Technology in the Classroom: Engaging Young Students

Robots make a difference for classes and help to engage young students.

by Susan Brooks-Young

After an initial boom, followed by a lull in recent years, the popularity of technological teaching tools in the classroom has begun to grow again.

Last winter, when I attended a conference for school administrators, a showcase featured teams of teachers and students demonstrating how technology is used in their classrooms. The students, who ranged in age from preschool through high school, were both patient and thorough while sharing their knowledge and expertise with adult showcase visitors.

This year’s showcase was different from previous conferences, in that at least one team from each age group was presenting information about using robotic devices for learning. I had seen this trend toward earlier introduction of robots already at an international conference—primarily with middle and high school students.

Now, this winter showcase brought home the surging popularity of programmable devices in elementary classrooms. This trend is at least partly due to the growth of interest in making and coding the devices, as well as in computer science in general. More specifically, it stems from a desire to find ways to engage youngsters in activities that use technology beyond laptops or tablets. Years ago, teachers used programmable toys to do this.

Today, classrooms for young children have welcomed a new generation of robotic devices similar to those earlier toys.

What kinds of devices are best suited for use with younger students (pre-K through fourth grades), and how are they being used instructionally? Armed with my own experiences using Logo turtles—a fun way of teaching children programming language—and other programmable devices with this age group many years ago, I decided to investigate what’s happening today.

Let’s take a quick look at robot history, and then I’ll share what I have learned about robots in the classroom.

A very brief history of robotics

For many decades now, fictional robots—like R2-D2, C-3PO, Wall-E, and Rosie the Maid—have populated tales about mechanical devices capable of mimicking human behaviors. The idea of robots fascinates people of all ages and has done so for a very long time. Interest in robot-like devices can be traced back to at least the fourth century B.C. Mechanical birds, automated mannequins, and machines designed to complete tasks like marking time by ringing bells or gongs are examples of early automatons powered by steam, water, and other mechanisms.

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, radio, movies, and TV popularized the idea of modern robots. In fact, the term “robot” was coined for use in a 1921 play called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Then in 1942, science fiction author Isaac Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics, on which he built nearly forty short stories and five novels that today are considered science fiction classics.

By the late 1940s, technicians had developed three-wheeled tortoise robots that could navigate on their own to charging stations. In the early 1950s, the first industrial robots were invented. Within a decade, these were installed in automotive factories. Today robots are used for a variety of purposes, including space exploration, health care, public safety, and even household tasks like vacuuming.

Why might elementary educators want to use programmable devices for learning activities? Research over several decades shows that students who engage in lessons that target academic skills using robotic devices are typically more engaged in their learning than are students addressing the same skills without using robotic devices. Children in preschool and primary grades increase their aptitude in problem solving, teamwork, and collaboration when working with robotic devices. Students ages 9 to 11 also increase their understanding of scientific concepts (e.g. formulating and testing hypotheses) and mathematical problem solving. So, what kinds of activities might you observe in elementary classrooms where robots are in use? What devices are teachers and students using?

Robots in elementary classrooms

Back when I taught kindergarten in the morning and supervised a computer lab for elementary grades in the afternoon, my students and I used a programmable toy called Big Trak to explore very basic programming strategies.

The commands used to program Big Trak (e.g., forward, backward, right, and left) correlated with commands in a programming language called Logo, which was packaged with every Apple computer sold at the time. Students could use Logo to write programs that would move a small triangle—the turtle—on the computer monitor. Some schools purchased turtle robots that interfaced with the computer, enabling students to write code that moved the robot on the floor. The turtle robot also had a pen holder, so students could write programs that would draw images.

Not everyone could afford a turtle robot, however, and Big Trak was an affordable alternative. Resembling a utility vehicle, Big Trak had a keypad on top that could be used to enter commands (up to 16 in a sequence). Children worked in teams to create programs for Big Trak that would cause it to meet various challenges.

Starting with very simple tasks such as moving Big Trak in a straight line between designated starting and ending points, students learned teamwork and collaboration, along with foundation skills in math and reading. They could then advance to more complex tasks, like navigating complex mazes constructed with wooden blocks or mapped out on plastic mats using electrician’s tape.

It was fascinating to see how different groups of children approached developing sequences of commands to complete various challenges. Some would write what they thought would be the entire sequence, enter it, try it out, make corrections, and then try again. Others would develop and test the sequence one command at a time. These approaches to problem solving seemed to spill over into other activities, as well. Watching students work with the robots provided teachers with additional insights into students’ thinking processes.

Over time, other programmable toys hit the market. For example, TOMY manufactured a line of toy robots. Some were programmed like Big Trak, using an onboard keypad. Others were programmed using a remote control device and onboard cassette tape recorder that saved the robot’s movements.

At some point, use of programmable toys with younger students fell out of general favor, and it was rare to hear teachers talk about using these kinds of devices. Now that has changed.

Here are a few currently available programmable robots that offer features similar to those used in the past.

  • The rechargeable Bee-Bot by Terrapin Software, meant for use with young students, can hold up to 40 commands (forward, back, right, left) in a sequence, using an onboard keypad for command entry. Learning station accessories are also available. Pricing varies, but an individual Bee-Bot runs between $78 and $96.
  • Dash by Wonder Workshop, an entry-level robot for young children, is rechargeable and programmed using five different free apps. Path, Go, and Xylo (which uses an accessory that may be purchased separately) are intended to introduce students younger than 8 years of age to the basics of programming the robot. Two other apps, Wonder and Blockly, target children ages 8 and older to learn more sophisticated programming strategies. Several accessories are available for purchase, too. Dash retails for about $149.99.
  • Learning Resources’ programmable Robot Mouse can be programmed to go forward, backward, right, and left. It comes with 30 double-sided coding cards and an activity guide. An additional activity guide is available for purchase. An individual Robot Mouse retails for $29.99 and requires 3 AAA batteries.

Any of the devices listed above can be used to engage students in simple activities designed to teach skills that include teamwork, collaboration, sequencing, making predictions, estimation, and cause and effect (e.g., what commands are required to move the robot a certain distance or to follow a path). These and other skills practiced when students program these devices are prerequisites for coding, but they also provide a foundation for every academic area.

Up to the age of 8, most students will be challenged by working with the most basic programmable devices. That said, there are some who will be ready to move on sooner, and the majority of 8-year-olds will definitely benefit from increased complexity.

If you are using Dash robots, the quick fix is to add the apps Wonder and Blockly as programming tools.

Here are some additional options for students who are ready for the next level:

  • Pro-Bot by Terrapin Software is the next level up from Bee-Bot. Pro-Bot looks like a race car, but is actually a turtle robot with Logo as its built-in programming language. Commands are entered using an onboard keypad. Pro-Bot requires 3 AAA batteries and retails for $129.95. Accessories, including pens and mats, are available.
  • Dot by Wonder Workshop, unlike the simpler Dash, is stationary. Rather than programming it to move through an obstacle course or similar activity, Dot can be programmed to function as a gadget (e.g., an alarm clock) or as a device for playing electronic games using Wonder and Blockly. Dot retails for $49.99; accessories may be purchased separately.
  • WeDo 2.0 by LEGO can be used to take a different approach to teaching very young students skills in robotics and engineering (see a sample pre-K and kindergarten curriculum). Instead of focusing just on programming an existing device, students explore ways to construct and operate robotic devices. Classroom kits come in various configurations, with prices starting at $699.95. Supplemental kits and materials are also available.

As students’ skills increase, more complex robotic devices allow them to build on previous learning to explore new capabilities and even to participate in programming competitions. Contests of this sort are commonplace for middle- and high-school students, but less widely available for elementary students.

However, there are robot challenges designed to foster teamwork and collaboration for younger children.

  • FIRST LEGO League Jr.: The LEGO League Jr. challenge is for students who are ages 6 to 10. Teams of students work together to research real-world problems and propose solutions. They also build models or robotic devices using LEGO products and engage in other related activities.
  • Worldwide Robotics Competition—Wonder Workshop: The theme of this 2016 competition for students ages 6 to 12 is Saving the Environment. It runs from October 3 through December 12. Student teams engage in activities focused on environmental issues using Dash and Dot robots.

Additional Resources

Most programmable devices come with some suggestions for use in the classroom. You may also find these resources useful when planning lessons and activities.

  • Terrapin Resources—Customer Stories: Terrapin Logo has been around for a very long time. The company offers several robotic devices suitable for use with students of all ages, including Bee-Bot and Pro-Bot. This site hosts stories from educators around the world who are using programmable devices and other Logo tools with students. Look for activities designed for elementary students.
  • Blockly for Dash & Dot: Lesson Ideas: This free e-book offers activity ideas for all ages in several content areas. You could modify basic ideas for other programmable devices.
  • Early Childhood Robotics Network—Tufts University: This website provides additional information about using WeDo LEGO kits with young children.
  • Getting Started with LEGO Robotics by Mark Gura: This book is written for educators who would like to launch a robotics program but aren’t sure how to get started. It helps you find out what materials are needed, get suggestions for ways to set up a classroom, determine scheduling (e.g., in class or after school), and develop learning activities.

Our students stand to benefit from the trend of bringing programmable robots back into elementary classrooms. These devices offer many opportunities for meaningful hands-on activities.   

Susan Brooks-Young, a career teacher and school administrator, currently works as a professional consultant and recently authored a book on mobile devices and education.