3 activities that will turn classroom robots into SEL power tools

Classroom robots are great for STEAM lessons, but they also lend themselves naturally to SEL--a lead makerspace educator explains how she blends the two in some of her favorite activities

If I had one teaching tool at my disposal in a classroom besides pencils, papers, and books, it would be an educational robot. A robot is the single most engaging learning tool I’ve used with students. It appeals to children of all ages, genders, and backgrounds—and it goes beyond technology to include so many learning goals. In fact, when I was at the pre-K-8 Park School, I considered it one of the most important social-emotional learning tools I’ve used.

There are so many demands on teachers’ time, especially at the beginning of a new school year, that teaching with a robot may not be on their lists of must-do activities. But robotics can be easily incorporated into instruction. As a lead makerspace educator, I’ve found that the best way to help teachers integrate robots into their lessons is to identify the skills they’re looking to teach and demonstrate how they can accomplish it with classroom robots.

As students return to the classroom after a tumultuous and traumatic year, SEL is going to be especially important. Here are a few activities that have helped the teachers in my school connect STEAM and SEL.

Using Simple Challenges to Inspire Complex Social Interactions

I’ve always found math to be a great entry point for introducing robots into early childhood classrooms. When the classroom teacher is doing measurement, we’ll bring out KIBO, a robot we use at our school, and see how far it can go in one “step,” or one forward command.

One of the things I like about this exercise is that it doesn’t require any specialized equipment aside from the robot. KIBO is screen-free, so each team of two or three students gets a robot, the three programming blocks required to accomplish their goal, and a worksheet to help keep them focused.

In science classrooms, I sometimes do something similar, but frame it differently. Instead of asking how far a single robot can go in one step, I’ll ask how far all the robots travel in one step. This often leads to a conversation about ensuring fairness in testing. Then students program their robots, gather measurement data, compare results, and discuss the reasons for the variety in their results.

The robots don’t all travel the same distance with the same forward movement commands, so it sparks a pretty lively conversation. Is it a weak battery? Dirty tires? There are so many variables that affect how far each robot moves, and students get very engaged in figuring them out.

Throughout the whole process, they are talking about fairness, taking turns, dividing up who does which jobs, sharing their findings with teammates, and discussing next steps or what went wrong. With classroom robots, it’s pretty easy to elicit complicated and varied social interactions with quite simple activities.

Discovering the Engineering Design Process through Dragon Dancing

Not long ago, one of my 1st grade teachers was preparing a lesson on dragon dancing and asked if there was some way to incorporate classroom robots. For this one, we gave each student a cardboard topper and a baggie of materials for designing and decorating the topper, which would attach to the robot.

Since they had to share the robot with other students, they not only had to work out between them who got to use the robot and for how long, but they also had to attach their custom toppers to KIBO using the Velcro dots I provided, test their dragon dance, then take them off and go back to the design process if their topper wasn’t secure or if their programming sequence didn’t perform. It was a bit of SEL and the iterative design process all folded up into one activity.

At the end, they put their toppers on their robots, and we had a dragon dancing parade for them to show off their creations and celebrate one another’s success.

Looking to Books—and the World Around You!—for Your Own Design Challenges

When I earned my graduate certificate in engineering education at Tufts University, much of the work I did focused on their Novel Engineering program. This program uses classroom literature—the books kids are already reading—to find new and unique design challenges for students to solve, so I’m pretty partial to robot activities grounded in literature.

One of my favorite books to use in robot lessons is kind of a twist on Novel Engineering because the book it’s based on isn’t standard classroom literature. It’s a book called If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen, and he puts all kinds of fantastical things inside a car. In class, we’ll talk about why he put, for example, a refrigerator in his car. What challenge was he trying to solve?

After we talk about that for a while, students design their own cars, including the wild things they want to include to make a car that’s perfect for them. Attach their wild cars to their robot, and program their car to move about. At the end, we have a parade to show them all off.

Off-the-cuff activities are great, too! Once when I had a few students drop by the makerspace during recess, I put a snack in the corner and told them if they could get the robot to deliver it to them, they could eat it. We spent a good 30 minutes just discussing snack delivery systems as they went around the room pulling out materials to solve their design challenge together.

The Motivation of Being the Boss

One of the things I like to ask students when I introduce them to classroom robots is, “Who wants to be the boss?”

Children don’t have a lot of control over too many things, so being the boss can be a powerful motivator for them. Often, the students who misbehave a bit more, aren’t as eager to do as they’re asked, have trouble sitting still, or who just operate a little differently can have a lot of success with classroom robots where they haven’t had success with other learning tools. I’ve seen teachers absolutely astounded at the results that they’re getting from a social-emotional standpoint.

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