Robotics-An Authentic Approach for Teaching Math

Robotics and Math go together like bread and butter. Both are tightly and woven together that the connections seem so obvious to anyone who has ever spent some time coding a robot.

Think about it, in order to code a robot accurately, you need to be precise and accurate. You need to constantly problem-solve, use strategies, break problems apart and play with numbers.

I get frustrated when I walk into a Math classroom and I see students with worksheets and number lines solving imaginary problems, out of context from reality. I know students are not internalizing these skills or concepts as there is no reason to. Yet, we still keep plowing through the Math curriculum through the same old ways, hoping to get different results.

There is a better way. Learning…all learning needs to be embedded in an authentic task that has real meaning and consequences for the learner. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Sure, students can still learn skills and concepts but I guarantee the learning will be superficial.

I’m trying to find a better way. I have started to create a number of lessons embedded all through project-based learning using eV3 Mindstorms as the tool. It’s not perfect but at least the consequences are real. If your Math isn’t correct, your robot won’t do what you want it to do. It gives immediate real feedback to the learner to make changes. Most of the time, kids forget they are even in Math class. Math is just the means to an end.

Here’s a sample lesson plan that I have used with Gr5 students integrating robotics with place value and measurement with more details:

Getting started with First Lego League

I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about the amazing world of Lego Robotics and it has opened up an amazing new world for me and my students. It started out roughly a year ago today where a colleague and I heard about First Lego League (FLL). I glanced through the website and felt completely overwhelmed. However, I had been dabbling with Ev3 Mindstorms for a couple of years and had done some integrated projects with Grade 5 Math (measurement and geometry) and led a few after school activities with them with some minor success. So I figured, why not? Let’s try something new so we jumped in with very little experience or knowledge about how FLL works, let alone how to coach a team to a competition.

What is FLL? Watch this video for more info

I spent the next few months over the summer reading forums and watching youtube videos ready to start coaching a couple of teams in August once school resumed. In South Africa, I learned that we had very limited time until the first regional competition started in mid-October. We ordered the Lego challenge sets and built a couple of tables. My colleague and I had 11 students sign up for our club from Gr4-8 and most of them had little to no experience programming or building robots. We read through the challenge booklet with all the rules but we had no idea where to start. We divided into 2 teams and split up roles and fumbled our way through the challenges focussing most of our time on the robot game. We created very simple robots with very simple attachments inspired by the work of Mr. Hino

Here’s the video our team made about our experience.

In the end, we showed up to the regional tournament with a basic robot and a project presentation but it took a lot of work to get to that point. One of our teams got 91 points and placed 7th out of 25 teams in the robot game and our team won the best Research Presentation award and got around 55 points. We failed to qualify for the nationals as we probably didn’t spend enough time on the CORE values. Anyway, lots of learning and reflecting and here are my own takeaways:

  • Spend time each week doing team building activities related to CORE values. It is probably THE most important part of FLL and we didn’t realize it until we went through the whole process
  • Allow kids more time to design their robot base and think critically about why they want their robot to be designed that way
  • Have more robots available (tester robots) for kids to practice programming. We made the mistake of just having 1 available per team so only a couple of kids really got into the programming
  • Come up with goals for each session and assign kids those goals to keep accountability
  • Buy lots of extra parts (Brick owl), especially technic panels and other technic sets for extra parts.
  • Get lots of support videos for kids to watch. We bought several subscriptions later to FLLcasts and Robot Academy. This helped me understand the basic principles. Ev3lessons is a great resource as well
  • Allow kids to work through problems and know when to step back. If we are more heavily invested in winning than the kids, then we have overstepped the line.
  • Find opportunities for kids to share their learning during the process. We didn’t do this enough and will do a better job next season.
  • Have fun! The whole process is made to be a fun and exciting experience for all 🙂

Since then, we have started a Lego Robotics after school activity as part of WRO as an “offseason training” session. I’m also planning on hosting a FLL Jr. competition next year as well.