Why Teach Computer Science with Robots?
Hands-On Minds-On Learning
Computer science is no longer viewed as an extracurricular activity, or a subject that is taught to a select few students. Instead, computer science is now recognized as an essential skill for all students. Students that learn computer science are expected to earn more future employment opportunities and flexibility1. Moreover, research has consistently shown that the learning of computer science fosters learning in other subjects2. An important note in the computer science for all movement is that computer science knowledge is not just for those students looking to view a career in technology. In the same way that subjects like biology are viewed as an essential part of a well rounded education, the teaching and learning of computer science is foundational3.
Educational robotics can be an effective tool to meet the dual challenges of computer science pedagogy and equity. Learning computer science through robotics can serve as a bridge between the physical and digital worlds in which students dwell. From a historical perspective, computer science was created as a tool to enable STEM teaching and learning. Thus robotics are the perfect organizer for computer science and STEM learning.
Research has consistently shown that the inclusion of robotics has a positive impact on student motivation and student agency4. Robotics allows students to collaborate in a very visible and tangible way. Additionally, when a student learns coding through a robot, the outcomes are visible and immediate. This quick feedback is an enabler of student motivation. The use of robotics lends itself to active, hands-on learning and iteration thus allowing students to build and scaffold their knowledge in meaningful ways.
Robotics Broadens Participation in Computer Science
The demand for computer science education is driven by multiple stakeholders. States and countries view computer science skills as a key to economic growth and competitiveness. Another driver is equity. Research has shown that lack of access to computer science education exacerbates socioeconomic disparities based on race, gender, income, or location. One of the reasons that computer science education has gained so much steam over the past decade is that the concerns over economic competitiveness and equity are related. Studies have shown that diverse teams improve innovation, problem solving, and productivity5.
Another stakeholder are the students themselves. Computer science education provides students with the opportunity to tinker and create, thus engaging them in different ways than typical curricula. Computer science knowledge can allow students to express their voice and imagination via a different medium. Robotics has been shown to help broaden student participation by providing students the chance to explore both hardware and software applications of computer science, to incorporate diverse mediums like art and storytelling, and to explore and expand their interpersonal skills through activities like robot competitions.
Real World Connections
Teaching with robots gives an authentic context to learn CS and provides an opportunity for students to apply CS concepts in genuine ways. As robots become more accessible with the technology advances available, more and more industries are using robots to be more efficient, cost-saving, and safe. Students and professionals alike are continually investigating ways to use computation and robotics to address real world environmental and societal challenges.
Integrating real world applications with robots, and highlighting how CS concepts and skills are being applied to solve these problems can improve attitudes and interest in CS and prepare students for further CS education and career paths. By familiarizing students with coding, sensors, and automation via robots, they hone critical computational thinking (CT) skills needed to address 21st century problems and provide the experience, skills, and vision to succeed in both the 21st century's workforce and everyday life.
Read the following resources with your students to see how robots are used to make improvements in the workplace and everyday life, as well as address regional and global challenges. Use the discussion prompts to facilitate a conversation on how CS with robots is being applied to solve challenges, and how pursuing CS can empower them to to be a part of the solution to real world problems!
Note: These resources are editable Google docs, to make it easy for you to adapt them to best meet the needs and interests of your students. View these articles to learn more about customizing resources using Google Drive or Microsoft Office.
Bring STEM Concepts to Life
Robotics is a great way to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in engaging ways where students apply concepts as they build, code, and test their robots. Students experience real-world integrated science, math, and cross-discipline problem-solving as they program their robot to complete tasks and solve challenges. See below for activities, videos, and discussion prompts that show how you can teach STEM with concepts with robots in dynamic ways.
Framing CS learning around current scientific topics and challenges is a great way to engage students and provide authentic learning. In many scientific fields, computational solutions and robots are being implemented to solve global challenges. For example, using unmanned robots in the ocean to perform tasks such as surveying marine life, mapping remote seafloor habitats, and removing trash from the ocean floor is a relatively new and innovative approach that looks very promising.
The VEXcode VR Coral Reef Cleanup Activity can be used as a way to explore the skills needed to program unmanned robots to clean the marine debris that exists on the ocean floor. Facilitate the Coral Reef Cleanup Activity with your students, as a fun and engaging way to explore a global challenge, while teaching CS fundamentals. Use the following prompts to get students thinking about the challenges of using unmanned robots in the ocean as you facilitate the activity.
How much trash did your robot collect? Did it leave things behind? Why?
What were some of the challenges to coding the robot to clean the ocean floor autonomously?
What does this experience show you about the feasibility of robots cleaning trash from the ocean?
Robotics is the perfect organizer for teaching students about technology, and for using technology to create high-impact learning experiences. Students can use robots to seek feedback that informs and improves their learning and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Through robotics, students learn how to build, code, and test robot performance. They explore and build fluency in working with software and hardware systems, and practice documenting and communicating their process and test results with their peers. Helping our students become fluent with technology is an important step in helping them become leaders in the digital age, and robotics is an excellent way to engage our students in authentic and dynamic ways.
Once students have completed their Activity, have them remix a classmate’s project to see if they can complete the challenge in a different way, or shorter amount of time. This will give them a chance to build and test projects, while also emphasizing the importance of collaborating and communicating with others. They can also see how others may use different strategies to solve the same problem, which is an important part of CS and STEM learning.
As students work with physical robots, they have the opportunity to explore different engineering concepts with the build of their robots. In VEX IQ and VEX EXP STEM Labs, students are guided to apply different engineering concepts to modify (or iterate) on their robot build. Watch one or more of these videos with your students to see how science and math concepts are applied in robot design and how robot design impacts performance.
Robots can be used to both teach math as well as provide an opportunity to apply math concepts in authentic ways that illustrate their value and allow students to see abstract concepts come to life. Applying math concepts while building their code allows students to create more efficient code and complete tasks or challenges more effectively. See the activities below for opportunities to learn and apply math concepts as students code virtual robots in VEXcode VR. See this article for more suggestions on how you can implement applied Math with VEXcode VR.
Learn about angle measurement by coding the VR Robot to draw angles in the On Target Activity.
Explore the coordinate system by coding the VR Robot to drive to specific coordinates in the Coordinate Numbers Activity.
Learn about shapes and polygons by coding the VR robot to trace shapes in these activities: Tracing Triangles or Tracing Polygons.
You can implement the following activities with VEX Virtual Skills, a virtual VIQC and VRC competition game environment. To get started with Virtual Skills, see this article for information on accessing VIQC Virtual Skills and this article for VRC Virtual Skills.
Use what you know about complementary and supplementary angles to plan your moves in this VIQC Virtual Skills Activity - complementary and supplementary angles.
Apply the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate angles and distances for precise robot movement in this VRC Virtual Skills Activity - calculating angles and distances.
Competition-based learning with robotics is an effective way to engage students in learning CS, while encouraging them to apply math, physics, and other subjects through robotics.3 Competitions can motivate students to develop their CS and STEM competency by improving their programming skills, their robot build, and their strategy in order to improve their score.
Competitions also foster collaborative problem solving where students bring their skillset together with their team to cooperate in order to compete. Through competitions, students form authentic collaborations and take ownership of their learning as they design and build their own robots and prepare to compete. It is their robot and their game strategy.
Learn more about VEX Robotics Competitions with these Entry Points:
Competitions can be implemented in the classroom, after school, or in informal learning environments to engage students and to organize CS and STEM instruction. VEX IQ and VEX EXP STEM Labs are built around classroom competitions as an organizer of learning. See the VEX IQ Castle Crasher STEM Lab for an example of how you can use classroom competitions to organize CS instruction that can be applied in both formal and informal learning environments. This STEM Lab Unit culminates in a classroom competition (Lesson 5) where students apply what they have learned to get the best score in the Castle Crasher Competition. See this article for guidance on how to implement an IQ STEM Lab classroom competition.
Try organizing a competition around one of the following VEXcode VR Activities. Each of these activities includes a competition section to help you introduce the competition to your students. See this article for strategies for facilitating VEXcode VR competitions with your students.
Watch the videos at competition.vex.com to learn about the VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC) and VEX Robotics Competition (VRC) games. This annual international competition engages students from all over the world and has even made it into the Guinness World Records! If your students are excited, consider participating in the competition with physical robots, or compete virtually with VIQC and VRC Virtual Skills.
1 Hansen, Michael and Nicolas Zerbino. “Exploring the state of computer science education amid rapid policy expansion.” Brookings, 11 April 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/research/exploring-the-state-of-computer-science-education-amid-rapid-policy-expansion/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.
2 Code.org, CSTA, & ECEP Alliance. (2022). “2022 State of Computer Science Education: Understanding Our National Imperative.” Retrieved from https://advocacy.code.org/stateofcs.
3 Hansen, Michael and Nicolas Zerbino. “Exploring the state of computer science education amid rapid policy expansion.” Brookings, 11 April 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/research/exploring-the-state-of-computer-science-education-amid-rapid-policy-expansion/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.
4 Yesharim, Mor Friebroon, and Mordechai Ben-Ari. "Teaching computer science concepts through robotics to elementary school children." International Journal of Computer Science Education in Schools 2.3 (2018).
5 Farmer, Ruthe. “Making Computer-Science Education Universal for All Students.” Day One Project, 23, Jan. 2020.https://uploads.dayoneproject.org/2020/04/10121252/Microsoft-Word-Making-Computer-Scienc...sal-for-All-Students_Farmer_FINAL.pdf. Accessed 6 Nov. 2022