Robotics combines engineering, engineering design, and technology in ways that, in the words of Marina Bers of the Tufts DevTech group, “connects the T and the E of STEM” and certainly merits a prominent position in STEM education.
Robotics appears to fit into the STEM sequence as a subject for older students. At the Tufts DevTech research group however, robotics has been introduced successfully to pre-Kindergarten children reasoning that because interventions that begin early are, in the long run, less costly and also have greater impacts than those that begin later, robotics should be begun early
Watch this DevTech produced video clip that documents the robotics work of young children.
The spirited dancing of the children is accompanied by dance movements enacted by two-wheeled robots, which while less enthusiastic are more rhythmic and more disciplined than the children’s.
It is notable that although the robots are better at following the music’s rhythms, the robots’ movements were programmed by the same somewhat syncopated children. The video supports the case that young children are quite capable of engaging in robotics in non-trivial ways.
In their work with young children the DevTech research group uses a computer language called CHERP (Creative Hybrid Environment for Robotic Programming). The CHERP language substitutes a set of interlocking wooden blocks for typed in text. Each block is labeled with a graphic representing a command such as FORWARD, BACKWARD, BEGIN, or END. The program is “written” by assembling the commands by arranging the blocks. “The shape of the interlocking blocks and icons creates a physical syntax that prevents the creation of invalid programs and also eliminates the possibility of typographical errors,” notes Marina Bers. Once the blocks have been arranged to create a program for the robot to follow, a scanner on the robot is used to read the program into the robot’s memory.
The behavior of the robot will mimic the program developed by the child-programmer. Because the program is represented by the arrangement of blocks, children are able to make changes to the program by a rearrangement of the blocks. In addition, they can observe one another’s work and to see how other children have solved a particular problem (“how did you make the robot spin five times?”)
In a number of published studies Bers and her colleagues have collected evidence that
Robotics offers young children and teachers a new and exciting way to tangibly interact with traditional early childhood curricular themes. This study demonstrates that it is possible to teach Pre-Kindergarten children to program a robot with developmentally appropriate tools, and, in the process, children may not only learn about technology and engineering, but also practice foundational math, literacy, and arts concepts. While there are many challenges to overcome when implementing robotics in a busy Pre-Kindergarten classroom, our work provides preliminary evidence that teaching young children about and through computer programming and robotics using developmentally appropriate tools may be a powerful tool for educating children across multiple domains.
What is the reason that in addition to robotics and computer programming the “children may not only learn about technology and engineering, but also practice foundational math, literacy, and arts concepts?”
Seymour Papert who was a developer of the computer language LOGO in the 1970s asserted that a programming language like LOGO (or CHERP) changes the relationship between the child and knowledge.
He argued that most school instruction was based on “transmission” or the passing of “knowledge” from its possessor (the teacher) to the receiver (the student). When computers are used in schools, Papert’s argument continued, they are used to “program the child” in the same way that teachers program the child with the “required” knowledge.
The LOGO computer language was designed to enable the child to communicate with the computer. LOGO included a graphical Turtle that the computer’s user could move around on the screen. RIGHT would cause the Turtle to turn 90° to the right. FORWARD 10 would command the Turtle to move 10 paces ahead and so forth.
In the LOGO environment, the traditional relationship between the child and the knowledge was changed.
[t]he child, even at preschool ages, is in control: The child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think. The experience can be heady: Thinking about thinking turns the child into an epistemologist, an experience not even shared by most adults. (Papert)
In addition, in the usual “teacher as source of knowledge,” model the child is placed in the “got it right/wrong” mode, and worse may not know either what was wrong or how to fix the error.
As Papert notes, when you learn to program, you seldom get it right the first time. “Learning to be a master programmer is learning to become highly skilled at isolating and correcting “bugs,”….
This is also the case with products of the intellect; they are usually neither “right” or “wrong” but are “buggy” works in progress.
If Papert is correct, changing the relationship between the child and knowing is fundamental to learning. Robotics with young children is perhaps a place to begin the change.
Epistemologist: one who studies epistemology: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
Marina Umaschi Bers, Safoura Seddighin, and Amanda Sullivan
Ready for Robotics: Bringing Together the T and E of STEM in Early Childhood Teacher Education Jl. of Technology and Teacher Education (2013) 21(3), 355-377
Sullivan, A., Kazakoff, E. R., & Bers, M. U. (2013). The Wheels on the Bot go Round and Round: Robotics Curriculum in Pre-Kindergarten. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 12, 203-219. Retrieved from http://www.jite.org/documents/Vol12/JITEv12IIPp203-219Sullivan1257.pdf
Seymour Papert (1980). Mindstorms, Basic Books.