“Plus, Robots Are Cool” – Robotics and Computer Science in the Pre-K Classroom

A student retells a story from the PreK for ME instructional program. Sequencing and retelling the events of the story supports literacy skill development while working to program the bot, edit the code, and reprogramming the bot.

Pictured: A student retells a story from the PreK for ME instructional program.  Sequencing and retelling the events of the story supports literacy skill development while working to program the bot, edit the code, and reprogramming the bot.

April 2nd – 10th is National Robotics Week, a time to focus attention on this exciting, interdisciplinary component of computer science. In Maine public schools, robotics comes to life in a variety of ways. From our high school students participating in robotic competitions, down to the youngest elementary student programming robots to follow a sequence, robotics is a grassroots effort that can be found in many schools, some of whom will be spotlighted throughout this week. National Robotics Week, dating back to 2009, has a simple mission – “to inspire students in robotics and STEM-related fields and to share the excitement of robotics with audiences of all ages.”

If someone went to observe robots being used in a Pre-K classroom, they would likely see a pair of students working together, either in decided roles or in turns, programming the robot to complete a specific task. Students actively engage as they lean in to push buttons and watch intently as the robot moves around a mat. They are not sitting back and passively watching a screen. “Students will tell me ‘the Bee-Bot isn’t doing what I told it to.’ This is when they learn that the robots don’t have brains and will only do what you tell it to,” says Audra Leland, a Pre-K teacher at the Eddington School. “We work through frustration and learn perseverance.”

Audra was a second-grade teacher at the Enfield Station School when she began using a Bee-Bot that she acquired from the Perloff Family Foundation. She continued to use it with kindergarteners and first graders and created new mats that aligned with the different age levels and classroom content. Some examples of content she used on the mats are: the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, nursey rhymes, classmates’ names, and a Thanksgiving Day game called “Now and Then.” When she changed schools and shifted to Pre-K, Audra continued with Bee-Bots in her classroom and added Coding Critters.

Melissa Brown, a Pre-K teacher at the Line Elementary School in Newfield, received two robots, the Bee-Bot and the Sphero-mini, through he Maine Department of Education’s Pre-K for ME curriculum pilot.

“After reading The Snowy Day from the PreK for ME instructional program, children design a sequence of steps to make tracks on paper and then with the Sphero. Creating a collaborative painting with Sphero not only fosters community within the overall classroom culture but also engages the students in the process of algorithmic thinking, computational processes, and debugging to find and fix errors within the program.” – Melissa Brown
“After reading The Snowy Day from the PreK for ME instructional program, children design a sequence of steps to make tracks on paper and then with the Sphero. Creating a collaborative painting with Sphero not only fosters community within the overall classroom culture but also engages the students in the process of algorithmic thinking, computational processes, and debugging to find and fix errors within the program.” – Melissa Brown

The technology components of the Pre-K for ME curriculum were developed by Dr. Donna Karno of the University of Maine at Farmington, who has long been advocating for technology integration in early childhood education. “Less than 50 percent of early education teachers are currently using technology in their classrooms, in part because of the stigma associated with screen time and children, and in part because of their discomfort and lack of knowledge with setting programs up,” says Dr. Karno. All three educators acknowledge that incorporating these robots and computer science align with much of the skill-building that happens in the early elementary classroom.

Audra Leland’s strategy for starting is to do “unplugged activities” that do not involve any electronics at all. “We start by moving our bodies, following directions. Once they understand that every movement is told and that is what they must do, we take out the Bee-Bots.” This sort of approach to initiating students to computer science is common at the elementary and even middle level. The robots have their value as learning tools, but “the excitement and joy the children show when I take out [the robots] is one reason that I continue to integrate the tools in our learning,” according to Melissa Brown.

While both Pre-K teachers recognize their peers’ unfamiliarity with computer science concepts, they are quick to point out the overlap that exists. Melissa says, “for example, children in our Pre-K classrooms are recognizing and creating patterns with manipulatives, sequencing the events of a story in their literacy work, or sharing social problems and working together to find solutions. Robots simply add another dimension to this work.”

To learn more about opportunities for Robotics in Maine schools, check out Robotics Institute of Maine (RIM). For information about computer science in Maine schools, please check out the Maine Department of Education’s Computer Science page. If you have a robotics success story at your school, email jonathan.m.graham@maine.gov.