Connecting STEM and ethics
Schools around the country are expanding programs with the goal of providing their students the science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics skills that will put them on the path to success in school and future careers. As educators focus on teaching technical knowledge and skills, it’s easy to lose sight of an essential part of STEAM education: helping students develop an understanding of how their high-tech work might affect themselves and their fellow human beings.
SmartBrief Education chatted about STEAM and ethics with Mitch Rosenberg, CEO of KinderLab, maker of KIBO, a screen-free STEAM robot kit. Kibo is designed by Marina Umaschi Bers and her DevTech Research Group at Tufts University. In this interview, Rosenberg talks about how, as he puts it, “Ethics is behind everything we do—from our employees, to the value of our robot and what it offers our youngest learners.”
Students can apply STEAM skills to anything from building with Legos to creating malicious computer code. How do you design activities that emphasize responsible application of these skills?
Rosenberg: Of course, any skill can be used for good or ill, including literacy, communication, and STEAM skills. The important thing to developing an ethical basis for using skills is to imagine the people who will use your creation.
Our curricula are focused not only on the question of how to build something, but also on the why question. For example, when our curriculum introduces the general process for designing things, half of the steps of that process involve talking to potential users, sharing your hypotheses with them, and imagining how they would use things. Moreover, unlike screen-based STEAM tools for students, KIBO encourages collaboration and team processes during the design, building, coding, and decorating of their STEAM creations.
While no curriculum can enforce the use of any body of knowledge exclusively for good, our observation is that when students work with each other, they are more likely to consider the impact of their creation on others, including potential users of it.
Do you think STEAM lessons can teach values and ethics?
Rosenberg: To determine if robotics can help promote not only the acquisition of technology skills but also character development and values such as creativity, curiosity, and generosity, Bers has undertaken a project called “Beyond STEM: The Development of Virtues in Early Childhood Education Through Robotics.”
Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the project is being conducted in various faith-based and secular kindergarten classrooms in Boston and Buenos Aires, Argentina, to explore religious and cultural variables and the many ways that robotics can be used. The DevTech research team developed a robotics curriculum specifically designed to help these young students practice character virtues, integrating Bers’ Positive Technological Development framework.
The team created two different versions of the curriculum. One is centered on the children’s book There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly by Simms Taback. The other focuses on the song "Hay Un Balde En El Fondo De La Mar." Both introduce computational thinking skills and coding concepts by engaging children in recreating a popular song by programming their robot.
The project began this summer with PD sessions designed to help teachers learn about robotics, coding, computational thinking, and problem-solving, while at the same time exploring how to use robotics as a vehicle to promote values such as curiosity, creativity, and generosity by using different approaches represented by the various faiths and beliefs of the participants.
This November and December, teachers implemented the curriculum in their classrooms, with the goal of presenting final projects to friends and families during an open house. For that final project, students created treasures representing different aspects of their school identity. They then programmed their robot to go on a treasure hunt to collect those treasures and showcase what is unique about their school.
Our hope is that the research will reveal a path for integrating technical lessons with moral or character education in different cultural and religious settings. Our ultimate goal in making and testing KIBO this way is to create STEM lessons that not only prepare students for a technically advancing workforce, but also help them become better citizens and human beings.
Many of today’s teachers -- and consumers in general -- are concerned about the sustainability of the products they use. How do you take that into account?
Rosenberg: Each robot is assembled and tested at our factory just outside of Boston. Our assembly process uses very little energy per kit.
We make a concerted effort to minimize waste: we reuse shipping materials and recycle most shipping and packing materials we can’t reuse. We also offer some of the materials that we can’t reuse on Freecycle to local school organizations, and makerspaces. Another interesting way to minimize waste is donating materials to art teachers who let students use them to make art.
Kanoe Namahoe is the editorial director for SmartBrief Education and Business Services.
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