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6 steps to an accessible, equitable robotics club

Teacher Tiffany Benitez explains how her elementary school's online STEM/robotics club is able to accommodate more than 50 students.

5 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

Young Black boy is assembling toy robot in automated class.

(Krongkaew/Getty Images)

“With students’ growing demand and interest in robotics and STEM, we needed to rethink the structure of our robotics club to make it available to more students but keep the excitement and engagement high.”

We started our Galena Park ISD Elementary STEM/Robotics program to create opportunities for young people to be STEM leaders. Our hope was that by engaging them in programs that build STEM skills, we would not only inspire innovation but also foster well–rounded life capabilities, including higher-order thinking, self–confidence, communication and leadership.

Needless to say, we didn’t realize just how many students would be interested in being a part of this club. The group’s size quickly doubled as more students learned about the opportunity. Soon, our robotics capabilities were maxed out.

The problem was that I only had two robots, so even if kids pleaded to join the club, we just couldn’t accommodate them. I also didn’t like seeing four students standing around while the other two worked on the robots. The non-participating students basically were bystanders who weren’t involved or learning.

6 steps to robotics club success

During spring 2020, we invited 15 students to join the STEM club based on their teachers’ recommendations, grades and conduct. Within just a few weeks, the club’s size reached 50 kids. At that point, we knew we needed to find an innovative way to accommodate that thirst for STEM and robotics knowledge, and one that didn’t require the district to purchase 50-plus physical robots.

Here’s how we went about increasing our club’s capacity, creating an equitable learning experience and helping students learn valuable skills that they can transfer to other subjects — plus life, college and career.

  1. Find a platform that scales. I learned about the CoderZ K12 computer science virtual robotics platforms when my district participated in the Amazon Cyber Robotics Challenge and used the LEGO EV3 robot, for which our platform offered a virtual version. It was great because the students were able to actually see the robot they were programming on their screens. They just felt like they didn’t miss a beat and they weren’t being left out. They loved the experience.
  2. Think beyond the limitations of physical robots. Thanks to our innovative online learning environment, students are learning how to program real and virtual robots using a 3D robotics simulation. I no longer have to cap my club’s capacity, which means more kids are getting the hands-on, 21st-century skills that they’ll need for college and career.
  3. Find a platform with a native curriculum included. The first time I used the coding and computer science platform, I was impressed by how easy it was to use. It also provided lessons that I could use, plus missions and challenges for the students. Having these resources in their corner helps me create engaging lessons for our expanding robotics club. We also like the pacing that the platform provides for the students. It’s all done for us via the program’s own curriculum.
  4. Use the online approach to support more equitable education. For the 2021-22 school year we opened up the robotics club to students in grades K-5. This helped level the playing field for kids who may not otherwise be exposed to technical education in a district where the student population is 79.3% Hispanic and 15.2% Black. All of our students now have the opportunity to learn computer coding, and that positively impacts equity. There’s no more having to say, “No, our club is full” or watching students stand around while their classmates work on the physical robots. With an online solution like we now use, every student has their own virtual robot and playing field.
  5. Use computer science to reinforce soft skill development. Robotics and computer science equip students with technical skills, but the benefits of coding extend far beyond the realm of computers and algorithms. Learning to code is all about breaking down challenges into smaller, logical steps. Students encounter errors (bugs) in their code, and fixing those issues requires critical thinking, analytical skills and problem-solving. It also encourages teamwork. At our schools, students use the coding platform’s leaderboard to gauge their progress and to help their classmates out. This kind of soft skills training comes naturally with coding, and it’s invaluable in both college and the workforce. 
  6. Encourage some friendly competition among students. Several of our teachers use the coding and computer science platform in their technology enrichment classes and others have a weekly enrichment hour scheduled with campus digital learning and assessment coordinators. Some of the campus initiatives have turned into a competition among the participating campuses. The students love it, with the elementary schools (which don’t have sports teams) really enjoying the competitive nature of the platform. We have a spelling bee, a geography bee, a STEM competition and several math competitions. They all have so much school pride, so they really relish the opportunity to compete against other campuses.

Right out of the gate 

The virtual nature of our coding platform also encourages experimentation without any major negative consequences. Students have mini tutorial videos that explain step-by-step instructions for the often-complex engineering design process. 

This helps prep students for college and career success in engineering fields. There are just so many places where they’ll be able to apply this type of engineering knowledge, problem-solving and critical thinking. It’s great to be able to give them this strong foundation right out of the gate.

The coding platform has much more, but the inherent approach to using a gamified, online, virtual educational approach for STEM has enabled our district’s STEM and robotics program to thrive.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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