In 2015 an association of local businesses asked me and some colleagues to organize a robotics after school lab for five different first-grade classes in the Bologna area.
Our committee had seen the milkBot, a little robot that combines the open-source Arduino microcontroller with scrap material, and they wanted to offer a similar creative experience to the students involved in the project.
However, our students had no experience with Scratch nor with Arduino, so we started reflecting on choosing the most useful kit for our purpose.
Constructionism provides learning dimensions
Seymour Papert’s Constructionism was the model that we choose as inspiration to design the learning experience because we strongly believe that the educational power of a technology resides in the potential for creative expression that it offers.
So we asked ourselves :
“What learning dimensions should an educational robotic kit have to be effective for a Constructionist learning experience in a school context?”
Papert outlined the features that a technology should have to be useful for a constructionist learning experience in two dimensions: Low Floor and High Ceiling.
Low floor: to be effective, a technology has to be easy to use even for a beginner.
High ceiling: the same technology has to offer the possibility to create increasingly complex and sophisticated projects as the user becomes fluent and wants to experiment with new things.
Mitchel Resnick, who is the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, adds another dimension, Wide Walls.
Wide walls: To be effective, a technology has to allow multiple types of creations in order to enable the users to express themselves creatively regardless of their level of competence.
Working in a school context with groups of 25 students at a time demanded that we consider other practical and logistical elements.
- Cost: For a technology to have a significant impact on learning at school it should be available in sufficient quantity to let a class of 20/25 students work in groups of 4 members at the same time.
- Adequacy: to be effective at school, components must be in line with learning and developmental goals already achieved by the final user (students) and, at the same time, must stimulate its progress gradually (scaffolding).
For example, a technology must be adequate to fine motor skills but also to the ability to take care and respect tools and materials. The variety of components, from actuators to sensors, available in the kit must respect the cognitive level achieved by the students and must provide adequate challenges to grow up and enrich learning.
Every teacher/educator has the duty of assessing the adequacy of what’s available in the kit based on the learning goals and the skills already acquired.
This is the most delicate and challenging aspect of our job because it requires us to empathize with our students, to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine how they could interact with the robot and what they will learn through it while trying to go beyond to our personal expectations.
- Quality of the programming environment: an effective educational robotics kit must be supported by an online and offline programming environment:
Adequate and adaptable to the level of competence of the students: as the kit components, the programming language must also be adapted to the competences goals already reached by the student and must gradually stimulate their development. It could, for example, offer blocks programming, and then gradually move on to text programming. Also in this case, the level of adequacy (and the programming language offered) must be evaluated by the educator based on the skills of the specific class group (or, at least, for the expected targets for the age).
Providing a good level of interaction between robot and computer: by “interaction” we mean two issues, the first one is about the communication between robot and computer: do we have to use a cable? do they connect via bluetooth or use a wireless protocol?We observed that the kits that only use the cable communication limit student’s creative possibilities, yet kits that communicate via bluetooth tend to have connection problems (for example, the robots in the classroom connect to the wrong PC).The second one is related to the possibility of making the robot interact with things happening on the screen. The traditional concept of robotics involves the use of computers only for compiling and uploading the code in the robot’s brain, in a constructionist learning environment it would be useful to be able to do more.
- Versatility: to be effective within a constructionist learning environment in a school context, the robotics must be adaptable and “neutral” enough to enhance imagining and ideating of all kinds.
At the same time it must be practical and light enough not to clutter up the students’ creations.
For example, in some cases the “brain” of the robot is very bulky and poses some very difficult design challenges for the students. Or sometimes the kit comes with very short connection cables (from board to sensors/actuators) limiting the size and aesthetics of the creations.
Moreover, some kits are sold in boxes containing images that invite to build certain types of robots, which are very appealing to the eyes of a boy or a girl, but can limit imagination and creativity
For example, kits that only show examples of rovers and cars.
We have observed that students that experiment with robotics kit by building and programming a car are less likely to imagine and create something far different from the car.
Even if only they saw the image on the box their ideas will converge in direction of a car.
There is no perfect solution, but we did it anyway
There are many kits available on the market which support the three learning dimensions to one degree or another. Finding one that meets all three in a balance is the difficult part.
For our project we chose mBot off the shelf robotics kit from MakeBlock company.
We felt it had a low floor because components were easy to connect to the board,
the mCore is an Arduino-core microcontroller built to facilitate plugging sensors and actuators thanks to its RJ25 wires, avoiding kids to struggle with circuits, breadboards and resistances.
We felt it had high ceilings because it provides a blocks programming language, very similar to Scratch, that translates blocks code into Arduino code just pushing a button so, students can start discover how an Arduino code looks like and upload their code on the mCore.
Robot and computer communicates through cable or with a 2.4G wireless protocol so students can easily create sophisticated projects in which robot interacts with what happens on the computer screen.
The kit is very cheap, compared to other robotics kits, and the number of components provided is wide enough to let kids experiment and learn about different kinds of sensors and actuators.
What we missed using this kit were wide walls and versatility,
the kit is setted up to build a car, provides chassis, tires and short RJ25 wires that facilitates building compact objects. Plus, box and instruction booklet show images of a car and how to build it so kids’ imagination and creativity resulted limited.
After 3 years of using those kits we figured out how to design the learning experience and how to introduce students to the kit so to solve wide walls and versatility issues.
As an example, we use spray paint to cover all the images on the boxes and we took chassis and tires away from the box, as the instruction booklet so to not limit students freedom in exploring and imagining what they can invent.
An alternative option is buying an Orion board (it’s similar to the mCore but with more RJ25 ports) and choose to buy separately each single component instead to go for the off the shelf kit.
This solution needs a more conscious budgeting and reflecting on which component to buy (so it tooks more time) but offers the chance to go beyond wide walls and versatility issues and provide our middle school students with adequate building material and objects to think and tinker with.
It is very important, before buying an educational robotics kit, to have the chance to experiment it in first person or to talk to someone who already uses the kits.
My advice is to visit fairs and events dedicated to educational robotics, participate to workshops or observe laboratories (such as CoderDojo) where you can use robotics kits, join numerous online communities or ask for feedback from colleagues in other schools and make a decision that takes into consideration the pros and cons based on all the information you have found.
Every context, every class group, every educator is unique and special and for this reason needs a personal reflection and a careful evaluation of the characteristics that an educational technology must have in order to be useful for achieving the pre-established objectives.