7 tips for teachers who are using classroom robots for the first time

A veteran teacher explains how she introduced robots to her first- and second-grade students.
Helen Schwartz
Helen Schwartz
Helen Schwartz teaches first and second grade at the New England Jewish Academy. She can be reached at hschwartz@neja.org.

Last year, New England Jewish Academy, a dual-curriculum school where I teach general studies to students in first and second grade, received a grant to purchase classroom robots that I would use to teach coding as well as support some of the Jewish holidays as part of our Judaics program. I work with my Judaics teacher and we were able to use some of the lessons just as they were written and modified others to meet the needs of our students.

I have been a teacher for a few decades, but I had never used robots before. Now that I’m in my second year of teaching with classroom robots, I thought I would share some tips for those of you who are just getting started.

1. Take the time to familiarize yourself with your robot: The first thing I did when I received my KIBO robot kit was to explore how to play with it. My husband is an engineer, so I got him to explore with me, and we had a lot of fun. We have twin grandsons who were four years old then, so my next step was to let them play with the robot and just watch what they did with it.

If one had been available, I would have loved a mentor teacher to help me get started, but using it myself and seeing other people explore it really helped me feel more familiar with it.

2. Start with small groups: When I did introduce classroom robots to my students, I put them in small groups and just let them explore. By collaborating, they were able to figure out what the different pieces were and how they fit together, without me explaining everything to them. I asked questions like, “What does this piece look like? What do you think it does?”

One thing I did explain is that they needed to be careful not to break them. I found that when students are more familiar with the robots and you’re ready to give them an additional challenge, giving them one robot each is a great way to step up the difficulty a bit.

3. Make it safe to experiment: It’s important to make it safe to try lots of different things, so I let my students know that they weren’t going to get every code correct the first time they tried. When they failed to put a couple of pieces together correctly, I wouldn’t tell them how they got it wrong. Instead, I simply asked, “How else can you do it?” and stayed to the side to see what they discovered.

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Eventually, they came to realize that I don’t always have the answers. A big help was talking about engineers and how they often have to test out designs and change them when they don’t work out. That helped my students understand that failing to solve the challenge doesn’t mean they did it wrong, just that they were still experimenting and learning.

They were becoming engineers. It was a good time to introduce the design process.

4. Give them time: Part of making it safe to experiment is making sure students have time. My classes are about a half-hour long, so I made sure to structure activities that are easy enough that they can experiment and test their programs several times before they get them right. Many times we “stole” time from other subjects so the classes had a bit more time to work through the programs.

They need time to think, to question, to get stumped, and start over. They need time to find their way through the activity and experience some success before they have to pack the robot back up, or they will lose motivation.

Keeping it simple also means that I’m able to respond to students as they need help. There’s only one of me and 16 of them, so if they all need help at once, we’re all likely to get frustrated.

5. Start with a few pieces and build from there: One way I kept activities simple at first was to only give the class a few robot pieces, such as the robot body, its wheels, and the wooden programming blocks related to motion. When I was playing with my new robot, there were a couple of times I needed my husband’s help to figure out where I’d gone wrong, so I was worried that if I gave my 6- and 7-year-old students all the pieces, they would be overwhelmed.

Giving the students a few key pieces provided enough for them to figure out how it all fit together and to get excited about what they could do. From there, it’s easy to add new and more pieces.

6. Simple activities are great learning opportunities: At the beginning of my first year using the robots, we were still under COVID restrictions, so I asked my students to make sure all their desks were three feet apart when using classroom robots. For an adult, the solution is simple: Figure out how far KIBO moves each time they execute a forward command, then count how many forward commands it takes to cross the gap between desks to see how far apart they are. With 1st- and 2nd-grade students, using the robot to measure a distance led them to discover the idea of multiplication in a hands-on way.

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As the year progressed, I asked my students to conduct an experiment to see what happens when their robots have two different-sized wheels. They used one of the robot’s regular wheels and the circular platform as the other one. They found their robots spun in circles. Next, they refined their design by using the two art platforms for their big wheels. They had better results, getting their robots to move forward and backward.

My students didn’t technically solve that seemingly simple challenge, but they did learn that wheel size will dramatically change the way something moves.

We also tied the classroom robots into other areas of the curriculum. For instance, when we read the book, Balloons Over Broadway, we used balloons to create turkeys and attached them to the platform, and programmed the KIBOs to walk in a line, just like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Not only did my classes enjoy this, but the kindergarten class was so excited that they can’t wait to do that activity this year. We also discussed the Iditarod race and they transformed their robot into a dogsled.

7. Embrace the coding mindset: There are all kinds of connections to coding across the curriculum. Students love playing with the robots, so if they get stuck in another area, I love to help them find those connections to motivate them to keep going or to understand a challenge in a new way.

If they are working on a math program that needs to be solved sequentially, or they are working on a language arts problem that requires them to identify what happened first, next, and last, for example, I can remind them of the process they use with their robots. It can go a long way toward reframing their struggles as steps toward a solution rather than a series of failures.

For other veteran teachers considering robotics: don’t be afraid of it! My biggest surprise during my first year teaching with classroom robots was that I enjoyed it—and so did my students. I knew I was on to something when kids wanted to skip their snack to play with their robots.

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