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Inspiring students with robots!

 

I recently spoke with Swedish ICT teacher Douglas Potter. He uses robots to help increase student interest in technology and programming. I asked him how he first got the idea…

 

Why robots?

“It started around three years ago when my eldest son was studying software engineering at university,” Douglas explains. “He was assigned the task of programming a NAO robot. He and his classmates were the first undergraduate students at the university to get this opportunity. Prior to that, only PhD students got the chance.”

 

Douglas was intrigued, so he described the project to the principal of the upper secondary school where he worked. She thought it was a great idea – programming robots would provide students with visual results, which you don’t get from abstract coding. It was just what she was looking for to spark student interest in programming, so she decided to invest in a NAO robot.

 

Aren't robots expensive?

I asked Douglas if the cost of the robot was ever an obstacle. He explained, “In the past the school had purchased laboratory equipment that was just as expensive, but was only used once a year. This robot can be used all year round, which makes it money well spent.”

 

Eureka!

The school originally purchased the robot for their programming courses, but then Douglas had an epiphany, “This is would probably work with younger kids too!” He had taught at a lower secondary school before, so he tried robot programming at that level and it worked very well.

 

As a result – over the course of the spring of 2013 – a robot which was originally being used by PhD students was being used by 5th graders! “The amazing thing is that kids got to experience a product which was intended for use at a much higher academic level,” Douglas says. “The younger kids were doing simpler things, but it was a usable product for visual programming. Students were getting direct feedback and response.”

 

From primary to upper secondary 

While Douglas was working as an ICT Teacher for the local Kungälv County School Department, they purchased a NAO robot as well. For three years, he and his colleague Lovisa André travelled around the county introducing NAO to classrooms – from primary to upper secondary level.

 

Douglas reports, “It was always a success. At the first school, I remember walking down the corridor with the robot and hearing the students shouting, ‘The robot is coming!’ Within seconds there was a horde of excited kids around me, very eager to show me to their classroom.”

 

At nursery schools, kids loved calling out directions for NAO to follow. “It was amazing to see the kids’ eyes light up when they got to voice control a robot, and when I used it as a dance leader and they all danced Macarena.”

 

At upper secondary schools, students programmed the robot to dance:

 

 

 

Douglas and Lovisa delivered 6-10 classes per semester, but from the beginning their goal was to make it possible for teachers to run the courses themselves. Now teachers are doing just that, using the Fronter learning platform.

 

Lovisa explains, “When Doug and I started courses with the NAO robot, one of our goals was to create a project room for this in Fronter. Now that we’ve done that, we can deliver a complete package to science teachers who want to carry out the course with their students”. Douglas confirms, “We couldn’t have done this without Fronter”.

 

 

Above is a screenshot of the NAO project in Fronter.


Project rooms for teachers

“We ended up with two Fronter project rooms - one for teachers and one for students,” Lovisa reports. The teachers room contains a description of the project and is packed with information including:

  • details about the NAO robot
  • programming instructions
  • pictures, links and videos
  • suggestions for lesson plans
  • excerpts from the curriculum

In addition, it has a bulletin board with a calendar for booking the robot, as well as a discussion forum where instructors can share materials and experiences.

 

Project rooms for students

Science teachers act as administrators for student project rooms. They can customize them according to their wishes and invite students to join. There is a news feed on the home page of the project room so that teachers can easily communicate with students. They can also create discussion forums in which students can ask questions and get help from classmates and teachers between lessons.

 

Student project rooms also contain:

  • a project description
  • information about NAO
  • programming instructions
  • pictures, videos and links

Students can create group folders in this room to store their files while they work. Everyone in the group has access to these files via Fronter, so if someone gets sick the rest of the group can continue to work on the project.

 

“Once when we were about to start a project with a class,” Douglas tells me, “the teacher called to ask if one of the fathers could attended the session. It turned out he worked for Volvo - programming the robots that built the cars. He was very interested in what we were doing and said, ‘This is just what we need more of in Swedish schools!’”

 

Do you have any stories about how you’ve used the Fronter platform to inspire students? Please email me or share in the comments section below.

 

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