Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robots in the Elementary Math Classroom!

As we all know, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has fast become the focus of national and local attention. Skills in these areas are going to be necessary for citizens in our technologically-advancing global society to be successful and productive. Many times however, when we include robotics in our STEM conversations, we think about the wonderful work being done in science. Robots are used to aid in surgeries, create realistic prostheses, find distant galaxies, and even mimic animal behaviors for scientists to learn more about the creatures of our planet.

Mr. Powlen, a 5th grade science and math teacher at Southern Pines Elementary, has found a different way to leverage the power of robots - in his math class! Mr. Powlen recently had his 5th graders use LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robots to master concepts related to decimal place value, while at the same time working through the Engineering and Design Process.

SPES 5th graders testing wheel rotation.
At first, students had to measure the distance of one rotation of their robot’s wheels. They then used their math skills and the engineering process to plan out how to program their robot to travel given distances. Trial, error, and redesign ensued! This led to learning about pivot turns of varying degrees, and finally the challenge of putting all of this knowledge together to conquer a large maze.

Engineering trials...
As educators we can learn so much from each other’s experiences. Mr. Powlen was kind enough to share his thoughts following his math unit integrating the EV3 robots:

Q: What curriculum standards were you hoping to cover with the robotics integration?  
A: Students were having some difficulty in concretely seeing how place value affected the worth of a number and decimals can be a tough concept to get sometimes.  My primary focus with this project was to improve adding and subtracting decimals (5.NBT.7), but we also utilized concepts from powers of ten, rounding, and number comparisons when deciding how to alter the basic program.  While I felt this went pretty well, I think I’ll start it a little later and I’ll definitely be tweaking the homework a bit.  The homework/classroom work revolved in showing the work done during the programming work.

Mr. Powlen's kids testing out their measurements.
Q: How did the project meet/exceed your expectations and in what way(s)?  
A. I was really excited to see how the students enjoyed the project, but students really seemed to process adding and subtracting decimals with greater efficiency.  Also, the level of conversation about how one tenth or one whole made a big difference on how the robot moved was great.  This real world, hands on work seemed to pull in their interest (I was asked daily if we were using robots!) and do more authentic teaching than I could in any given lesson.
Re-programming the decimal commands.
Q. What value do you feel the engineering and design process had in what your kids did during the lessons?  
A. Our lessons lead to making the robot move independently.  The engineering process was in full effect when they went to complete the simple maze I had laid out for them.  Most measured, discussed, and planned what to program.  Some programmed and tested, then discussed what to do next.  There was a lot of testing and improving that occurred!  One of the stipulations I put in was that they only could use the actually maze so much before it would start going against their score, so some went to extremes (i.e. – One group has a student walk the maze while watching their robot run off to the side to mirror its movements!) but most groups were fairly successful.  The fact that they weren’t perfect on the first try was also important.  While I had taught them exacting distances and turns, I wanted them to use this as a beginning point, not the answer, and it worked out so well!

If you need help designing ways to integrate robotics into the subject(s) you teach, don’t hesitate to contact your DIF! He or she would be glad to brainstorm, help plan, and assist you in the classroom in whatever ways will be most helpful.

Keep Calm and Engineer On! -- Kim

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