A roboticist shares his keys to unlocking the creative problem-solver in learners of all ages.

GUEST COLUMN| by Mike Marks

I’ve seen the magic that comes with letting learning take the form of play. Since 2013, I’ve been holding my introductory robotics workshops in schools and libraries, and young students who have never seen a robot seize the opportunity to take hold of the robot and figure out how it works. In my workshops, the kids aren’t thinking about how robots will introduce them to cross-curricular topics they will eventually excel at in school; they’re ready to play with the robot and the kids around them.

Play for All Ages

My workshops mostly attract young learners, so you’ll imagine my surprise when I was preparing for an evening workshop and six senior citizens walked in, ready to be introduced to robotics. Unlike my young students, their biggest fear was that they were going to break the robot. Once they realized that wasn’t going to happen, they dived right in. A few also wanted to be up to speed about robots for the sake of their grandchildren because they’re always on the lookout for an engaging STEAM gift.

At this particular workshop, I was demonstrating the KIBO robot, an introductory robotics kit designed to inspire kids ages 4–7 to build and program their own robot. To let my senior citizens get a feel for sequencing and coding, I asked them to scan the ’Forward’ programmable wooden building block that makes the robot move forward one step. After they did that, I told them to move the robot forward three steps. It only took them a moment to realize that they already knew what to do, simply scan the block three times in succession.

With young students just starting their path with robotics, I always notice the pride in accomplishment they get from making robots do things like move in a square or to throw a ball into a bucket. It’s the same excitement that comes with coding: seeing a physical result based on a command they gave. It was no different with the senior citizens that participated in my workshop that day. They were playing with the robot by collaborating and then brainstorming ideas about what to program the robot to do next.

How Teachers Can Set the Stage for Play

When young students see a robot, their first impulse is to take it and run with it (sometimes literally), so educators must be comfortable with the robot beforehand and have a lesson plan or activity prepared. Robots like KIBO or Cubelets are great introductory robots that get both teachers and students over the learning curve so they reach success quickly enough that they’re excited to explore more complex capabilities. Here are some specific steps teachers can take to make the most of their robot-enhanced lessons:

1) Combine planning and “tinker time.” To balance learning and play, I always plan a lesson or sequence example that the students can follow while also leaving students some “tinker time.” This is when they get to do their own thing, to take what they’ve learned and explore “what if” scenarios. “What if I do this, then what will happen?” If the robot doesn’t do what they expected, they try to understand why the action they thought was going to happen didn’t happen. I prefer to think about it as discovering a challenge rather than making a mistake. This approach seems to result in deeper learning. All the time while playing, they are learning the engineering process: asking, imagining, planning, creating, testing and improving, and sharing.

2) Choose tech that’s portable, durable, and has a short learning curve. My workshops run only 75 to 90 minutes, so I look for robots that are immediately approachable and have projects that are highly achievable in a short period of time, so that we have a great opportunity for success and reinforcement. For younger students, it helps to have robots that are portable and as close to indestructible as possible.

3) Scaffold your lessons. Robots are a playful way for teachers to scaffold exercises. For example, students might start by learning how to make the robot move forward or backwards, then learn how make it rotate or turn a corner. Once they know these basics, you can say to them, “Okay, now make it form a box and come back to where it started.” They have to figure out on their own that a box is a progression of moving forward and turning. Every time kids succeed in making their robot do what they want, I see little lightbulbs going off in their faces and fist-pumping gestures of success. It’s awesome.

4) Use robots across multiple disciplines. Robots connect to all aspects of a STEAM curriculum. Just as kids feel free to play with robots, teachers can get creative in the lessons they develop. Some companies offer curriculum guides to help kickstart teachers’ sense of play.

One final thought: “Play” doesn’t necessarily mean kids running around the school yard—it could be an in-class project that really gives students a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment.

I have observed this sense of “wow” that comes with playing with robots across multiple generations.

It’s gratifying to bring that sense of accomplishment to senior citizens, watch parents vicariously participate in their children’s achievements, and bring self-confidence and enthusiasm to our youngest learners—one of the ways that educators and society can build a future population of roboticists, coders, designers, and engineers.

Mike Marks is the founder and chief roboticist for TSC Robotics.