This week I got a special early holiday present in my mailbox from my friend Mark Gura. Mark had invited me a couple years ago to be part of a book for helping teachers new to the field of LEGO robotics get started with their students. We had a great conversation one evening after school over the phone during which we discussed the educational goldmine that building with LEGO is for students.
Mark did this with a number of people with a range of LEGO robotics experiences, wrote up our conversations, and then combined them with a set of resources that could be immediately useful to novices in the book.
The book, Getting Started with LEGO Robotics, is published by the International Society for Technology Education. If you, or anyone you know, is just getting started with this exciting field, you will find some great stuff in here to help you work with students and get organized.
It was a particularly perfect time for the book to arrive because we have a new group of students at my school getting started themselves with building and programming using the NXT. My colleague Doug Brunner teaches fifth graders across the hall. He volunteered (or more realistically, his students volunteered him) to take on coaching a group of students in the FIRST LEGO League program for the first time. After building the field for this year's challenge, today the fifth graders actually got their hands on the robots and programming software. I had the robots built from the middle school exploratory class available so the students could immediately start with some programming tasks.
We started with my fall-back activity for the first time using the software - program the robot to drive across the length of the table and stop before falling over the edge. The students were into it from the start. I stepped back to take pictures and Doug took over directing the rest of the two hours. He is a natural - he came up with a number of really great challenges of increasing difficulty and wasn't afraid to sit down with students to figure out how the software worked. By the end of the session, the students were programming their robots to grab, push, and navigate around obstacles by dead reckoning. It was probably the most impressively productive single session I've ever seen.
It's always interesting to see how different people manage groups of students and LEGO. Some want to structure things within tight guidelines and teach step by step how to do everything. Others do a mini lesson on how to do one piece of the challenge, and then send the students off to figure out the rest. Some show by example that it's perfectly fine to get something wrong in the process of solving a challenge by working alongside students. It was impressive to see Doug think on his feet and create opportunities for his students to work at different paces but all feel accomplished by the end of the day. It is also really unique to have to tell a bunch of students at 5:15 PM on a Friday to go home from school, and yet this has now been the norm in the classroom for a couple straight weeks.
Having robotics in my teaching load means that I am thinking about these ideas interspersed among planning activities for my regular content classes. There's no reason why the philosophies between them can't be the same, aside from the very substantial fact that you don't have to tell students how to play with LEGO but you do often have to tell them how to play with mathematics or physics concepts. It's easy for these robotics students to fail at a challenge twenty times and keep trying because they are having fun figuring it out. The holy grail of education is how to pose other content and challenge problems in the right way so it is equally compelling and motivating.
Note that I am not saying making content relevant to the real world. One of my favorite education bloggers, Jason Buell, has already made this point about why teaching for "preparation for the real world" as a reason to learn in the classroom is a flawed concept to many students that have a better idea than we do about their reality. I never tell people asking about the benefits of robotics that students are learning to make a robot push a LEGO brick across a table now because later on they will build bigger robots that push a real brick across the floor. Instead I cite the fact that seeing how engaged students are solving these problems is the strongest level engagement I have ever seen. The skills they develop in the process are applicable to any subject. The self esteem (and humility) they develop by comparing their solutions to others is incredible.
This sort of learning needs to be going on in every classroom. I used to believe that students need to learn the simple stuff before they are even exposed to the complex. I used to think that the skills come first, then learning the applications. Then I realized how incongruous this was with my robotics experiences and with the success stories I've had working with students.
Since this realization, I've been working to figure out how to bridge the gap. I am really appreciative that in my current teaching home, I am supported in my efforts to experiment by my my administrators. My students thankfully indulge my attempts to do things differently. I appreciate that while they don't always enthusiastically endorse my methods, they are willing to try.