Lego's Goes Robotic

Students design and program interactive robots using Lego Mindstorms NXT kits.

by Mark Gura / January 1, 2000

Imagine your old Lego inventions: yellow, red and blue pieces stacked together to form a knight's castle, a Viking ship or a robot, but for today's Lego enthusiasts, that robot can move on its own.

Fourth-graders attending New York City Community School District #22 in Brooklyn, N.Y., design and program interactive robots using Lego Mindstorms NXT kits. These kits are usable with traditional Legos -- blocks, wheels -- and include a mini-computer, sensors that allow the robot to see and feel, and a motor that allows it to move on its own.

While these kits are being widely used in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) student robotics competitions, they are still mostly seen as something that belongs in an after-school club activity; albeit one that is rapidly gaining popularity.

"Create demand among kids and the rest will follow," says Dean Kamen, inventor and creator of the FIRST competition. At FIRST, robotics engineering is known as "a team sport of the mind" and this competitive, sports-minded theme generates an enthusiasm not usually associated with non-athletic clubs. Couple this with the very cool, very "now" technology and it's no small wonder that students rip into robotics planning and engineering activities with fervor often saved for the soccer field.

But after-school programs are just a first taste of the educational potential of robotics. At New York City Community School District #22, a group of educators decided that the proper place for robotics is at the very center of daily instruction.

The goal of the district's Lego robotics project: to infuse robotics into the core of daily instruction for the entire fourth-grade class.

New curriculum on the block

The Brooklyn-based school district tapped Vision Education, an independent New York City-based provider, to help develop a curriculum involving robotics, administer professional development for teachers and support staff, and other general program support.

Vision Education has been providing professional development and instructional guidance for student robotics to New York City schools for over a decade and has long seen robotics as much more of a mainstream, central focus than a frill or extra. It quickly set out to find an entry point, a manner of integrating robotics into the daily curricula of classes. Instead of the focus being on the robots, they wanted the robots to be a vehicle for the mandated, assessed items that must be covered by teachers and students.

The program that resulted, "Industrial Revolution: Past, Present, and Future Inventions," is multidisciplinary with one major focus on the Industrial Revolution itself -- a perennial feature of social studies classes -- and another on simple machines -- pulleys, levers, wedges -- which is an essential thread of the standard science curriculum. Researching and reading the materials involves essential learning in language arts, as do numerous dimensions of the project involving vocabulary work and student journaling. There is also vital use of language to document and report on student discoveries and finished products.

Another technique used in the robotics project is the posting and group discussions of famous quotes from noted scientists and engineers involved with robotics and related fields. Here's an example from Akhil Madhani, inventor of the surgical robot, "Invention is an activity that is full of risk, involving failure as much as success. Inventors meet obstacles or difficulties in their life or work and decide to invent their way to a solution."

Mathematics, too, is a constant that runs through the program's student activities. Robotics parts and components are counted and measured; robots are planned, designed and built; gear ratios are calculated; and robot movements and routines are outlined, programmed, tested and evaluated -- all of which incorporate math skills in very real, very accessible ways.

From potential to program

While robotics has the potential to deliver instruction in content areas that have a long history of leaving kids cold, actually plugging it into the school structure was no simple undertaking.

"When I saw the Industrial Revolution as a theme within the fourth-grade, I knew it would provide a rich platform with which to work," said Jennifer Wardell, curriculum specialist for Vision Education. "Each new creation with the Lego Mindstorms (robotics) kit is either a model of an existing invention, a modification of one, or a completely novel one, and therefore, a natural marriage to the Industrial Revolution."

Before the fourth-graders could get to work with their Lego Mindstorms kits, the teachers had to first become proficient with them. One of their first tasks was to design a Lego model of either a windshield wiper or a conveyor belt.

"What I discovered is that some of the teachers' perceptions of a model meant creating an exact replica as possible," Wardell said. "They wanted the wipers to look, act and feel as close as possible to the real thing and didn't feel successful until they accomplished this. I talked to them about the importance of different models -- and we also saw all of the variations in representations with all the other teacher groups."

Once the curriculum, approach to teaching, and a strategy to integrate related practices were designed, the Vision team and their public school partners turned their attention to school-side preparation and implementation.

All elementary schools in the urban district participated in the program, totaling approximately 50 schools. To jumpstart that many sites, most of which did not have experience with student robotics, a decision was made to provide an intense professional development experience for core staff at each school. This was composed of two fourth-grade teachers from each school, their on-site curriculum and technology support staff -- if the school had such positions -- and the principal or supervisor of the grade. This professional development was done simultaneously as the schools were being equipped with the robotics materials. Vision Education instructional specialists worked with teachers to ensure that things got rolling properly.

Rolling down the road to wonderment

"Our first step into the world of robotics instruction was met with trepidation and worry," said Maryann Bassi, principal of Public School 198, Brooklyn. "When would we have the time, how could it be incorporated, would we have time for math?"

These initial concerns did not lead the course of the project. "Once the children became part of the equation, though, the curriculum just rolls you down the road to wonderment," Bassi said. "Our fourth-graders enjoyed the idea of building, learning and experimenting. Our teachers became proud of overcoming their own worries and proudly showed off the finished robots."

Ensuring that the robotics program would turn out positively for Bassi's school was the job of Vision Education's support team.

Laura Allen, CEO of Vision Education and the guiding spirit of the group, is charged with making the project successful. She has personally been involved with student robotics for 20 years, from the field's very beginning. Mentored at the MIT Media Lab by Dr. Seymour Papert, a founder of the computer language LOGO and co-founder of the artificial intelligence lab at MIT, Allen said that she often looks to Papert as a source of ideas and inspiration.

Although this may have been the largest and most significant effort for New York City public schools, Vision Education had previously impacted hundreds of other programs that introduce robotics to youngsters in more modest ways.

"My staff is incredibly devoted to their work and knowledgeable about robotics and its classroom use. Most have graduate degrees, either in technology or education, as well extensive experience bringing this expertise to educators and kids," Allen said. "We have met with Lego Education, the designers and manufacturers of the ubiquitous robotics materials used in schools and have shared our successes and challenges with them as well as swapping suggestions."

Inspiration bot

Nancy Velez-Crespo, an in-house technology specialist at one of the program's schools, oversees general technology professional development and provides support to classroom teachers. Like the others, Velez-Crespo's school was provided with two class sets of Lego robotics materials and specialized professional development. The school provided a mobile computer lab and a printer.

The program became so popular with the students that the school has doubled the number of classes involved, explained Velez-Crespo.

Because the program incorporates a creative and innovative approach to learning physical science, Velez-Crespo said she expects the program will help her students do well on future state science test.

"It also enhances their problem-solving and scientific dialogue skills, and encourages cooperative learning," she said. "All this in an environment that is developmentally appropriate yet intellectually stimulating."

For Velez-Crespo, the most inspiring aspect of the program was how well the students adapted to the new approach. "It was second nature to them," she said, "and they took a deep pride in their robots."

Beyond math and science

Some may find it odd that the robotics program rests upon a standard social studies curriculum rather than math or science, but the broader context seems to lend itself to increased learning across all fields of study.

"We have found that robotics and programming so often gets stuck in math or science that I think instinctively we rebel from that approach," Allen said. "Contextualizing robotics projects in the broadest possible curriculum category allows kids to create projects at their own skill level. It also gives the teachers and students a lot of options and routes to success.

"The district administrators who called us in to explore the possibility of crafting a program to help it achieve its mandated goals through robotics were very much interested in the development of cross-discipline curriculum."

Supporting a very large cohort of teachers to make such drastic changes in curriculum and pedagogy, encouraging them to alter the way they manage a classroom, convincing them to redefine their role in the learning process is to truly break new ground and explore unfamiliar territory.

"I was amazed that we could provide a professional development experience for 75 teachers, all learning together successfully," Allen said. "I was impressed and pleased by the level of engagement and eagerness evidenced by many of the teachers we worked with.

"One (teacher) in particular had taught for 30 years and admitted that she was skeptical at the beginning of the workshop. We started on a Friday and suggested they take home the materials to play with over the weekend. This teacher had a 19-year-old son at home. He reviewed the materials and taught his mother how to build and program (the robots). His intense interest helped convince her of the power of robotics and this method of learning. We have found that what becomes compelling for teachers is watching the focus, eagerness and engagement of their students in this type of learning experience. The kids end up convincing the adults of the power of hands-on learning with compelling materials."

The outcome

With materials and activities in place in the schools for months, the question on many educators' minds is: What about results? What impact has robotics had in this group of schools?

"This is hands-on learning; it integrates kinetic elements with basic engineering science, which is rare on the elementary school level," Velez-Crespo said. "The success may lead to more engineering programs for children and may help foster an interest in young girls to pursue the sciences and mathematics. I think this program was particularly well developed because it covers a variety of subjects: the Internet, science, math, computers, fine motor skills and just plain fun."

Bassi found that robotics has had a positive impact on teaching, and she described a third-year teacher who went from "by-the-book" teaching to a more engaged environment.

"He was not aware of the 'fun' way to offer the class a new slant on learning," Bassi said of the teacher. "In the long run he opened himself to new learning and new teaching which will forever impact his teaching style. He now better understands how to reach the needs of his students."

Of the students, Bassi said they really feel a sense of accomplishment and a newfound view of their own ability and skill.

"It provided (students) with the entire package of not only building a robot but also being able to explain why and how it was designed to work," Bassi said. "Their pride in their work was worth a million."

*This story is from Converge magazine's Spring 2008 issue.