Robots Go To School

Fun and learning with NAO robots at Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Sills

CREDIT Southern Connecticut Hebrew AcademySouthern Connecticut Hebrew Academy, located in Orange, Conn., is integrating NAO robots into its technology program, designed to promote the use of technology as a learning tool and facilitate the development of academic and thinking skills. How this came about was by a not too obvious nor planned route. It began, as so often is the case, by self-reflection. We are a dual curriculum school, teaching both general and Judaic studies. Therefore, given the limited amount of time that we have with students, typically no more than 40 minutes a week, teaching them keyboarding and the finer points of MS Office is out of contact with reality. We also come to accept the fact that children come in here with a preconceived notion of what computers are and how to use them. We may not like that perception, but it is reality, they see these devices not as computers, but simply as another appliance and they relate to them as such.

Within minutes, the students were coding the robot to stand up, wave hello, say something, walk and sit down.

It became obvious that what was needed was a role change, from that of the instructor to facilitator, adjusting to providing mini lessons to meet the needs of the students. Teachers were pushed towards using the technology lab as an extension of the classroom, using it as a place for students to work on class assignments and projects. Now, the students come to the lab with an assignment and by my having previously reviewed that assignment with the teacher the students can be provided with the instructions of the skills needed and then set them to work.

However, we observed that our students were missing the critical thinking, planning and assessment skills that we felt were necessary for life-long success. There was altogether too much emphasis on rote learning and as a result, real thinking is lost. Teaching our students to become critical thinkers is of significant importance, particularly in this age of potential information overload.

Some research and participating in the “One Hour of Code” project convinced us that coding would be a tool to introduce and then develop that skill set. We had experimented with Lego Mindstorms as a tool for learning coding and found that to be unsuccessful. First, they were Legos and our girls would not go near them. Second, despite our best efforts, boys saw them as toys and lost interest once they had built the robot. Since you have to build the robot before you can program it, Lego Mindstorms really did not appear to lend themselves to parallel learning.

Then came a “aha” moment, while looking at something else the answer came. We were looking for a means of providing teachers with a tool to search for and then integrate media of multiple types into lessons and enhance engagement of students. During a meeting with the representative from Teq, an educational technology and professional development company,  she asked if we were interested in robotics as an instructional tool. She then introduced us to NAO, a humanoid robot manufactured by Aldebaran. The NAO robot’s sensor network includes cameras for facial and object recognition, microphones for voice commands and sound localization, pressure sensors, as well as a voice synthesizer and two high fidelity speakers.

A few weeks later, the Teq representative (a one-time English teacher) presented a lesson to a fourth grade class. Within minutes, the students were coding the robot to stand up, wave hello, say something, walk and sit down. Yes, the Chorégraphe software is “drag and drop” but they did have to think about what they wanted the robot to do, plan it out and then execute the thought process. The best part was that they received the instant feedback and gratification of seeing the results of their work.

So “Harry” is now a part of our school. Preschool and Pre-K students talk to him and drag their parents to see him. The “Wow” factor is great. More important has been student involvement. Having no real curriculum, it was decided that we would start a robotics club and see how to best teach using this. The initial thought was to use a small group of 5 students after school. In order to insure that the students really were committed to this after school activity, they had to apply to join. A very simple one page application was developed which included their having to write a paragraph giving their reasons why they wanted to join. That application had to be reviewed by their classroom teacher and then approved by the principal. We received over 25 applications and it quickly became apparent that the available number of slots would have to be increased, together with the number of afternoons planned for. We now have two afternoons set for the robotic clubs, 8 boys and 7 girls. I am very pleased by the number of girls who have joined after the disastrous experience attracting girls with Lego Mindstorms.

Each member of the club had been given the 200 plus page book Aldebaran provides with the robot. The initial plan was to have them read a chapter before coming to a meeting, review it at the meeting and then proceed with integrating that code into previous coding projects. What we found was that they were actually reading multiple chapters, some even completing the entire book well before the second club meeting. They were thinking ahead, planning what they wanted the robot to do, questioning how to make him do things and not considering anything other than its physical or mechanical limitations.

A quick change of plan was called for so we asked if they would like to prepare a presentation to the entire school and parents at the end of year closing assembly. They jumped on the thought, obviously wanted to show off to a large audience. Working in teams of two they are storyboarding their presentations. Some choosing to show off features of the robot, facial and speech recognition. Other have chosen to show off the robot’s movement ability by having him perform a dance. Others, in keeping with our Judaic teaching are going to have him deliver a presentation explaining the week’s Torah section. All are far more ambitious than we would have anticipated but so far they are demonstrating an ability to solve some complex coding problems. More importantly, they are learning to think things through, understand the cause and effect of minute changes in code and having a lot of fun while doing it.

It has also been interesting to watch the interaction of the students who have been selected. They cross the spectrum of academic capability and accomplishment. From students who have shown very little interest in academics to high-achievers. The robot has been a great equalizer as well, causing students who previously would not associate together to become equals. That this has translated from the club to regular school hours has proven to be a hidden benefit of the program.

Our robotics/coding program will be expanded next year and made a part of our regular in-class and technology curriculum beginning in the fourth grade. We will also be introducing coding to kindergarten through third grade by the use of Bee Bots. The robots, we will be getting a second, will also be used as an enabling device for “students teaching students.” Upper grade students will be encouraged to develop coding projects which present a lesson to lower grade classes.

The NAO robot enables our students to fuse the highest level of technology with our core curriculum of Judaic and General Studies. The success of our technology program is thanks to the generosity and vision of Morris (OBM) and Shirley Trachten.

Mark Sills is the Technology Coordinator at Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy in Orange, Connecticut. Write to: mlsills@schacademy.org or visit: http://www.schacademy.org

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