A Closer Look at Learning with A Great STEAM Tool

Powerful robotics learning-based lessons for tomorrow’s school technology leaders.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

Once a semester, I bring a guest in for a conversation with my graduate level, EdTech Leadership students at Touro College in New York City. My course is Technology Integration for School Leaders and my students, in-service teachers, are preparing to become certified as school technology specialists.

A few days back, using Zoom, my class welcomed guest, Jason Innes of KinderLab Robotics, the producer of KIBO robotics resources for early childhood education. And, at once, my students were catapulted from the realm of theory to that of actual and inspiring practice that reflects some of the best of 21st Century Teaching and Learning.

As my students are already immersed in the world of edtech, the concept of student robotics wasn’t a shocking revelation. However, the ways in which KIBO robotics resources have been developed and the ways that student users learn powerful lessons with them grabbed my class’ attention strongly. We were given a glimpse into a very special variety of learning experience for kids.

“…how sophisticated Student Robotics has become in a variety of ways: the resources themselves, the emergence of highly appropriate curriculum with which to implement them, and the body of understanding about how this remarkable approach fits into the overall picture of instructional programs and their goals.”

This particular resource is designed for very young children who become deeply immersed in the full STEM/STEAM paradigm through their interactions with it.

I’ve been following Student Robotics for a full quarter century, having personally pioneered the first citywide robotics program for the NYC Department of Education when I was a young instructional program administrator there in my pre higher education days.

Taking a fresh look at KIBO through this class guest conversation though, left me somewhat blown away at how sophisticated Student Robotics has become in a variety of ways: the resources themselves, the emergence of highly appropriate curriculum with which to implement them, and the body of understanding about how this remarkable approach fits into the overall picture of instructional programs and their goals.

As we spoke, here are some of the things that emerged that are truly eye opening, even for a group of edtech sophisticates –

Screen-free Robotics

This particular robotics system requires no computer even though the youngsters who use it learn coding, an important element of computer science. The coding is accomplished by the child selecting and combining wooden blocks, a type of object that kids are generally already familiar with and enjoy experimenting with. Each block represents and functions as a command to the robot. By stringing these together in a sequence that they design, students, in effect, create a program.

Each of the blocks has a bar code on it and after their sequence is complete, kids scan them in order using the bar code scanner built into the front of the robot. It’s an ingenious, hyper kid-friendly, approach; one that teaches kids important concepts as they play and experiment collaboratively.

Establishing an Appropriate Context for Learning Coding

I was wondering just how coding makes sense as a learning goal, and one to begin in the very early grades, at that. Jason shared with us Kinderlab’s white paper, “6 Key Benefits of Using Robotics in Your Early Childhood Classroom,” from which I excised the following passage for the students:

“Coding is becoming as fundamental to work, education, and culture as literacy was in earlier centuries. Not every child needs to become a computer programmer, but coding gives children the tools to create and participate in a culture, society, and working world increasingly structured by computers. We don’t teach children to write because we want them all to be novelists or journalists; we teach them to write so they can express themselves. In the same way, teaching children to code gives them fluency in a new set of tools for self-expression. Coding with robots shows children that they can create with technology.”

I think that’s a wonderful explanation, one that establishes a realistic and down-to-earth rationale for making coding part of what pre-K through 1st graders are offered in their early education. KIBO makes offering it practical and effective in an age appropriate way.

The Expressive Potential of Student Robotics – Putting the A (Arts) in STEAM

One of the most impressive and inspiring things about this system is that it encourages youngsters to use robotics as way to express themselves; as a sort of art medium. The system is designed to easily accommodate and encourage the integration of outside materials: pieces of cardboard, bits of repurposed plastic toys, pipe cleaners, whatever… Developing a KIBO robot this way, it can become a character, a surrogate actor, a playmate or partner in adventure, whatever kids’ imaginations call for.

In fact, in addition to the highly simplified probes that the robot comes with that are designed to support STEM learning (the pre Arts-added precursor to STEAM), there are ‘slots’ to accommodate special elements like their Sound Record/Playback Module, an add-on ‘device’ that allows students to record their own voice or other sounds and have those played back as part of the robots ‘performance.’

Like other aspects of this tool, this encourages and supports kids in expressing their ideas and feelings… robotically.

Literacy Loves Robotics

Finally, we arrive at the literacy learning-rich potential of student robotics. The natural flow of play children engage in with KIBO, something mirrored and echoed in the extensive curriculum written for it, has kids writing and telling stories with their robots. A great deal of literacy instruction for students at this age and level centers around stories and storytelling.

Learning and play. Riding atop and defining the identity and function of a KIBO robot, a miniature figure of a story character constructed of scrap and craft materials blended with the child appropriate mechano-electronic elements (pictured).

My class’ focused, semester-long theme is selecting transformational digital resources to address gaps in instructional programs in order to improve or expand learning outcomes. This involves researching, evaluating, and selecting resources and practices referenced in and culled from professional literature and weighing them against field recognized practical considerations. In many ways, what we heard about KIBO resonated.

First, there’s the pedigree, or as Stan Lee, creator of Marvel Comics would put it, the Origin Story. Their origin story is rooted in the thinking of Seymour Papert, the MIT-based education theorist and author of the 1980 book, “Mind Storms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,” and in 1993’s “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.”

Papert, a computer scientist and a learning theorist was in turn inspired by the work of the famous cognitive psychologist, Jean Piaget, among whose concepts was Constructivism, the idea that children learn very well when they are encouraged to explore and then construct their own meaning from their experiences. Papert focused on taking concepts like Active Learning and designing tools for children to use that would realize them.

Thus, he developed LOGO the first programing language for children. Jason explained to us that Papert saw this as a way for children to play in a sort of “Math Land’ a conceptual environment which they’d find to be fun and stimulating and result in rich intellectual discoveries, sensing abstract concepts in a concrete way.

KinderLab Robotics

Whitepaper: Learn the 6 Key Benefits of Using Robotics with Your Youngest Students

VIDEO | Meet KIBO, The fun and playful STEAM robot:

One of Papert’s former students at MIT is (Professor) Marina Bers, working now as chairman at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University. A researcher in early childhood technology – she and her team at Tufts developed KIBO. Previously developing the popular programming resource for youngsters, Scratch Junior. They discovered that kids could learn more effectively if they could use concrete manipulatives that represent abstract concept. As an outgrowth of that, they developed KIBO, a robot that children can program, the parts of which can be understood as concrete manipulates.

Now developed and used in schools to provide learning opportunities that were unimaginable when I was in school, even during the period of time in which I was a teacher in NYC’s inner city, KIBO is poised for a great many more teachers to embrace. It strikes me as a remarkable instance of a positively transformational approach to fostering up-to-the-moment learning that is easily available in a form that is user friendly for both teachers and students. I feel very good that I made KIBO part of this semester’s learning for some of tomorrow’s school technology leaders.

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College


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