Animating the inanimate

Christopher Cederskog

Christopher Cederskog is managing director Europe for Wonder Workshop, creator of award-winning Dash & Dot robots. These devices teach kids six and up how to code, igniting curiosity and confidence through play while learning essential 21st century skills.

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Image credit: Flickr // Michael Li. Image credit: Flickr // Michael Li.

During the course of the last few years, STEM fields have slowly moved towards the apex of academic desirability. Even employers not working directly within these areas highly value the skills associated with STEM, with 62% prizing programming skills and 71% valuing problem solving. This means that, for both today’s students and their teachers, there is a real onus when it comes to the acquisition of STEM. But how do you make these traditionally thorny subjects accessible to all pupils? How do you entice the reluctant scholar into the educational territory that they may once have been able to avoid?

You bring it to life... with robotics.

The role of robotics within education is an easy position to argue. Not only does it openly and easily cover the requirements of one of the core STEM subjects – Technology – but it unites the others, providing a nexus of hard and soft skills that can be used across all disciplines. And it does this while making learning fun.

The thing about robotics is that it’s a subject that every child is fascinated by. From R2D2 to Metal Mickey, “Animating the inanimate is intrinsically fun.”every generation has had an iconic robot to dream of making their own. Learning the skills that could one day make this possible has immediate appeal for children. But, seeing the near-instant results of the learning process in class, when a ‘bot ‘learns’ to dance can’t help but open up a world of possibility in students’ minds. Animating the inanimate is intrinsically fun, and while fun might not be a focal goal of education, it does help cement the associated knowledge gained in the process in place.

In tech, this is important. Why? Because on the surface, a lot of early technological learning is... slightly dull. Writing code is immensely skilful and opens the way to a diverse range of activities and careers, but it takes time to be able to acquire the skills necessary to make a website that wows. When you pair coding with robotics, however, your actions can be immediately transferred into physical motion. In a classroom this sparks imagination and teamwork as peers work together to get their robots to race. Pupils can see before them a physical demonstration of cause and effect; they will develop spatial awareness; learn how to solve problems; enhance their communication skills; work on their reading and arithmetic; and discover an opening into design thinking.

While all of these aspects are fundamental to robotics, they are also transferrable to other disciplines. Problem-solving is an essential skill in all areas of life, academically and beyond, but in this context, where children are taking charge of a problem and working out how each of the variables are impacting upon the results they’re aiming for, scientific thinking is also engaged.

This leads on to design thinking, through the use of creative strategies, enhancing spatial awareness as robots are ‘taught’ to navigate the area available to them to their team’s best advantage. To get to this stage, students “A lot of early technological learning is slightly dull.”need to clearly communicate, both with each other and their robots, building on technical skills by transferring code into actions or language that others can understand. Again, this is something used consistently in all spheres, albeit in various guises. Then we move on to mathematical reasoning and computational thinking, as students learn to recognise connections and cause & effect, and develop evaluative abilities. And all of these skills, both hard and soft, are imbibed almost by osmosis, as children play as they learn and learn as they play. This takes the pain and - let’s face it - boredom away from the classroom.

In making learning fun, robotics presents both students and teachers an easy ‘in’ to STEM. Difficult subjects are made engaging by making learning almost incidental to play - but no less effective because of this. Early Years teachers and psychologists will tell you that very young children learn everything through play - watch any two-year-old imitating its parents as it makes imaginary cups of tea and sweeps up leaves in the garden, and you will see this process in action. Older children are no different. It’s just that somewhere along the way, adults decided that learning shouldn’t be fun. Robotics can help redress that balance, making those vitally-important STEM subjects accessible once again.

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