Hello, I am Sam Patterson and this is Beyond The Hour of Code, a podcast dedicated to helping teachers use programming and creative self-expression in the learning experiences they design for their students. This episode is about . . . Chapter seven of my book exploring the instructional models most useful for robot-based learning in the primary grades. This is the last in a mini-series of “how to teach with robots” posts.

STEM and Robot as Constant

Robots used in a lesson should be used to their full potential. What does a robot do? Exactly what you tell it to do. Pedagogically, to capitalize on this, think about the robot serving the role of “constant” in an experiment. Ask a robot to roll forward at fifty percent power for two seconds and that is exactly what it will do. How far will it go? That depends on so many things outside of the robot and its programming. This space, just outside of the robot and its programming, is where teachers build the learning experience.

The lesson in this example is from second grade. Danielle and Diana, the second-grade team, were looking for a new way to learn about forces. They were just beginning to adjust their scope and sequence to align more closely with the Next Generation Science Standards. Robots can be a great way to create a hands-on learning experience, and working with their STEM coordinator, Megan, the second-grade team decided to introduce inclined planes using Sphero robots.

This lesson was a true introduction, with very brief direct instruction focused on the term “inclined plane” and what it means. The learning objectives for this lesson were:

  1. Discover and observe the qualities of different inclined planes
  2. Describe the qualities of an inclined plane

The lesson was a loose rotation through learning stations. Activity centers were set up in a large open room. Each center was designed to support a short task. In some cases, the task is a question they need to answer or something they need to do and observe. In the case of this lesson on inclined planes, each station was a ramp or inclined plane of a different length and pitch.

hands on STEMStudents were paired up, and each pair had an Ipad, a Sphero robot, a small white board and a block. The pairs were asked to use their robot to explore the various inclined planes. The tech specialist programmed the robots in Tickle to a set speed and time. The program constrained the robots to fifty percent speed for three seconds. This program supported the role of “Robot-as-constant.” The students were asked not to alter the program for the first half of the in-class exploration.

There were four different stations, each station was set up to accommodate three pairs of students, and students were encouraged to explore them freely. Some teachers might need to set up times for the rotations. In this lesson teacher occasionally reminded students to switch roles often and visit all of the stations. Students were also encouraged to use the whiteboard as an adjustable ramp, and they explored how adding a shallow pitched plane to a steeply pitched plane changed how far up the ramp the robot could run.

Reflection and Metacognition

After students progressed through each of the four stations, the students created a narrated photo reflection. In this case, they used the app Puppet Pals, Directors Edition, to import a photo of their robot on an inclined plane and record a description of what they learned and observed. The videos were less than a minute long and were uploaded directly to the student work blog as a summative assessment.

Sometimes it isn't about the robot, but the environment it navigates through.

In their exploration, the second-grade scientists discovered more than the teachers planned for or hoped. The teacher hoped that students would figure out that the steeper ramp required more energy to climb. What they did not anticipate was that the students would lay one ramp atop the other. The students were working on solving the problem “How to get the robot the furthest up the ramp.” As an introduction to inclined planes this lesson was very successful, most of the students had a very good practical understanding of inclined planes at the end of class.

Sometimes it isn't about the robot, but the environment it navigates through. Robot-as-constant is not the most adaptable of the strategies. It works well for young children learning about friction and observing that the robots run differently on different surfaces. If you are using a waterproof robot like Sphero, you may be able to explore properties of liquids also. The focus of these lessons is not the robot, but the world it moves through.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Beyond the Hour of Code, where teachers learn together how to use the newest programming tools to reach the highest pedagogical goals. Please review and subscribe if this podcast feeds your practice beyondthehourofcode.com/itunes and check out the book Programming in the Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code now available from Rowman and Littlefield at beyondthehourofcode.com/amazon.


  1. There is yet another reason why STEM education is so important. Every election depends on choosing leaders who know how to base decisions on sound economics

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