Cambridge Elementary Students Learn Robotics Thanks to Grant

The makerspace at the Kennedy-Longfellow Elementary School is filled with noise this December morning. There’s a whirring from the robots as they glide across the floor, beeping, and chatter, all of which indicates student engagement. It’s exciting and challenging for these 5th graders who have the opportunity to work with robotics this year thanks to a grant that funded a partnership with Lesley University.

The partnership, now in its fourth year, has helped the Cambridge public school integrate technology in all subject areas and become more technologically advanced. The school is 1:1 with ipads and laptops, two classrooms are paperless, and kids work with edtech like Bee-Bot, Scratch, and Handwriting Without Tears in the classroom.

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Students watch as their KIBO moves

Last year, the new makerspace was launched to facilitate inquiry and project-based learning, and it’s where students are now playing with KIBO, a robot designed for younger children to learn the basics of programming. Sue Cusack, assistant professor in the Educational Technology Program in the STEM Division of Lesley’s Graduate School of Education, heads the makerspace and keeps students’ hands filled with the newest edtech.

In participation with Hour of Code, Cusack arranged a week filled with activities in the makerspace. “We have Tufts [University] with us today because this is the seventh week in a pilot using KIBOs,” said Cusack. “They just got off kickstarter. They’re robots that don’t require computers and they get coded by putting building blocks together.”

Like a string of code, students put blocks together to create a program. The students then scan the blocks with the robot and then press a button to enact the program to see if they got it right.

Kate Murphy, a kindergarten teacher at Kennedy-Longfellow, said KIBO has been great practice for problem solving and directionality. “They’ve come to the challenge where they scanned the robot and they programmed the robot to move and it didn’t do what they asked it to, so they had to problem solve and think ‘how could we fix this, what could we change.’“ KIBO also helps in understanding position words like forward, left, and right, which Murphy said is part of their math curriculum.

Murphy said the reason robotics and programming can be taught to such young students is because KIBO is so developmentally appropriate.  “It’s actually using the blocks to program, so for them, blocks are something they’re so familiar with and comfortable using,” she said. “To tie that piece in with the programming worked beautifully because it’s something they’re used to.”

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A student scans the blocks using a KIBO

For the last four years, Kennedy-Longfellow teachers and faculty from Lesley and elsewhere have worked together to create a tech integrated learning environment. “The success of this project has been based on relational trust,” said Cusack. “The teachers wear their hat, and we provide them with the support that they ask for, it’s embedded support, it’s not afterschool [professional development].”

When the school received the KIBO robots, the tech team and teachers worked together to use the curriculum to introduce the technology. Murphy wanted to use KIBO to help with her literacy curriculum. The class is reading, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? and was changed to Robot, Robot, What do you see? in order to incorporate the KIBO The students created their own robots with the help of the art teacher, which was then attached to their KIBO. Pictures based off the book were taped to the ground and students had to figure out how to get their robots to move from one picture to the next.

The grant is coming to an end, but Cusack is confident the teachers will continue to bring technology into the classroom.  “We’ve created a social network for community practice around tech where one did not exist before, and the teachers have deep knowledge and they’ll just continue to keep moving forward.”

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.