Robots and Game Creation as Learning Tools

How fun and games can boost math and science knowledge

Watching a child handle something as complex as a military robot is interesting. Recently, I had a chance to observe a small group of kids operate a FirstLook robot as part of an iRobot STEM outreach effort. The updated version of FirstLook, now produced by Endeavor Robotics, no longer had the simple joystick. Rather, it had been switched to a tablet. This, of course, didn’t phase the kids much. Within minutes, they had figured out how to make it move forward.

Witnessing the engagement and joy on the kids’ faces when they completed their goal, it became evident why project-based learning is becoming popular in schools and classrooms around the world.

Deploying a Robot

Project-based learning (PBL) is, at its core, learning by doing. Bernardo Feliciano, Ed.M., a technology instructor at Empow Studios in Lexington, Mass., previously used PBL methods as an elementary and middle school teacher of English, history, and science. Now he uses the approach as a coach for Empow Studios’ FIRST LEGO League teams. He finds PBL compelling and challenging for both teacher and student.

“It explicitly positions teacher and student as co-practitioners of a discipline or skill, rather than the teacher as source or knowledge and student as receiver,” says Feliciano. PBL flips the traditional idea of a student simply receiving information, instead making the student the center of a process where they are in the driver’s seat, with all the risks and rewards implied by that metaphor.

Getting Students in Gear

One of the primary components of a well-designed PBL project is that it has a real-world connection or problem to solve. PBL projects should also achieve set academic standards, require structured collaboration, have varied assessments, and be student driven.

Though FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics is not a set part of a school PBL curriculum, Feliciano says it qualifies as a type of project-based learning. Elements of the project include engineering, iterative approaches to solving a problem, research in the spirit of scientific/academic peer review, coding and robotics creation, and working within the context of a team.

In the case of FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competitions held worldwide, students join teams, which are tasked with building a LEGO MINDSTORMS® robot that runs through a course and gains points for “missions.” Students also take part in an improvisational problem-solving challenge and create a presentation about an innovative solution to a real-world problem. This year the theme was “Animal Allies” and the research projects focused on species conservation. The Empow teams chose to find ways to help bees and Siberian tigers.

“By connecting success to something other than the judgment of a teacher, FLL challenges create a partnership between coach and players, with shared incentives to learn from each other and apply knowledge.”

“Each part of the challenge has a more or less objective way of measuring success,” says Feliciano. “By connecting success to something other than the judgment of a teacher, FLL challenges create a partnership between coach and players, with shared incentives to learn from each other and apply knowledge.”

Feliciano points out that a lot of preparation and specific jobs for team members are part of the FLL competition, and that PBL methods are about attaining a real, working knowledge of a subject. “You can have a lot of fun pushing buttons and pulling levers at a good science museum and leave without understanding scientific method or why some things float and other things don’t,” adds Feliciano. “When you are teaching in the context of projects, you and the students have to deal with variables thrown at you by reality. Dealing with those variables without scripting them out requires the right combination of preparation, know-how, and mental and physical agility for teachers and students.”

Promoting “Joyful” Math

Elsewhere at Empow Studios, students are fully engaged in video game creation. Though there is not a formal project-based learning curriculum, Empow founder Leonid Tunik notes the inherent “learn as you do” nature of the projects, which fully engage kids while boosting math skills.

“My favorite example is the use of a Cartesian coordinate system in our video game design projects,” says Tunik. “When making a game, the kids have to understand what the coordinate grid is and how to use it to program their game character’s movement. They have to understand how to place objects on the coordinate system and how to calculate their absolute and relative positions.”

Tunik notes that many second graders learn math intuitively, though the concepts are typically not introduced until fifth through eighth grades. In addition to the Cartesian coordinate system, students also learn the meaning and application of Boolean logic, variables, the Pythagorean theorem, and functions. “They don’t just learn it,” adds Tunik. “These activities actually answer the age-old question from reluctant math students: ‘When are we ever going to need to know this stuff in life?’”

Matthew Beyranevand, Ed.D., K-12 Math and Science Coordinator for the Chelmsford, Mass. School District, agrees that games and projects do have a place in education. “Teachers often struggle finding ways to engage students in learning math,” says Beyranevand. “Having students create video games and programming robots is a home run approach.”

Beyranevand often speaks at conferences aimed at popularizing math, where he encourages teachers to offer students authentic experiences that go beyond the textbooks. “Look at football yardage, music, sports, movies, tech, anything that rings true to them,” he says to his audiences. To this end, Beyranevand has created a series of “Math with Matthew” music videos that are designed to boost interest in math concepts.

“The Global Math Project is interested in trying to initiate a paradigm shift in how the world perceives and enjoys mathematics.”

“We started with a Beatles’ spoof of ‘All You Need is Love’ by turning it into ‘All You Need is Math,’” he says. His website also includes articles and science videos that span Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Periscope and Instagram. Some of his online articles offer tips for teachers. He is also an ambassador for the 2017 Global Math Project, which aims to reach one million students, teachers, and adults during a week of synchronized, online, “joyful” mathematics events beginning October 10, 2017.

“In addition to this idea that we can make math joyful, the Global Math Project is interested in trying to initiate a paradigm shift in how the world perceives and enjoys mathematics,” says Beyranevand, who recently interviewed James Tanton, Ph.D, co-founder of the Global Math Project. Tanton says participants can look forward to fun math projects such as exploding dots with on-going supplemental materials.

Beyranevand says events like the Global Math Project are designed to spark an interest, but that making math fun should be a year-round endeavor. “We as math leaders, as math educators, need to increase the student interest and engagement in math; we need to find real-world applications.”

Boosting Computer Programming

Computer games and software are quickly becoming critical tools for teaching math and computer programming. To engage students early, there are entry-level programs like Scratch, which has served as a good tool for elementary students as they enter the world of coding. Scratch is a drag-and-drop program, which is akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and relies on the easy placement of pre-coded animated ‘blocks’ of instructions. In addition to Scratch, there are intermediate programs that allow for a more realistic coding experience. Empow Studios recently had a chance to take part in a demonstration of the Wolfram Programming Lab. Unlike Scratch, the Wolfram Language is a real-world programming language, which involves typing in code to create real, sophisticated programs.

“Getting a chance to use the Wolfram Programming Lab has helped students understand programming concepts.”

“The kids and I really enjoyed the Wolfram lectures,” explained Matthew Silverstein, Program Director at Empow Studios. “The software allowed them to feel like they were getting real coding experience without the steep learning curve.”

During the Wolfram demo, Empow students worked on a few different projects, including Designing a Minecraft Creeper. The Wolfram Language is a higher-level language that is a lot simpler and shorter compared to Java, C++, or Python and can be used to create websites, animations, and 2D or 3D games.

“Getting a chance to use the Wolfram Programming Lab has helped those students understand programming concepts that could be used in an array of different applications,” says Silverstein, who recommends the program, particularly for older students. “I think middle school students would benefit from it,” he says. “I know that the Wolfram software is powerful and I could see it being used effectively in the classroom.”

About the blogger:

Kristin DeJohn

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications, Kristin DeJohn spent more than a dozen years producing television news and documentaries and now writes for various Boston area publications on topics ranging from medicine and science to general news and education. She is the mother of two young girls who are extremely active in STEAM events, and she blogs about kids and STEAM activities for Empow Studios, based in Lexington, Mass.