Robots take learning to new level

Today’s technology provides both opportunities and challenges. Developing skill sets integral to a rapidly-changing technological environment is important at any age. Laura Beyenhof, youth program coordinator for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach of Lyon County, works to help youth develop important skills during monthly Clover Kids sessions and recently added the help of robots to her list of teaching tools.

Beyenhof received a Lyon County Riverboat Foundation competitive grant to purchase 12 coding robots called “Dash” and six smaller robots called “Dot.” The gadgets connect to a tablet, such as an iPad or a smart phone, and utilize apps to explore programming — or coding — skills. “Using the robots takes the knowledge kids already have from experiencing technology to a new level of critical thinking and problem solving,” said Beyenhof. “It’s really just tying learning into what they’re already doing with tablets, phones, apps, computers, etc. and giving them a different perspective and hands-on experience,” she added.

Dash, a larger three-pod robot that moves around and has several attachment options, responds to voice, navigating objects, dancing and singing. Apps on a tablet or smart phone connected via Bluetooth create new behaviors for Dash.

Blockly introduces concepts of coding through projects and puzzles by exploring variables, events, conditionals and more. The Path app also involves the fundamentals of robotics and coding. Users draw a route on their tablet by manipulating code. On the Xylo app, users program Dash to play their favorite song or change up familiar tunes on the xylophone attachment.

The smaller Dot, or the brains of the robot, also utilizes apps to introduce users to coding concepts. In the Blockly app, kids play with Dot’s lights, sensors, sounds and more. Dot then becomes a robot remote control when used with Dash. “Blockly is very much like traditional coding,” explained Beyenhof. While coding in the app, kids use math, science and technology skills to code Dash and Dot to do what it is they want them to do. “We tried coding Dash and Dot to play ‘Simon Says’ with one another,” said Beyenhof of one example of what a session with the robots looks like. Participants worked through scenarios of telling the robots “if this happens, then do this,” the building blocks of learning coding and programming. “They’re probably not even realizing they’re using coding,” said Beyenhof. “It’s kind of disguised in what they’re doing to make the robots do these things.”

During the Clover Kids sessions, kids use the Xylo app and xylophone attachment and incorporate coding skills to make changes to a song and program Dash to play it back on the xylophone. A launcher attachment allows kids to program Dash to move, launch a ball, turn and reload another ball. A bulldozer attachment and small pom-poms provides another interactive learning experience. “I challenged the kids to get all of them and sort them using Dash and the bulldozer,” explained Beyenhof. A floor map and another app provide yet another challenge.

While Beyenhof and the Clover Kids have enjoyed getting familiar with Dash and Dot, she realizes the robotic duo offers even more. “There are so many different projects, challenges, puzzles and things to do with them that it will allow youth to continue to enjoy Dash and Dot in new and different ways for a long time,” she said.

The interactive sessions with the robots are helping to develop more than just technology skill sets. “The kids are having to use their critical-thinking skills and are using decision-making problem-solving skills as well,” said Beyenhof, who explained several students found different apps to use and different ways to program the robots. “We’re all learning there is more than one way to do things or set things up.”

In addition to Clover Kids, Beyenhof said there are two summer camps planned that will utilize Dash and Dot. She said she is also partnering with area schools and home school parents to bring the hands-on learning to other youth, an impact she may not have been able to make without the help of the Riverboat Foundation. “We will potentially reach hundreds of kids,” she said. “The robots can be used in so many different ways.”

Ultimately, Beyenhof hopes to create lasting impressions of coding and computer science from an early age, “knowing these technology based skill sets will be an integral part of the future,” and is using Dash and Dot in a “fun, interactive way to engage younger kids.”

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