engages students and has them actively participating in learning subjects that were traditionally taught by a teacher, standing in front of a class, speaking to them, while students take notes. We know that this is an increasingly ineffective way to teach modern students; who not only need to feel active in their learning but also have a sense of agency in the learning outcomes. Code to Learn is increasingly becoming the best way to reconcile the need for our students to have a foundational knowledge of programming and technology, while continuing to deliver core curriculum content. Educators have found, through Code to Learn, the missing piece of the puzzle they need to ensure they are setting students up for future career success, while also ensuring they continue to meet the standards they have to reach.

21st Century Skills

What isn’t spoken about as much in this equation is the value that learning with robotics brings to what educators call “21st Century Skills” These are a core set of competencies educators believe modern students are going to need to have more than anything. They include Teamwork, Collaboration, Creativity, Imagination, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. The near future is fraught with complex issues that the current generation of K-8 students are going to have to resolve. Issues such as the environment, a decline in the supply of oil, massive population growth, and complex geopolitics, are going to require 21st Century Skills to solve. The future also is likely to be filled with countless opportunities to, literally, do things that are out of this world. Many educators believe that the primary achievers of the future are not necessarily going to be amazing at Math, or Physics, or Language (though it wouldn’t hurt). They are though going to be highly creative collaborators, and problem solvers. Thankfully these skills are teachable and the educational technology community has embraced their role in teaching them more than almost any subset of educators.

The Future is Bright

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We certainly live in interesting times. It is often hard to remember that humanity has, in fact, never been more forward thinking, optimistic, and prepared for what is next than it is now. While our future is full of potential, a bright future is not necessarily assured. Teachers are working harder than ever to prepare students for the unknown. Educators are using amazing tools and curriculum, such as robots with Learn to Code and Code to Learn training, to deliver world-class programming and technology education. 21st Century Skills are being developed to ensure our students are prepared for all the problems they will face. Educational robots, such as Dash and Dot and mBot are redefining what it means to teach programming and technology in the classroom. Robots may be the best possible way to prepare a child for their future, and teachers and students are embracing it wholeheartedly.

** This article originally was written for Innovation & Tech Today Magazine’s STEM section, visit their site here: https://innotechtoday.com/ **

** Disclaimer: I am the Head of Curriculum & Training for Logics Academy. Logics products were referenced in this article **