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Transforming Education: Robotics and Its Value for Next Gen Learning

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By Axel Reitzig, the robotics and computer science coordinator for St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado 

Public education represents a community's investment in its future. Considering that over 90 percent of American children, grades P-12, are in our public education system, we should be asking hard questions about what the return on this investment is or should be. The core mission of public education is to prepare students for their future so that they are contributing citizens, both economically and civically. Even better, our students should graduate with a strong competitive advantage so that, no matter their path, they will have optimum opportunities for success. 

With a society changing from, among other things, globalization, automation, and rapidly evolving technologies, public schools have been identifying effective tools and approaches for ensuring continued growth. STEM education has been one of the main ways schools have sought to do this, and with reason. At its core, STEM incorporates five key elements that represent our 21st-century society: 

  • Integrated content
  • A focus on solving authentic problems
  • The application of 21st-century skills
  • Personalized learning and an emphasis on student agency
  • Connected learning

There are many ways to implement STEM education; one of the best is robotics, and, when done right, it serves as one of the most effective platforms for delivering on the promises of a modern education.

What is robotics? It is a highly integrated field incorporating a variety of disciplines, including design and fabrication, engineering (with an emphasis on electrical, mechanical, and systems engineering), computer science, and many soft skills like collaboration, communication, and creativity. Students involved with robotics learn about the complexity of project management, and they apply and refine cognitive skills like problem analysis and critical thinking by working on real-world problems.

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Robotics is an ideal STEM learning experience primarily because it engages, empowers, and challenges students through these authentic learning tasks. It also thoroughly addresses each of the five facets of STEM mentioned above: 

  • Integration: Robotics is a highly integrated field incorporating a wide range of skills and knowledge. Participating in robotics provides students with a comprehensive, integrated STEM experience.
  • Problem-Solving: The design and use of robotics systems is inherently an iterative process that requires students to identify and solve multiple problems. The challenges are authentic and meaningful, and students cannot pretend to solve them.
  • 21st-Century Skills: Because of its integrated nature, robotics regularly requires students to work on teams. In turn, students have the opportunity to develop essential skills like collaboration, communication, project management, persistence, creativity, and adaptability, all qualities K-12 stakeholders regularly identify as key attributes they look for in graduates.
  • Personalized Learning: Because robotics is such a diverse field, each student has the opportunity to experience it through a personalized lens. They may play a role on a team best-suited to their strengths; develop expertise in a field related to personal interests; and demonstrate competency through multiple methods. Robotics provides students with considerable voice and agency.
  • Connection: Again, because of its integrated nature, robotics naturally connects students with other people, places, and professions. 

Robotics is also highly valuable in initiating and sustaining systemic change. It is the ideal disruptive technology for public education, naturally requiring stakeholders to radically change their practices. Since many teachers know little about robotics, the learning environment suddenly transforms into a student-driven experience. Because students are solving authentic problems, engagement is high, and all students are challenged, no matter their ability level. The physical learning space has to change in order to accommodate active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning.  Because robotics is highly integrated and complex, students must work on teams and specialize on tasks, providing opportunities for meaningful collaboration. Finally, assessment looks very different. Worksheets no longer have value; instead, performance-based assessments take center stage, whether it is competing at a tournament or pitching a design to potential investors.

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Across St. Vrain Valley Schools, a public school district serving approximately 33,000 students in Colorado, competitive robotics has served as the catalyst for kick-starting an overall interest in robotics as a key STEM field. Seven years ago, the district had a handful of mostly parent-sponsored teams working independently from one another. Then, one parent approached the district leadership about making robotics more widely available in the schools. As a result, our district held its first official tournament, and two schools began programs serving around 40 students overall.  Since then, the program has grown exponentially. In 2018-19, our main competitive program, focused on the VEX Robotics platform, involved 35 schools, 155 teams, and 700 students, grades 2-12.  The district also ran 19 tournaments at multiple sites in the district.  And, in addition to our VEX program, students participate in FIRST and BEST robotics teams.

The experiences of our competitive programs, what we can call Robotics 1.0, have helped open the door to STEM for a wide variety of district stakeholders. It has served to educate these stakeholders not only about STEM but also about robotics and its role in our economy and daily life. It has engaged and challenged teachers, providing them with a valuable tool for transforming their classrooms. It also has challenged our system to collaboratively support the rapid growth of the program. And, most importantly, it has built a solid foundation for taking this program to the next level, Robotics 2.0.

Robotics 2.0 leverages the enthusiasm and experiences students, teachers, and parents have through competitive robotics to develop deeper, more intentional STEM opportunities. There are three ways we are approaching this:

  • Extracurricular: In addition to competitive experiences, robotics can be experienced through noncompetitive after-school experiences like:
    • After-school project teams: At our district's Innovation Center, student project teams are developing robotics solutions to real clients like the Denver Zoo and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. This noncompetitive environment attracts a broader range of students.
    • Tours, guest visits, and lectures: Bringing students to industry and university partners, and vice versa, helps them understand how diverse and dynamic the field of robotics is.
    • Events: Competitions, fairs, and showcases are examples of public events that allow students and programs to share their work. These are great at building community and engaging external stakeholders.
    • Before- and after-school enrichment programs: Offering robotics and computer science classes after school is a great way to reach a broad, and younger, range of students. Our district's Community Schools program has been an important partner in providing these kinds of opportunities to our elementary schools.
  • Curricular: Perhaps the most impactful result of our competitive program is that it has transformed many of our secondary elective programs throughout the district, most of which now offer robotics and computer science during the day. Core teachers at all levels are also discussing how they might incorporate robotics in their classrooms. Here are ways to bring robotics more directly into the school day:
    • Integration and enhancement: How does robotics relate to core content already being taught? What are extension lessons or activities that can be incorporated that highlight robotics?
    • Elective classes: These provide students with a passion for robotics the chance to delve more deeply into the topic.
    • Advanced classes/CTE classes: These classes can serve as gateways to postsecondary opportunities.
    • Concurrent enrollment: Students can bolster their robotics skills/knowledge while also earning college credit. Because robotics is so broad, there are multiple classes to consider, ranging from math and science to coding and electronics.
  • Postsecondary Opportunities: There are several ways to connect students' interest in robotics with possible career paths:
    • Apprenticeships and internships: Skills students develop through robotics have value to lots of employers. Apprenticeships and internships can help bridge the divide between K-12 and industry by fostering workforce development.
    • Industry certifications: Students who earn these kinds of certifications graduate with unique qualifications that make them stick out from the crowd.
    • Two- and four-year degrees: A mature program will be aligned with postsecondary programs and help students begin mapping out their career paths after high school.

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If you are interested in starting or growing robotics in your district, here are some suggestions:

  • Be systemic: Ensuring the long-term viability of a robotics program, as well as ensuring equitable access, requires adopting a systemic approach. Consider the following as you start and grow your program:
    • Core mission: How is the program furthering your organization's core mission?
    • Ask the following questions considering each of the categories below:
      • How do we sustain it?
      • How do we support it?
      • How do we scale it?
        • Technological
        • Financial
        • Human resources/professional development
        • Curricular
    • Evaluation: What criteria will you use to evaluate the success of your program? What data will you collect? How will you analyze it?
  • Develop the program in stages: Since robotics is essentially a disruptive innovation within a K-12 ecosystem, it's helpful to structure an implementation timeline around how innovations diffuse throughout a system. St. Vrain Valley Schools designed an Innovative Technology Adoption Framework specifically to help with this process:
    • Innovation: Who are your innovators in this space? How are they innovators? What support and guidance might they require? What innovations might you start with?
    • Early Adopters: Who are those folks who are watching the innovators? What guidance and support do they need? What costs come with implementation at this stage?
    • Early and Late Mainstream: At what point is it possible and appropriate to scale a robotics innovation to this level? Can this be justified and supported? Who should be involved in the discussion at this time?

A popular expression in our district now is, "Robotics is the gift that keeps on giving." This is meant in a very positive way. Robotics has provided our district and community with considerable return on investment. It has engaged, challenged, and transformed multiple stakeholders, provided exciting and meaningful opportunities to thousands of students, and added value to the broader STEM experiences our district has been providing. Take a moment to see what it's about—we think you'll like it.


Photos, courtesy of St. Vrain Valley Schools, from the top:

  • Students at Timberline P-8 in Longmont, Colo., learn the foundations of coding through QuestBotics.
  • Students from Central Elementary School and Alpine Elementary School in Longmont get ready to compete at the 2019 VEX State Robotics Tournament in Erie, Colo.
  • A complex student-built robot competes at Colorado's VEX State Robotics Tournament.
  • Preschoolers at Longmont Estates Elementary School learn the foundations of computer science with Bee-Bots.
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