Before the Robots

Five things to consider before implementing robots in your classrooms.

GUEST COLUMN | by Andrew Grefig

CREDIT NAO robotsProviding students access to quality technology is often at the heart of many decisions districts make when purchasing educational materials. With robotics firmly ensconced within businesses across the globe, districts are starting to integrate this next step of computing into their schools. There are a ton of robotics options available, from the incredibly simple to the mystifyingly complex. Before making a purchase decision on any of these, here are a few questions to consider:

#1 – What is the curriculum goal?

Why is your district choosing to implement a robotics curriculum? There are a number of great responses, and a few that can totally derail the decision. Picking a robot simply for the sake of being able to say, “We offer robotics” is destined to fail. Forward thinking schools answer the curriculum goal by making a firm commitment to introduce or supplement a programming initiative. These schools are invested in the promise offered by the opportunity of programming skills – a field with immense possibilities and solid income potential where diversity in thought and life experience is appreciated. Other schools want a practical and career-oriented means to integrate STEM topics for their students. Robotics experiences are generally different than any other class offered in schools, and may reach students that would otherwise tune out “traditional” subjects.

#2 – Is your curriculum siloed?

Horizontal curriculum alignment is key to a successful robotics program. Are your math teachers clearly communicating their map and vision with the robotics implementers? The best implementations have ample time to cross-reference year-long maps and plan appropriate activities to match. Once students complete a robotics activity, are they set-up to produce a polished writing piece in an ELA class? Are they reading about how Amazon uses robots and automation in their warehouses before they program a robot to map a maze and find the shortest route? Set your implementation on course for success from day one by figuring out how to draw all of the components together early in the process.

#3 – Are you offering appropriate professional development?

After curriculum goals have been identified and clearly delineated, and the curriculum team has mapped out the year, the next step is making sure that teachers understand how to use the robots. Quality professional development for robots starts with giving teachers the basic tools they need to use the robots and then explores, at least partially, the more advanced capabilities that participants may not yet be equipped to handle. Once teachers have an understanding for how the robot works and what it’s going to bring to their classrooms, the more likely they are to experience success in helping with the rollout.

#4 – Can your infrastructure support this initiative?

Answering this question usually involves coordinating with staff not generally regarded as curriculum focused. Schools’ multi-year technology plans may not have planned for a potentially dramatic increase in either the number of connected devices or enough bandwidth to support a robotics curriculum. Classrooms that used to have a steady, hassle-free connection with either one or a small handful of devices may not be able to function as well when a cart full of laptops arrives and a few robots oversaturate an access point. Some of the most frustrating experiences we’ve encountered while delivering professional development have occurred when a network that worked well previously wasn’t able to bear the load of 20 teachers each using a laptop and trying to communicate with a robot. Don’t let excellent planning for curriculum and content be set aside by a lapse in network capability.

#5 – Are your teachers comfortable implementing?

Robotics is probably not your teachers’ primary specialty at this point. More often than not, they’re common branch teachers, rarely a subject specialist. Supporting students in robotics can require your teachers to use instructional strategies they may not be totally comfortable using. If the curriculum you’ve designed implores students to be creative in their thought process, are the teachers selected for this initiative capable of teaching the creative process? Besides professional development specific to the rollout, are teachers being supported in these ancillary topics? Meaningful professional development not only aligns to instructional goals, it is also iterative and long-term. A single session on Synectics isn’t going to do much in the way of helping your students over the course of the year.

Andrew Grefig is Director of Curriculum and Content of Teq, a company dedicated to championing the evolution of the modern classroom since 1972. Its professional development team of more than 23 education professionals works closely to empower educators, leverage and improve technology integration, and increase student achievement and success in the Common Core curriculum. Write to:

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