Thinking about Robotics and Coding

Hummingbird Light Sensor from Andrew Shauver on Vimeo.

At the ISTE Conference a couple weeks back, it was clear that Robotics and coding were (at least perceived by vendors to be) the next big thing in the world of instructional technology. (And 3D printers… LOTS of those, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Robotics and coding is a field I have quite little experience and so I decided to reach out to some vendors for some demo kits and give them a try. The first such group is BirdBrain Technologies who graciously allowed me to sample their HummingbirdDuo robotics and coding system.

I am going to give a more comprehensive review of each set that I get to try out, but my first question revolves around the function of robotics and coding in the classroom in general. Like most people my age, I went through my K-12 schooling without a single bit of coding and with extremely limited exposure to robotics (stacking blocks with a joystick and a robotic arm). As such, the integration of these types of skills doesn’t seem like a no-brainer to me.

Besides that, the primary reason that I hear from advocates is increased employability. Enthusiasts typically pair reference statements similar to “coding and robotics jobs will increase by x% over the next y years” or “experience coding is the fastest growing qualification on new job postings”. These aren’t things to be discounted, but I’ve expressed concern about this type of thinking before.

Another type of discussion often gets associated with robotics and code is talk of “authentic learning” or “passion-based learning” or other similar expressions. This type of language tends to be tricky to consider because they are often fairly loosely-defined both in terms of their expressions and in their goals. Passion, for example, tends to be a very effective energy supply, but passion is difficult to sustain. Authenticity is very subjective. And while I’ve listened to a variety of folks discuss the value of “authentic” learning, I’ve heard very few create a clear distinction between “authentic” and “fake” learning.

None of those thoughts are decisions or final judgments. And they certainly aren’t meant to be belittling or condescending. They are simply me sharing the variety of considerations I go through as I assimilate new ideas. Please share with me any comments from your perspective that can help to enrich my thoughts.

So, to see what kind of strains it puts on my thinking and to get a sense of where it might take me, I produced the “robot” you see in the video. It’s cardboard with some holes in it. It “sleeps” when it’s dark and it “wakes up” and starts working when the lights come on. In short, it uses a light sensor to determine which of two expression sequences it is going to run. (The image below is what that looked like… from the CREATE Lab Visual Programmer)


When it’s dark, the robot does what the left column tells it to do. When it’s bright, it does what the right side tells it to do.

Each of those boxes had to be set up individually, so if you watch the video, you’ll notice the blue LEDs are getting brighter and dimmer. Those settings had to be set one at a time. There is also some audio involved as well.

Okay, so, my thoughts throughout this initial experience were to filter this through the brain of a classroom teacher. What value will this provide? What will it take for students to realize that value? What will the trade-offs be?

First thing that I discovered is that this type of process is not intuitive to me. When things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, my homemade attempts to troubleshoot were often limited and unsuccessful. Using the tutorial videos provided by BirdBrain helped a TON. A lot of this was technical equipment usage. How the different pieces attached to the board, how to change the expressions of the LEDS, the motors, How to code it, etc

Once I knew how to do that stuff, then I definitely felt a increased empowerment for my creativity to start becoming productive. But before that, I felt very overwhelmed. I think this is an important aspect. How many students think like me? How many students are plenty ready to be creative, and have a lot of creativity to give, if they could just figure out how to use the tools? And will struggle to discover how the tools work, but with explicit instruction on 5 or 6 aspects of the activity, can really gain that sense of empowerment?

And from there, how does this apply? Can this be woven into course content as it currently exists? Or is coding a standalone set of learning goals? Hour of Code is a very cool idea and a very engaging experience, but it seems to require a standalone experience. “Okay kids, we are going to take a break from math class and do Hour of Code. Then when we’re done, we’ll start math class again.”

Are there successful instances where teachers can say, “Okay folks, so today for math class (or social studies class or biology class or health class or…) we are going to break into small groups. Station one is the coding and robotics station where you’ll explore the content from the unit. Everyone will rotate through the coding and robotics station.”

Does that exist? I’m asking for your take. Anecdotes are helpful. Pics and links to lesson plans and student work are great, too. Help me understand this. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be exploring these robotics and coding. Collaborate with me to powerfully apply these tools to the classroom.

3 thoughts on “Thinking about Robotics and Coding

  1. I graduated high school in 1982 and believe it or not, I had a computer programming class! Now called “coding”, I can see the implementation of coding used in a math classroom to directly teach topics like probability and statistics, and indirectly to teach logical thinking. The powerful part of coding, to me, is to allow students to create, model, and simulate mathematical scenarios. The challenge for me as a teacher is creating and writing coherent and meaningful lesson plans. I’d love to talk more about this.

    • I’m with you, Dave. I see a lot of value in the type of thinking I had to do, but I don’t know quite how to fit it in.

      It was like one media center specialist that I was listening to said as she was reflecting how she was going to re-envision her little-used media center. “If I don’t figure out a way to make this relevant to what teachers are already doing in the classroom, it’s never going to catch on.”

      I feel like that quote applies quite well here as well. And hopefully a few more commenters offer us some ideas.

  2. Hello Andrew. I have been rooting about for robotic kits.Not a lot, but Birdbrain seems to fit the deal. An 8 to 12 size kit is $849, Four systems, shared. 13+ ages, or supervised then 8+. Software is included. Very easy to start with. Motors, servos, sensors, lights etcetera. A single kit is $249.
    I have been messing with simple electronics (very simple) as professor of an Engineering Systems degree, and have built some simple controller applications (now retired).
    Have a go !

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