The Joy of Teaching — Lego Robotics

I have the absolute pleasure of inspiring creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills in children.

Specifically, I teach kids to develop programs to control autonomous robots — it rocks.

I've been enthusiastic about technology since the fifth grade, when one day my parents brought home a Commodore 64. Like many children, I had an insatiable curiosity. Left undirected, that curiosity got me into trouble, like the time I inserted tweezers into an electrical socket just to see what would happen. This “computer” thing though, you were supposed to tinker with it. Yes!

As I recall, the instructions that came with the Commodore were sparse. Still, I was able to teach myself to write a command that allowed me to change the background color of the TV screen the C-64 was plugged into. I still remember the moment when it worked, it was like I had gained a superpower!

Now a father of two, I'm still excited by the possibilities that technology holds for promoting positive child development. Teaching for Bonanza Educational has given me a glimpse into that future — it’s awesome. Children empowered and engaged — inspired by the opportunity to do cool stuff.

Over six weeks, I teach students in grades K-6 to program Mindstorms, LEGO brand toys customizable, programmable robots. During the course, students are introduced to basic aspects of software development, and learn principles of robotics. All class materials, Macbooks, robot kits, and super cool part-time instructors, are provided by Bonanza.

Among other things, students learn about robot sensors, servos, and software. As you might expect, I thoroughly enjoy the “techie” aspects of the class. Hearing a child excitedly explain to their parent that an ultrasonic sensor is “…like a bat, ‘cept a robot can’t hang upside-down,” leaves me with a smile that lasts all day.

What you might not expect is how much I enjoy imparting the ‘soft’ skills as well as the software skills. Students work in teams throughout the course, and each team participates in a daily robotics challenge. I believe strongly in the value of teamwork, and I enjoy helping the children develop teamwork skills. When a team runs to me, jumping for joy at successfully completing the day’s challenge, I give them high-fives and cheer “Good team effort, now high-five each other!”

As the challenges get progressively harder, it can take several attempts before a team succeeds. I explain to students that, speaking from experience, I know failure can be a real downer. BUT guess what, each time we fail, we learn something new. We can use what we learned to adjust our strategy. We can do that over and over until eventually, we succeed.

After any failed attempt, I reinforce that message by convening each team and facilitating a short discussion. What happened? Why did it happen? What are your options for fixing it? I sit back in admiration as the students discuss the issues, then agree (well, mostly) on how to move forward.

“No way I could have done that at their age,” I think to myself. Of course, back in my day, there wasn't a class like this to infuse those skills either. Near the end of the program, students are fully at ease. With fewer classes left they begin arriving to class earlier and earlier. They also get demanding.

“Come on, Mr. Steve!! Let’s start already!!”

Let’s start class already? That demand was unheard of back in my day.

I recently taught a LEGO Robotics class at the local community center. This class’ skills had grown particularly strong. Their growing demand for knowledge was impressive. And intimidating, I found out as I arrived for class the final day.

Student: When are we gonna start?

Another: Yeah Mr. Steve, what are we gonna do today?

Class wasn't due to start for another fifteen minutes and the natives were already restless. It was just then that I remembered, uh-oh, I’d already taught them this week’s lesson. The students had progressed so quickly, I’d used it last week. I would need a completely new lesson for these kids today.

Me (stalling): “Something cool. We're definitely going to do something cool.”

Students (immediately): “What is it?”

Another: “Yeah, what?”

The room started to buzz as each student echoed the demand. The pressure built.

How could I keep these knowledge-thirsty wolves at bay? Come on man, think. Suddenly, my fifth grade curiosity kicked in. Let’s just see what would happen if…

Me: “What would YOU like to do kids, any thoughts?”

The classroom erupted with ideas. That day, we built a robot obstacle course out of objects we found in the room — chairs, trash cans, desks. A large rolled up rug, paper reams, storage bins.

Best. Class. Ever.

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