“What does an engineer do?”
“What is a robot?”
“How do I make a robot do what I want it to?”
“What kind of robot would I like to be?”
When Vanita Srikanth and I set out to develop a Robotics theme for our PreK class, we needed to squeeze our feet into the shimmery light-up sneakers of our four and five year olds to figure out what they were ripe and ready to absorb.
Our PreKindergarteners are encouraged to ask questions, explore concepts with a hands-on approach, and reflect freely on what they learn and understand. As the teachers and technology “gatekeepers” for the youngest students, we wanted to create a robotics theme for PreKindergarten with the goal of keeping it age appropriate and constructivist in nature, while addressing technology’s increasing influence on 21st century skills and ways of thinking.
Enter the Bee-bot.
I was first introduced to TerrapinLogo’s child-friendly robot, the “Bee-bot,” during a robotics workshop at the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) Annual Conference last November. Intrigued, I quickly shot off an email with photos to both Vanita and our Director of Educational Technology, Steve Trust. Within two months, we had a technology grant, six Bee-Bots, and a plethora of ideas.
As Vanita, Steve and I tried to meld our ideas into a cohesive approach, we focused on staying true to our constructivist roots. Constructivism refers to the educational theory that learning is an active process of construction rather than acquisition. As learners, we bring our past experiences and knowledge to new ideas, and create a subjective understanding of the material. Plopping a Bee-bot or two down in front of a group of children, explaining to them how they worked, and letting them “have at it” would be fun for a while, but would not encourage our students to make the meaningful connections that lead to real learning. The Bee-bots had the potential to allow us to delve deeply into a physical exploration of the most basic building blocks of technology, using a pedagogical approach commonly known as constructionism.
Viewing our theme through a constructionist lens, Steve, Vanita and I were able to establish three project-based areas of robotics exposure and discovery:
1) An introduction to the fundamental steps of engineering – from initial idea to design, construction, test, and revision.
2) An invitation to explore and become familiar with the insides of electronic objects, including but not limited to wires, switches, motors, batteries, gears, and circuit boards.
3) A framework for learning simple programming (coding): the language of directions necessary to program a Bee-bot.
Using these three areas as our thematic framework, Vanita and I then created four essential questions for our students to explore (see opening paragraph). Because our classroom pedagogy is based upon a Reggio approach, we don’t rely on preconceived lesson plans, but rather design projects in response to the emerging interests and questions of our students as they explore new materials and concepts. While the Bee-bot was the initial inspiration for our robotics theme, we ultimately explored the curriculum areas of engineering, math, language arts, physics, architecture, music, drama and art. Once begun, the PreK robotic theme quickly took on a life of its own, while buzzing Bee-bots eventually threatened to take over the Early Childhood Building.
We began our robotics theme with the premise that children are natural engineers. Watch a group of young children at play one morning, and you’ll see engineers at work. From Legos to blocks to straws to ramps, children work individually and in groups to create, destroy, rebalance and rebuild every material available to them.
We encouraged our students to approach a variety of play and skill building activities by following the steps of engineers:
Our children eagerly honed their engineering skills with a variety of hands-on activities, which included building complex tunnels and towers out of different materials, drawing plans for buildings in their journals, and working with balls and ramps.
Building bridges for matchbox cars to drive through:
Drawing plans, building and recording results in our journals:
Our next step was to introduce coding, or the “directions” that make robots work. Using large flat vinyl polyspots and arrows, we mapped out a language of simple directions: forward, backward, right, left, stop and go. Arrows and circles were initially laid out on the floor to create journeys and obstacle courses. Once the children were comfortable “reading” the symbols, we placed them in lines to create sequences of code to follow. The arrows ultimately gave way to pen and paper, and pages of “secret code” soon littered the classroom. We also enjoyed playing the game Robot Turtles, in which turtles need to get to their respective jewels by planning journeys using cards of arrow-based code. The children particularly loved tapping the BUG card and shouting “BUG!” when they made mistakes in their directions.
The PreK children were so excited to finally open the Bee-bots and try them out! They soon discovered how to send Nightbot, Whitebot, Redbot, Greenbot, Lovebot and Flowerbot under tables and chairs, and around in endless circles. After some trial and error, children began to develop their own sequences of code to effect certain predictable patterns of behavior: four right arrows and “go” would make a Bee-bot turn a 360, repeated forward arrows would send the Bee-bot out into the hall, a few pushes on the backwards button and the Bee-bot would crash right into its programmer!
Planning, coding and implementing a Bee-bot “journey” take a collection of skills that are in the zone of proximal development for many PreKindergarteners. Sequencing steps, repeating patterns, visualizing more than one step in advance, building upon a series of directions, determining the shortest route; these were challenging skills that took time and support for the students to develop. As they became more adept at programming the Bee-bots, we enjoyed watching the carryover from structured activity time to free play time: our students quickly usurped our “start” and “finish” cards to create a variety of play scenarios during which Bee-bots encountered hamburgers, road blocks and furry puppets, and fell into blue paper ponds.
For our thematic finale, we turned our classroom science center into a Robot Building Workshop. With a full roster of parent volunteers, enough boxes to stock an Amazon warehouse, “grown-up” tools such as utility knives and glue guns, and a wide range of recycled materials and duct tape, each PreKindergarten “Engineer” was challenged to envision, design, build and test a robot of his or her own. When the project was completed, our entire PreK class had morphed into robots that made everything from ice cream and lemonade to tree houses and movies! During the next Sharing Assembly, the PreK robots paraded proudly in front of the school in a Robot Fashion Show.
Steve and I were recently able to share some of the highlights of the PreK Robotics Theme in a workshop entitled “Bear left, right frog! Putting pre-kindergartners in the driver’s seat with Bee-Bots: How young children can program robots and gain STEAM while they play” at the AISNE Lower School Conference. We will head to Dallas in early November, where, in a fitting nod to where it all began a year ago, we will present our robotics workshop as part of this year’s NAEYC Annual Conference.