Building a bridge between schools and robotics

Edward Teng from DFRobot spoke to QA Education editor Victoria Galligan about how the Chinese company is plugging the gap between high-end technology and children who are eager to learn more about robotics...

If you haven’t heard of DFRobot, it’s a Chinese company which creates affordable, easy-to-use hardware which can be used alongside micro:bit to create robotics projects in school. Starting out in 2008 as a robotic hardware manufacturer, the company has grown – it’s now a world-leader in robotics and open-source hardware. DFRobot created a real community for learners and educators following its launch of education resources in 2013.

Back then, the words “coding” and “robotics” were enough to put most teachers into a spin, with the exception of the most tech-savvy educators – but Edward is keen to note that this is no longer the case. DFRobot's Edward Teng swho spoke to our editor about robotics teaching

“Teachers have grown their awareness of AI,” he tells me from the Bett edtech show in London. “Even from last year we’ve noticed a difference. Many teachers were not aware of our kind of technology at the 2019 show. This year, it’s been quite different – it’s amazing the difference a single year has made.”

The increased awareness is down, no doubt, to a change in the 2014 computing curriculum where from KS2, children are expected to be taught the skill of “controlling or simulating physical systems”. After several years of upskilling ICT coordinators and investing in a variety of technology, it seems the dust has settled and more and more teachers – especially those in primary and across DT in secondary – have truly taken on board the language of coding and many have become proficient in the skills of teaching not just computing, but robotics.

“How schools apply the curriculum is different,” says Edward. “For example, in China our Boson kit is being used by pupils of Y6 age. In the Asian market in general, children are using robotics earlier and both teachers and pupils are more familiar with AI and the Internet of Things from a younger age. It makes a big difference.”

The Boson starter kit that Edward refers to consists of micro:bit equipment, which is described on the DFRobot website as a “pocket-sized microcontroller designed for kids and beginners to learn coding and electronics, letting them easily bring ideas into DIY digital games, interactive projects and robotics”. The kit has been awarded Five Stars in the 2018 Teach Primary Resource Awards. At £53 it’s an affordable option for schools looking to build up their stock of robotics equipment and the add-ons range from flashing heart-shapes pulse monitors to pH sensors and air quality monitors.

Which is what let to the DFRobot “smart garden” at the 2020 Bett show. Edward says the high-tech garden measures everything you need to keep a plant healthy, such as light, temperature and humidity. Users can interact with the platform and, for example, click to engage the watering system. He adds: “The smart garden is a demonstration product designed for Bett. We wanted to show how critical thinking develops from AI and get children considering the opportunities the technology can bring – now you can measure the health of your plants in the backyard by sitting in your living room.”

It’s this kind of thought-provoking work which Edward says is the key to improving technology skills in the UK. He adds: “Children have a big imagination and they love showing other people their creativity. We build a bridge between schools and robotics. DFRobot supplies to 8,000 schools around the world, including 2,000 across China.”

To some extent, teachers need to teach technology to themselves and the Boson kits make this easier. They attach to Lego, cardboard, wood – whatever children need to be creative and achieve their robotic goals. 

Edward added: “With micro:bit, children learn to work in algorithms and work with logic, They gradually learn coding languages, such as Python, as they create their robotic inventions. They can experience how technology is evolving to become more intelligent. With smart technology in the home they are already experiencing the Internet of Things.”

As technology evolves at such a rapid pace, so too does the skills set of our pupils. The future is exciting – the future is robotic! 

 

DFROBOT CASE STUDY DFRobot - robotics teaching in action in a classroom

 

We need a new approach to STEM if we want to address the skills deficit 

 

By Jennifer Morgan

I am a teacher, a feminist, and a STEM coordinator – and if I may be a little bold, together, these qualities form a potent mix.

I am an educator who is not only passionate about how STEM is integrated into our schools, but who is also driven to instil in young girls that they possess the agency to determine their own career, particularly through the discovery of male-dominated subjects.

That said, while I would certainly like to see more young women participating in these subjects, the importance of effectively teaching STEM goes beyond the gender imbalance.

During my schooling, I had to take home economics and woodwork. Imbued with gender, absolutely; however, the justification was clear: school was building the necessary skills to support us in the future.

Today, though, the skills of the future emerge from studying science, technology, engineering, and maths – STEM is the new home-ec and woodwork.

Despite my crusade to improve STEM learning, I, like many of my colleagues, am faced with routine challenges. How do we encourage greater enthusiasm for these subjects? How do we bridge the gap between theory and practical skills? How do I turn ideas into action?

Whipping up enthusiasm in the classroom isn’t a foreign concept, but my experience has taught me that this can be more challenging in subjects like computer science and coding.

This generation of students has grown up in the tech age, yet there is little understanding of how A leads to B – they are only familiar with the final output of products.

Faced with blank stares when I embark on the curriculum with new students, I’m always searching for ways to make them hungry to learn and to understand the importance of STEM. And as it happens, one of the most effective solutions is to be found beyond the classroom walls. 

Whenever possible, I like to bring tech entrepreneurs into the classroom. Talking about their daily experience and the opportunities that are born from these skills has inspired my students to push their boundaries.

I’ve also found that contextualising this knowledge has increased their eagerness to understand the underlying concepts of the tech products they interact with on a daily basis.

As things currently stand, computing is assessed in two ways. The first, a practical exercise demonstrating students’ understanding of coding through real-world applications.

This task is great! The relevance is clear and young people are often excited about the project – however, this grade doesn’t count towards their exam. The second assessment usually takes the form of a theoretical paper that is included in their final results.

Written exams have their place – however, in the context of computing, the emphasis should be on practical skills that reflect the real world: open-source code, collaboration, trial and error.

The challenge here is that when push comes to shove, in terms of time and resources, formal assessment takes precedence over the more valuable practical test. This needs to change.

The obvious statement then follows – if the form of assessment changes, the pedagogy also needs to evolve to support this hands-on approach. This is where the true power of STEM learning lies.

I have worked with many after-school computing clubs and the enthusiasm from students is undeniable.

At its core, it’s learning through play and gamification, and has been the most effective way of linking programming to output.

I know this to be true because, time and again, when I walk into the room with learning resources like micro:bit accessories or a DFRobot Boson science kit, the students transform.

Their eyes are ignited with a desire to learn, and supporting this curiosity and collaboration creates room for them to excel.

I know our students are in safe hands; my STEM-teaching peers share my passion, and it’s my hope that taking these steps together will see a positive transformation in how STEM is taught in schools.

Jennifer Morgan is the STEM Coordinator and teacher of computing, IT, and business studies at Brentwood County High School.

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