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When you teach a robotics lesson, you expect students to learn about math, science, and coding. There are fractions to calculate, decimals to divide, and angles to measure. This STEM skill development is often disguised by the fun factor associated with a slick, see-through, sphere-shaped robot, like the Sphero.
But STEM skills aren’t the only lessons students learn from robotics. Each time students set out on a robotics challenge, they are also building critical SEL skills like persistence, collaboration, critical thinking, creative innovation, and teamwork. The list goes on.
As teachers, we’re tasked with molding the next generation of leaders, engineers, doctors, and scientists. And yeah, that’s an important job. But you know what’s also important? Teaching kids how to be good collaborators, thinkers, problem-solvers, and citizens.
Laurie Guyon is an assistant coordinator for Model Schools in Wilton, New York. Guyon frequently uses Sphero robots in her classroom.
“Sphero offers limitless opportunities to be creative, to think critically, to collaborate, and to persevere,” said Guyon. “It’s having these ‘soft skills’ that will make our students leaders in their future industries and will help them be more successful in whatever they pursue.”
As you’re incorporating robotics into your next lesson (and wow, there are so many creative ways to incorporate bots!), pay attention to these critical SEL skills that your students are gaining on top of the obvious STEM skills.
Working Through Failure
Fail. Ooph. “Fail” is one four-letter word that makes even adults shutter. Showing students how to accept failure is a huge task. Often, teaching failure has much to do with redefining success. And sometimes success looks like rewriting a line of code 100 times before it finally works.
Robotics challenges entail an abundance of trial and error. Each attempt to get your robot to the finish is a lesson in persistence. Maybe next time, you’ll tweak this angle. And the next time, you’ll adjust the path by a small degree. It’s a constant cycle of attempt, fail, attempt, fail, until—guess what—attempt, success! Through every attempt and failure, students are strengthening their growth mindset and honing their problem-solving skills.
Guyon shared a story about a first-grade student’s first interaction with a Sphero, “She came to our Earth night and spent two hours sitting with the robot, talking to it, and testing out different lines of code. One challenge, in particular, required some advanced thinking, as the robot needed to manipulate a corner and then gain enough speed to go up a ramp. She must have failed 100 times, but every time it fell short, she picked it up and started again. Older students offered to help her, and she would listen and offer her thoughts right back. She was laughing and smiling the entire time. When she finally succeeded the whole room erupted. This girl wanted to learn, and she kept on trying even though it was super difficult for her. No other lesson could capture the same amount of communication skills, critical thinking, and perseverance that this one activity could.”
She must have failed 100 times, but every time it fell short, she picked it up and started again.
“Playing” with bots brings creative innovation to a whole new level because students are able to test ideas in a tangible way. They’re able to thoughtfully work through problems and see their choices play out right in front of their eyes.
Andy Wall is a teacher at Discovery Elementary in St. Charles, Missouri. Wall has been teaching with Sphero robots for over six years and frequently uses bots to build and navigate mazes. According to Wall, working with Sphero has been a game changer in his classroom. “The instant it came out, the kids were hooked. I could see that, even coding aside, if I could find ways for Sphero to fit into lessons, I was going to get engagement that was through the roof.”
Students are highly engaged in the lessons about engineering and building. By kinesthetically applying these STEM skills, they’re also learning about user experience and the big-picture impact of small choices.
“Students have to take their actions and reactions into consideration to be successful,” says Wall. “At the end of it, they REALLY want to complete their mazes.”
Collaborating As a Team
Being a good team player is a critical life skill, and it can be a tough one to teach. But when students connect over something that excites them, well, collaboration becomes a lesson that almost teaches itself.
Like many teachers, Wall doesn’t have a 1:1 ratio of bots and students. Because of this, students need to collaborate with one another. When students work together, their imaginations fuel one another’s.
Brandy New is a teacher at Hardin County Schools in Kentucky. She began using Sphero bots at summer camps focused on getting girls engaged in STEM, where teams of girls raced and blocked code.
“What really got me excited was seeing the math concepts the girls discovered while just ‘playing,'” said New.
She also recommended that teachers “step out of the way” when students get on a collaborating roll.
“You do not have to know it all!” said New. “It’s okay (preferred even) to let them lead and guide their learning.”
As educators, it is our goal to inspire a passion for lifelong learning. By finding new ways to foster skills like perseverance, collaboration, and creative innovation, we are doing just that.
Thanks to our friends at Sphero for sponsoring this piece. Sphero makes some of our favorite robotics tools for nurturing SEL skills and more. Check out some of our favorites for the classroom here.