Robots jumpstart learning in some US districts

For National Robot Week, a look at two approaches to incorporating robotics in the classroom

In honor of National Robot Week, Education Dive took a look at two ways robots are being used in K-12 classrooms: one that helps inspire student interest in coding and another that helps children on the autism spectrum learn social-emotional skills.

'Teaching' robots tricks with code

Robots can certainly teach students, but can students teach robots?

That’s the idea behind a new competition called the Vermont Robot Rodeo, currently unfolding in the Green Mountain state.

It’s a collaborative project. For the rodeo, around fifty schools across the state “host” a variety of robots, sharing their learning strategies with each other on social media as the project progresses. Schools can borrow robots and swap them out for different models.

The main goal of the competition is to provide a fun and interactive way to get students coding so they can “train” their robots to perform a stunt, which is generated with code, for the big Robot Rodeo, slated for May.

Will Bohmann is the Educational Technology Integration Specialist at the Center for Technology, a tech high school in Essex, VT. He’s been experimenting with a Wink robot from PlumGeek Software, designed to introduce programming to newbies and to work with experienced coders alike.

Wink uses an open source platform called Arduino IDE.

“I named my robot Ferris, because I had some challenges getting him to school each day,” Bohmann blogged. “The challenge of setting up reminded me that sometimes Ferris just needed a day off.  Now that I've broken him in, he's been pretty dependable and can do some exciting things.”

Richmond Elementary School, Colchester Middle School, and St. Albans City School are participating.

Students at RES received their first robot, called a “cubelet,” in January 2016, and the experimentation began.

The elementary school’s afterschool enrichment program experimented with various “code-able” robots for six weeks, including Dash from WonderWorks, Sphero, BeeBot, Cubelets and Ozobot, all borrowed from the Vermont Robot Rodeo.“Students got to witness the direct response of their inputs and commands as the robots physically reacted to their code,” enrichment teacher Darcie Rankin, who directed the program, noted. Rankin said "students had the option to continue coding robots or to explore Hour of Code, Scratch or Minecraft” in the school's computer lab, and students were able to move between options as they explored, collaborated and learned. At RES, third-grade students in the school’s enrichment program used robots to supplement learning about electricity, then made a video featuring talking robots explaining the concepts they learned.

At Colchester Middle School, students trained a robot called Dash for a month before sending him off to St. Albans.

Matt Gile, the school’s AV assistant, created a video encapsulating Dash’s time with Colchester students.

Erica Bertucci coordinates STEAM learning at St. Albans City School, from grades pre-K-8. Although St. Albans owns six of their own robots, they received a cubelet from the Robot Rodeo, and Bertucci was able to incorporate it into exploration time even for her youngest students.

"The robot is programmed, in part, by how you put blocks together," she said.

Bertucci took out the cubes, and allowed her five-year-old students to figure out the robot themselves.

"They first said, oh look, blocks!" she recalled. "And then  magnets! They realized that they were magnetic blocks. Then, a light was blinking!"

Bertucci remained silent while the kids started experimenting and playing with the cubelet. 

"They started guessing: Is it a robot? Why is it moving? Why isn’t it moving?" she said. "That kind of problem-solving at that early level, in a hands-on tangible way, it was so exciting."


In South Burlington’s Orchard School, K-5 students spent five weeks training Dash/Dot, BB8, Spheros and Finch robots. They also entered into an interstate partnership with schools in Georgia and Connecticut, using Flipboards to challenge peers to teach their own school robots.

The challenges presented by Vermont students ranged from teaching robots the ABC’s to having them say names. They also fielded challenges from the out-of-state students, like this one, where a Finch was trained to spin in a circle.

Reaching students on the autism spectrum

In addition to promoting early engagement in STEM for students, robots can also help reach students with disabilities. Texas-based company RoboKind has developed Milo, a robot that helps special ed teachers interact with who are on the autism spectrum. 


Milo looks like a person, with a range of facial features that allow realistic expression.

He delivers pre-programmed research-based lessons that teach social behaviors, helping elementary and middle school students understand the meaning of emotions and expressions. The humanoid robot also can act as a role model of sorts, demonstrating appropriate social behavior and responses.

The concept underlying Milo’s usage is that students on the spectrum can be generally more comfortable interacting with non-humans. That means interacting with Milo facilitates a reduction in stress and anxiety.

“Recent research has shown that children working with a therapist and Milo are engaged 70-80% of the time,” the company RoboKind says, “compared to just 3-10% of the time with traditional approaches.”


Filed Under: K12 Technology
Top image credit: Wikimedia