Robotics in the classroom

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has become a core component of Australia’s national curriculum, with both state and federal governments taking measures to further integrate these subjects into our schools. The Queensland government made robotics and coding classes compulsory for all students from Prep to Year 10 in 2016, while the Turnbull government introduced the ‘Coding across the curriculum’ initiative a year later to incorporate programming into existing subjects. These proposals have made robotics a popular teaching tool of important STEM skills such as coding and engineering in Australian classrooms, thanks to the unique interactivity robots can share with students.

Today’s school children are the future builders, coders and consumers of robotics. With our world becoming more automated than ever, being technologically competent may become a great advantage in future job markets. Perhaps this explains why Australia’s national curriculum has broadened its horizons in recent years to include robotics as a key component of STEM education. National syllabus now states that students must have exposure to simple, programmable devices like robots by their third year of primary school; in the early years of secondary school, students are required to show their aptitude in programming by coding robots to both recognise different objects and respond to them appropriately (for example, choosing objects based on colour or shape). The emphasis on technology in modern curriculum may sound far-fetched to those who graduated from high school five years ago, yet being tech-savvy is becoming an increasingly important skill in our digitised world.

Educators agree that robotics classes go beyond teaching students useful technical skills. Using robots as a learning tool encourages students to expand their problem solving abilities by thinking outside the square when they experience issues. Students are taught to think critically and creatively when they confront difficulties – if a robot hasn’t been assembled or programmed correctly, students have to work out where things have gone wrong and how they’re going to fix it. The interactivity of robotics can engage students who are otherwise disinterested in or intimidated by STEM subjects, helping to remove the ‘too difficult’ stigma that often attaches itself to maths and science-based learning. There’s also no doubt that robotics can improve digital literacy and enhance STEM knowledge – skills that could prove beneficial to future career prospects.

On the flip side, issues have emerged around the level of accessibility schools will be afforded to this technology. Having a quality robotics curriculum requires schools to have the resources to professionally train their teaching staff, and the ability to afford expensive parts and software. Many could find themselves being priced out of these programs, restricting disadvantaged schools and their students from accessing interactive and informative STEM learning. However, competitions that aim to include students from all schooling backgrounds have emerged as a solution to this problem. These competitions, which include FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Robotics, break down socioeconomic barriers by extending an open invitation to all students to encourage diverse involvement. University and school partnerships have also been an integral development, with opportunities being provided to schools who are otherwise unable to fund robotics programs alongside their core syllabus. University-run workshops and outreach programs give students from all areas the chance to refine their STEM skills in an interesting and engaging way.

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