As technology and science advances at a brisk pace, tremendous pressure builds on classrooms to integrate STEM and 21st century skills, such as adaptability, initiative, and collaboration. Some policymakers in America fear that unless students learn the advanced skills needed to excel at future jobs they – and the nation – will fall behind the rapid pace of progress. When listening to these viewpoints, it can overwhelm teachers and seem daunting to become even more advanced STEM experts for their students.

Furthermore, while some extreme critics believe the entire education system (in other words, the American classroom), needs to be completely revamped, others believe adding robotics into the curriculum can be a manageable first-step toward teaching students forms of STEM while practicing 21st century skills in exciting and effective ways. Throughout my 23 years in education, teaching elementary students and providing professional development support to K-12 teachers in the area of instructional technology, I have found that working with robotics goes far beyond the obvious lessons surrounding building and coding—it’s also an effective way to teach literacy competency and other various “soft skills” that are essential in today’s world.

Literacy and Robotics – The Possibilities beyond Math and Science

In the past, literacy has focused on the ability to read, write and communicate with others. Today, literacy is much broader. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, 21st century literacy means being able to:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts; and,
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

These computational and critical thinking, creativity and dispositions skills are the ones we need to be developing in students in a world that has so much to do with computer science and technology. Typically, teachers have great difficulty thinking of ways to incorporate these skills into their stringent curriculums. Robotics gives teachers the opportunity to introduce these topics in ways that meet their required classroom requirements, while helping students develop 21st century skills with creative liberties. Students are exposed to real-life working situations that can be challenging in many ways, yet the open-ended problems that robotics pose allow them to participate in successful teamwork. Through this process, students learn the communication skills necessary to effectively work with peers. These types of communication skills are essential for students at age six or age 16, transcend their time in school, and provide experiences that better prepare students for the 21st century workforce.

Three Ways to Introduce Robotics into Your Classroom

Many of us never had robots in the classroom and were not taught under the same guidelines of 21st century literacy, so it can be overwhelming when students look at you as the resident robotics expert. To get started, I highly recommend these three steps:

  1. Find a support system of teachers who are experienced in teaching with robotics. For example, I work with an online community, which is a great place to share robotics lesson plans, ask questions and seek advice, especially if no one in your school district is familiar with robotics. Additionally, give yourself permission to learn alongside with your students—it’s okay to not know everything. Oftentimes, as students flex their critical thinking skills and complete exercises, they’ll teach you new methods that reassure you are making a difference for them and they are getting the most out of robotics as possible.
  2. In the beginning, start with an exercise or concept you’re familiar with. For instance, an exercise in which students program a robot to measure and display distance is a great first instructional lesson—it’s something teachers instinctually understand and is relatively easy to design the curriculum for. As you progress, you’ll realize the variety of lessons you can incorporate into your robotics curriculum and your teaching plans will practically write themselves!
  3. Show (don’t tell) your administrators what you are doing. Often, one of the biggest challenges to starting a STEM-based class is convincing school administrators to get on board with robotics in the classroom, to dispel any misconceptions they may have. Teachers should show administrators how they are using robotics tools to teach concepts such as engineering design, solving mathematical problems, and technical reading/writing to actively demonstrate that curriculum skills are taught, and even enhanced. Oftentimes, principals and administrators want to see teachers doing new and innovative things. Demonstrating how you’re using robotics in the classroom can confirm to them you’re being innovative and prove these tools are more than just worthy of “play time” or afterschool programs. By inviting administrators into your classroom, they can also see and experience the student’s engagement first-hand and the shared excitement then more easily turns into support.

Hands-On Learning Is Fun Learning

The wonderful thing about robotics is students truly enjoy themselves while learning. For instance, students love working with LEGO Education bricks because they’re already familiar with the components they’ll be using, and they automatically assume they’re going to have fun. In general, students also love when you give them a hard problem to figure out because they feel accomplished when they’re able to solve it. With a robotics curriculum, students come up with their own problem-solving ideas, refine those ideas, and work together in groups or pairs to figure out a challenge posed.  I’ve seen with my own students the tougher the problem, the more fun is had and the more skills are learned along the way!

The fun and effective ways to learn with robotics is why these tools in the classroom can be so beneficial and encourages kids to want to learn important STEM and 21st century skills. Even if students are in elementary school, these experiences and lessons will allow them to be better prepared for the future, and ultimately, for the job market of tomorrow.