"We are living a public life on a global stage, the ones who can express themselves best, will be heard." -Laura Hill Timpanaro, Artist, Author, Educator

Monday, April 24, 2017

Building Skills By Building Robots

Last weekend my daughters participated in the First Lego League Robotic competition.

They got involved building robots several years ago, not through the schools but through a program at our local library.  At the time Ava was seven and in second grade while Kayla was 9 and in fourth grade.

Working in pairs with kids of different ages they learned how to use Lego Mindstorm to build robots they could program to complete tasks.  My daughters loved coming up with interesting and sometimes crazy engineering that enabled their robots to push levers, shoot hoops and open doors on a tabletop course.  They used programming language to tell the robots what to do, working together to refine their programs until the robots did exactly what they had intended.

I can't tell you what a rush of excitement they got from building and programming robots, or how happy it made me as a parent to know they were embracing critical skills they would need to be 21st century creators and thought leaders all while having fun, it was a triple threat!

This year they were ready to enter the First Lego League Robotics Competition.  There were also two teams forming at our Middle School, one for six graders and another for seventh.  After exploring both the library and middle school options my older daughter decided, along with two other six graders, one boy and one girl, to join the library team.  When I asked her why, she said the school team was all boys and she wouldn't get a chance to have her ideas heard.  That really resonated with me.

56% of girls who go into programming leave their jobs after 10 years.

I found her answer intriguing. Statistics have shown that it's not the capacity to do the work but the environment in which the work is being done that makes female programmers abandon their posts.  This is important because girls as well as boys need to be encouraged to take on positions that will shape the future use of technology, to create inventions we can't even imagine yet.  Think of all the ideas that would be lost, talent that would be wasted, if girls weren't given an equal opportunity and encouraged to enter and stay in these fields.

The other thing that intrigued me about the team was the mixed age group.

Unlike the school, the library team included kids ages 9-14.  This brought an interesting perspective to the group as the children were focused on different learning modules and different types of play.  It was a ten year old who came up with the world problem solution the team was judged on and showed the older kids how to use Scratch to create a learning game to make student's better programmers. He also showed them how to build a controller out of tacks, cardboard and wire.  It was pretty amazing.

So what's the point?  

The point is that as educators you can't be boxed in by age, grade or gender when exploring ways to help students acquire critical collaborative skills in key technological areas like programming and robotics.  And the younger you start children learning these skills, the better.  If instruction time is limited create a club, if resources are the problem enlist the help of your local library, boy and girl scouts or look for local donors.   Parents can form homeschooling groups to help their children gain the critical skills they need while having fun.  All you need is a few building kits, a computer, imagination and some commitment. 

My daughter's team went on to win an award for the best mechanical design of a robot by using sensors in its construction.  They placed in the upper tier over all and were judged on their design, robot's performance, world problem solution, their teamwork and attitude.  Going to the competition, seeing what other kids had made and working together made them eager for more. 

The skills they have gained will stay with them and make them more apt to lead and get their thoughts heard when they leave school. It sparked their imagination, inspired them to discover new ideas and acquire new skills by working on solving real life problems with other children.   They made friends and had fun.  Isn't that what learning is really all about anyway?

Laura Hill is an author and speaker who works with children and adults to get 21-century skills into their hands and great ideas into the world.  As president of her local library board she has been instrumental in helping libraries and school find niches that bring maker space learning environments to their communities.


Read the books I write with my children.