University of Georgia

Teaching students coding and engineering principles using robots

Photography By Andrew Davis Tucker
University of Georgia researcher Ike Choi

Heath Laird and Hudson Reivitis are laser focused.

There are just two more days to finish programming a robot and perfecting its route before the competition on Wednesday, but the bot is taking a corner a bit too fast to stay on the right path.

They add a couple tenths of a second into the robot’s code and race off to test it again. With a couple little tweaks, their chances of winning are looking good.

And then it’s off to science class—in Bramlett Elementary.

Heath and Hudson are in Todd Smith’s robotics class, a course aimed at teaching fourth and fifth graders how to code and build a functional robot while learning about history, math and science.

The curriculum for the course was developed by a team of University of Georgia researchers, led by College of Education professor Ike Choi. Choi had purchased a robotics kit for his son, and as Daniel drove the robot into the hallway of the River’s Crossing Building on UGA’s campus, he caught the attention of College of Education associate professor John Mativo, a mechanical engineer, and professor Roger Hill, a math and science education expert. Seeing how enthralled Choi’s son was with the toy, the educators started brainstorming ways to incorporate robotics and programming lessons into the elementary school curriculum.

“The core question we had in developing the curriculum was how can we help children solve realistic problems by integrating science, math, technology and engineering?” said Choi, who also directs the Research and Innovation in Learning, or RAIL, lab.

Enter Theodore Kopcha, an associate professor in the College of Education whose research focuses on integrating technology and STEM-based projects into K-12 curricula.

They settled on a six-unit lesson plan with a student workbook. First, students would brainstorm and analyze ways for scientists to study dangerous environments. The robot they build will need to grab three samples from a volcano and then make it back to where it came from. In the second lesson, they’ll actually assemble their robots from a box of parts. The third through fifth steps focus on programming and optimizing their robots to navigate the tricky terrain. And finally, students will test their robots on a grid that represents the paths and obstacles the robot would face on its mission. Students will then reflect on and share their learning experiences.

Once the workbook was developed, the researchers invited a group of teachers to learn about and implement the curriculum in their classrooms. One of those teachers was Todd Smith. A UGA grad himself, Smith was eager to give it a go and start incorporating the program into his coursework. Although there were some kinks to work out, the curriculum was a hit.

“My first impression of the program was that it would be too complex and difficult for elementary students due to the fine motor skills needed for the building of the robot and the somewhat complex math that is needed at times,” Smith said. “As it turns out, many students like the building of the robot more than the other areas of the curriculum.

“What I really like about the curriculum is the fact that it requires students to look ahead and predict what they will need to do in order to make their programs successful. This allows students to become better problem solvers not only in academic areas, but also in everyday life.”

Students across Africa, South Korea, China and beyond are also learning how to build and program robots thanks to Choi’s curriculum and the workshops he and his colleagues have held across the globe.

Since grabbing samples for a scientific study from a volcano isn’t a universally understood concept, the researchers built the curriculum so it could be adapted to both cultural norms and a variety of learning standards.

Students in Africa needed to program the robots to deliver much-needed water to villages. Honduran students need to optimize the delivery of a sugar cane harvest.

In Smith’s class, students have conducted missions on volcanoes, through battlegrounds in the Middle East and soon will explore tectonic plates through the activity.

“The most important thing when we disseminated the curriculum was that it was designed in a way that was flexible enough to customize the content,” Choi said. “Helping blind people navigate a city, gathering soil samples for a scientific study—there are so many possibilities. Robotics is one of the most important industries for the future. Our next generation must be well-versed in the area of robotics and the possibilities it presents.”

For students like Heath and Hudson, learning to code and build something has sparked an interest in a career field they’d never really thought of before. And though their robot got off to a rocky start, the boys’ hard work and attention to detail paid off. In their class competition, Heath and Hudson tied for second place.

“The most important thing when we disseminated the curriculum was that it was designed in a way that was flexible enough to customize the content … Robotics is one of the most important industries for the future.”

– Ikseon Choi, Director RAIL

University of Georgia researcher Ikeson Choi

About the Researcher

Ikseon Choi

Director, RAIL
Professor, College of Education

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