The best hands-on learning experience is building a robot

The best hands-on learning experience is building a robot

    Teaching is a difficult task. It takes patience, training, know-how, and more than a little ingenuity. That is because people learn in different ways, which means there must be something for everyone in each lesson. There different learning styles have been the subject of much research. For example, some students may be visually oriented, learning from graphs and images, while others are auditory learners that need to hear something to understand it. But almost everyone has one thing in common: we learn better when we do something. The best curriculum contains lectures and instruction, but makes sure to supplement them with labs, demonstrations, and various other activities to get the students excited and engaged. Students remember best that which they experience. One of the most gratifying, educational experiences of all is building a robot. Not only is it exciting and fun, but it also teaches skills and delves into subjects perfect for any science class.

 

     There are an exceeding number of beneficial aspects to hands-on learning, particularly in a science class. Topics in the sciences can often seem abstract and impersonal. There are many small details that must be learned through brute-force memorization and practice. But in an elementary or middle-school setting, forming a personal bond to the subject matter is crucial for maintaining interest and focus. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of toxic thinking along the lines of “this will never apply to the real world,” especially for students who can feel overwhelmed or confused. That is where fun hands-on activities come into play. The best activities engage the students on a personal level, force them to become independent thinkers and challenge their critical-thinking skills. While it is true that knowledge about rocket science may not necessarily matter to their lives in twenty years, the skills they develop in a science class will certainly be useful.

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This pair of students has their robot seemingly build, but must get their code working right, hence the laptop on the table. Building the robot is the best hands-on activity, while coding it flexes the mental muscle needed to make the robot do what it is supposed to.

This pair of students has their robot seemingly build, but must get their code working right, hence the laptop on the table. Building the robot is the best hands-on activity, while coding it flexes the mental muscle needed to make the robot do what it is supposed to.

     There are some areas where hands-on learning is truly the only way to go about it. Having students work on solving a problem is the only way to build intuition and understanding. In sciences, all the lectures, homework, and textbook illustration can only do so much. To reach a deep, comprehensive understanding of the subject, a student needs to explore it on his or her own. This can be difficult to achieve in a classroom setting depending on the topic under study. Luckily, there are many resources available to schools and individuals alike that can foster that creative atmosphere. Some well-known examples are taking a field trip or making a volcano out of baking soda and vinegar. But there are many other ways to engage students in hands-on learning.

     One of the best ways to engage students in a meaningful and educational way is to have them build a robot. This fits into any STEM program as part of the technology and engineering components. Many schools are including a robotics or computers class as part of the science curriculum on top of standards like biology, earth science, life science, and physics. Within the broad topic of robotics, there are aspects of electronics, computer science, coding, and construction. All of these require some form of hands-on practice.

Lots of work and preparation goes into building a robot, including the design and planning phase. All that effort leads up to building the device itself.

Lots of work and preparation goes into building a robot, including the design and planning phase. All that effort leads up to building the device itself.

     Robotics in the classroom begins with the most basic step: building the actual robot. What sets robotics apart as an active learning method is that it is a real, physical, tangible device that is built, not just a virtual program or abstract mathematical relationship. The kit contains all the pieces needed to build a wide array of robots. The act of creation is left to the student. To see that final product come together is an immensely gratifying experience, one that is severely lacking in a more traditional style of teaching. Even without all the moving pieces, interesting behaviors, flashing lights, and code, simply putting the robot together is a learning experience in and of itself.

     Apart from the plastic or metal hardware that forms the actual shell of the robot, there are many other components that go into a build. These include electronics, such as wires, servos, and circuit boards. Pairing a lecture about electrons, electricity, or basic circuitry would be a perfect segue into incorporating these elements into the build. And once the electronics are mastered, the robot can truly come alive. Nothing makes a student feel accomplished like wiring up the robot they built with their own hands. Practical knowledge such as how to connect wires will be used throughout the rest of the students’ lives. The finer details may be forgotten in time, but the experience will be remembered.

     Although building the robot and connecting all the electrical components is a great hands-on experience, the robot doesn’t truly come alive until it is given some type of commands from a computer. To accomplish this, the student has to be able to type some code. The best robotics kits have some way to walk the student through this process, which can be intimidating without proper instruction. An Even basic code can make a robot do some incredible things; the student doesn’t have to master the code language to be a robotics whiz. The experience of coding, even just a little, goes a long way to establishing technological literacy and a sustained interest in science.

     A dedicated robotics class or lab is a great way to get students interested in science. At an introductory level, there is little in the way of lectures or readings from a textbook. Much of the material requires a hands-on experiential approach, although there is a plethora of problem-solving and critical thinking skill development at play as well. Whether in an advanced elementary school program, a middle school class, or even a high school club, robotics can provide a scientific subject with a distinctly personal approach. The robot you build becomes more than an assignment. It isn’t just homework. It is a fun, creative way to learn. It doesn’t hurt that using your hands just so happens to be the best way to go about learning either.