Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD’s only middle school STEM Academy, located at Central Junior High School, offers a seventh-grade introductory robotics class. The one-semester class is available to aspiring young engineers in both the fall and spring semesters. Under normal circumstances, the compressed single-semester time frame doesn’t pose a hardship. But when our would-be spring break devolved into a rest-of-the-semester shutdown in 2020, I was faced with some interesting constraints on my ability to teach robotics.
When school shutdowns became a thing, my 75 robotics students had already spent eight weeks learning to program their LEGO EV3 robots. But without a robot in each student’s hands, there was no way to continue building on that progress. While my classroom permits a 1:1 student-to-robot ratio in the classroom, we don’t have the 75+ robots I’d have needed for my kids to continue their learning from home.
As you might guess, I started searching online for robotics education solutions. There I found a mix of overly simplistic programs (which would have represented a step backward for my students), hardware-dependent options (which won’t work in a school district where students use a mix of Windows, Mac, and Chromebook devices at home), and some that were prohibitively expensive. But when I discovered the CoderZ virtual robotics platform, I found a viable way to extend hands-on robotics and coding education to my suddenly remote students.
To schools in a similar predicament, or those looking to add coding and robotics to their curriculums in the months to come, here are seven important qualities to look for in an online coding platform:
- Technology compatibility. A common issue with computer-based robotics training is hardware compatibility. Before adopting a solution, be sure it works with all types of hardware your students use. (If you’re like us — a district in which students use lots of different platforms — your options may be limited.) A fully web-based platform is compatible with any web-connected computer, including Chromebooks.
- Relevance of content. There are lots of well-known, highly respected platforms that teach coding to kids of all ages which is terrific. But robotics is much more than coding. It involves aspects of mechanical engineering, physics, and logical problem solving in 3D space. If you’re trying to teach students to use robots, your online platform needs to teach robotics, not just coding.
- Quality visuals. There are actually quite a few providers of online robotics curricula. But in my research, many options showed extremely low-quality, low-detail images. (One popular platform shows a top-down view of a white hexagon traveling around an all-white surface. Not exactly exciting to look at.) When I came across the online platform, the first thing that caught my eye was a great-looking, accurately rendered 3D model of a LEGO EV3 on the screen. That stopped me in my tracks. The platform incorporates a full-motion 3D simulation — in real time — of the LEGO EV3 robot running each student’s code as soon as they click “Run.”
- Student engagement. Online instruction makes it all too easy for individual students to “check out” mentally. Just because I see a student looking at the screen during class, it doesn’t mean their mind isn’t a million miles away. For any online instruction, engagement is key. Our new platform has a fun, almost game-like environment. It’s visually engaging, cleverly designed, and realistic; it really grabs – and holds – my students’ attention. It’s the next-best thing to handing them an actual robot.
- Self-paced curriculum. Depending on the district, many teachers need online instruction platforms that support both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Self-paced curricula are ideal for that. What’s more, self-paced progression is extremely useful for adapting instruction to those who learn differently. Moreover, platforms that require an entire classroom to work at a single, common pace can quickly feel restrictive (read: boring) for more advanced students. The option to move quickly from one robotics mission to the next keeps even the most advanced students busy and engaged.
- Industry and educational partnerships. Developing and maintaining a solid curriculum means working with organizations and institutions to ensure a program meets educational standards and remains content-relevant as technology progresses. CoderZ has partnered with Amazon Future Engineers, a philanthropic initiative that promotes STEM, coding, and robotics in education. I find it reassuring to know that the curriculum is constantly evolving to keep pace with robotics technology in industry.
- Price breaks and free offers. Through its outreach program, our platform made its virtual robotics platform available — at no cost — to schools through the end of the ’19-’20 school year. So, while I knew I’d found the kind of platform I needed to maintain continuity of learning, cost really was the deciding factor for us. When our schools closed, so did district purchasing. Yet I was able to immediately adopt a tool that I could start using at once, at no cost, and that would work for all my students (regardless of what type of computing hardware they had at home).
Back in Session with Robotics
Our district is now back in session and offering hybrid instruction for the 2020-21 school year. This underscores the importance of easy, equitable access to a learning environment made for robotics. As one of millions of teachers looking for the best way to serve students during these challenging times, I’m working daily to maintain engagement and drive learning. Our choice of an online robotics platform means that my students and I can move forward with confidence.