Posted by: Barinas | October 20, 2012

From Tech to STEM

A good friend of mine referred me to a recent article about a nearby elementary school that is embracing the use of technology in the classroom.  Less than four miles north of our Nazareth Campus, Allendale Columbia School partnered with a local private company called Vista Teach to introduce robots that enhance the learning experience in primary school classrooms.

According to this report, children as young as six learn to program a bee-like robot and eventually begin to use more sophisticated robots that you also find in college classrooms.  I honestly did not get the impression that they were introducing technology that was beyond the abilities of these primary school children.  The robots actually look like the cute and Lego-like toys that we come to expect at a toy store.  But they come with the added advantage of exposing children to robotics along with other tools, and devices that will hopefully encourage them to become lifelong learners and explore fields within math and science.

This news report has a video of a six-year-old girl sharing how fun it is to play with the robots.  This made me think about how some older kids enjoy watching robotics competitions and design, but they are intimidated by the math and science that these entail.  But we can turn the tables by exposing kids to robotics at an early age.  That way they would not grow up to see robot operation and assembly as the exclusive realm of a select group of little Einsteins.  Instead, they will see robots as a familiar experience of everyday life, and in turn, be more open towards exploring the math and science that makes them work.  I agree with Ms. Sorrentino from Vista Teach regarding the use of technology in primary schools.  She said that “once they are hooked, they just go for it”.

Instead of unwillingly trying to stay still, I can see active boys and girls working together to assemble robots together, direct the robots to a particular location as if they were control remote cars, and do so much more, all while learning about numbers, the alphabet , and the like.   This turns kids into active participants in the learning process.  They get to move and stay active (something we all know is such a natural part of that stage in life) while “learning through their hands”.   If these robots keep them engaged and foster problem-solving thinking, then we should encourage greater collaboration between the private and public sector to spread these tech-based learning techniques.

I hope that this becomes more of a reality, as college professors and business leaders sound the alarm of students who enter college without honing the critical thinking skills that are required to succeed in higher education, and develop into highly skilled professionals.  I keep hearing about how many students are so used to memorization of terms and facts that when they are asked to share their perspectives in an essay, some find it hard to even put a coherent paragraph together.

This is why I am encouraged to read about this news article about Allendale and about all the other changes being made to equip our future generations in this highly globalized and competitive world.  We can’t pass the opportunity to empower our children, get them excited about STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education, and prepare them to solve real world problem as future professionals in this Digital Age.  Let’s hope that greater integration of technology in the classroom develops higher-order thinking skills, and that this greater emphasis on STEM-based education inspires more students towards careers in math and science.

Mr. Gee, the head of Allendale, said that he wants this type of technologically rich classrooms to “prepare children for jobs that don’t exist yet”.  That really sounds exciting!  I remember Bud Luckey — one of the lauded cartoonists behind many of our beloved Sesame Street cartoon shorts — succinctly explain the power that evolving education has to train the minds of our young ones .  As an old-guard cartoonist who joined Pixar and helped design computer-animated characters like the famous Woody in Toy Story, he provided some commentary in one of the bonus features from Pixar’s The Incredibles.  With a smile on his face, he said that in the old days of Sesame Street, he used cartoons to teach numbers, and those kids who grew up on his cartoons are now using numbers to make cartoons!

Likewise, I hold onto the hope that if we use robots to teach kids numbers and letters, the sky is the limit with regard to all the great and novel ways in which they’ll use them in the future!

Photo Credit: dcJohn via photopin cc



  1. When I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but draw connections to what I have been reading about for my research paper. I have been researching Digital PBL (Project-Based Learning), and I have come to realize that Digital PBL has been used most frequently in Math and Science classrooms because of its high potential for increased motivation in learning, as well as learning retention and understanding of difficult or complex concepts. The idea of putting a robot into the hands of a young student reminds me of some of the fundamental ideals behind Digital PBL- giving the students a lengthy project that revolves around a real-life situation. This helps students connect their learning with the real-world, and Digital PBL does exactly that. Its focus is on using technology to connect the students’ two biggest stages–the outside world and the classroom. As you said in your post, providing these students with a robot allows for a student-centered classroom, where the student is active in the learning process. It also relates to the “real-world” because, as you said, it is preparing the students for jobs that might not even exist yet. I think it is great that schools in Rochester are trying to implement PBL in their schools in some way. Even if a school doesn’t “revamp” their curriculum to be entirely PBL based, I firmly believe that every classroom can incorporate the fundamentals of Digital PBL by blending teacher-led and student-centered instruction, and using technology as a way to actively engage students in their own learning.

    • Kaitlin, thank you for input on PBL. As a biology teacher in training, I can see how PBL would serve as a great tool to teach science! You also make a great point about PBL integration. Classes do not have to be revamped from the ground up to accommodate PBL, but a blended approach can be achieved to get the most out of both PBL and conventional teaching methods.

      One point to consider is whether state and national assessments could update their test methods to encourage PBL. Backwards design — building lesson plans based on the instructional objectives of the assessment — is a lauded curriculum approach, so I think it would be a great idea to promote PBL-based assignments that student can earn as extra or supplementary credit to accompany the standards cores from standard quizzes. Colleges and employers can use this additional scores to have a better understanding of students’ skills and potential. It’s a win-win!

  2. I have a co-worker who has three sons, that are involved in their high school’s robotic team. One is in college and still comes home some weekends to help the team out. It is amazing to see high-school aged boys and a twenty-something be so enthusiastic and have such a stong passion for a subject. I think it is a good idea to start introducing students at a young age to robotics. Perhaps they won’t be so intimidated by it all if they are exposed early on. Like you said, students will not think that it is just for an exclusivie group or just a boy thing, if the whole class learns about robotics together.
    I would be overwhelmed if someone tried to teach robotics to me now, or even back in high school. I know this is a great addition to the classroom to enhance the learing experience, and to prepare students for future jobs. So, I am being open-minded about this, and will take the opportunity to incorporate robotics into my class room if it arises. But I am intimidated by the thought of it.

    • Thanks for the input Jessica! It’s nice to read an example of how fun and exciting robotics can be young students. But like you, I’m also intimidated by robotics, since math and I don’t necessarily mix like water and sugar. I wonder if there are workshops out there can introduce teachers to the application of robotics in any particular content area?

  3. The reality is that robotics is applicable at every level of education, kindergarten and up. Of course, it needs to be presented in developmentally appropriate ways with developmentally appropriate tools, but the thinking behind programming, regardless of the level of sophistication, is very powerful. The debugging process required to get something to work as desired is a really important one that helps cultivate all kinds of learning abilities and dispositions. If you every see opportunities to go to workshops about Lego Robotics/Mindstorms, Scratch, Microworlds, TurtleArt, and even MineCraft,…, seize the opportunity. For, as we all know very well, without real hands-on experience that also integrates curriculum, most of us won’t take it upon ourselves to learn such things.

    The Maker movement is also one that is breathing new life into bringing back our innate desire to play, tinker, and create.

  4. … and a link to Maker Faires springing up all over. Go to one if you ever have the chance. Revive your inner maker!!

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