Using VEX IQ robots to teach robotics and English at English Coding Camp, week one
The Ministry of Education’s English Opens Doors program organizes winter and summer English Camps for high school students. The English camps are designed to get students to conversational levels of English through total immersion over the course of a week.
The Ministry recently launched English Coding Camps, a weeklong crash course where students are taught how to program robots and computers—completely in English. The very first English Coding Camps took place over summer 2016. This case study focuses on the second round of camps, which took place over Winter 2017.
Chilean high school students participated in a one week long programming camp taught completely in English. The camp began with English activities in the morning, while the afternoons were devoted to computer programming and robotics workshops.
English Coding Camp – Description of Activities and Materials
There was a VEX IQ robotic kit for every 4 students. Each student had access to their own personal computer, with the VEX IQ software.
The objective was for students to collaborate to build their own robot over the course of the week. Students worked in teams of four. Each team built the base version of the VEX IQ robot. Students then identified problems they wanted to solve using robotics, and adapted their robots accordingly.
The video below shows the final product of one student team. They created a solution for picking up trash.
Additionally, the English Coding Camp was designed to immerse students in English, while also teaching them computational basics. The inspiration was to not just teach English in general, but to show students they can apply English, concretely demonstrating how English can be an important tool in their career paths.
Summary of Activities
- Design-thinking marshmallow tower – Students were divided into teams of 4. Each team was given a bag of marshmallows and a bag of spaghetti pasta. The teams competed the build the tallest structure.
- Intro to Scratch and computer programming – Students learned Scratch, and built a simple video game, in which the user is a fish trying to escape from a shark. More on this activity here.
- Project planning – Students were introduced to the week’s project. Students would create a robot that solves a problem they’ve identified.
- Go Fish Vocabulary-Building Card Game – Students played Go Fish, using cards that had robotics vocabulary. Students had to pair the part of the robot, with its correct name.
- Intro to Robotics and VEX IQ – Students were introduced to the VEX IQ robots and their capabilities.
- Building robots – Students used the instruction manuals to assemble a VEX IQ robot.
- Programming robots – Students used computers to program the movements of the VEX IQ robot.
- Four corners – Students were asked a series of questions in English. Possible answers to each question were posted in each corner of the room. Students were asked to move based on how they would answer the question.
- Building robots – Students were given free time to adapt their robots to address their selected problem.
- Online English course – Students took an online English assessment required by the Ministry of Education.
- Scavenger hunt at La Vega – Students were broken into teams of 4. Each team was given a list of food items in English. Students had to locate teach item on their list in La Vega, a famous fruit and vegetable marketplace in Santiago.
- Robot and Powerpoint prep – Students had free time to work on their robots and their final presentations.
- Presentation prep – Students were given free time to practice their presentations. All presentations were required to be in English. Instructors gave feedback.
- Presentation prep
- Presentation prep
- Final Presentations – Students presented their robots in English.
Problem:VEX IQ robotics kits get students building robots quickly, but don’t allow for much creativity
VEX IQ kits are designed so that students can begin building without much instruction. The kits are similar to Lego kits, where students build by following a manual with visual instructions.
During the free time allotted to building, student groups were very engaged in the activity. We didn’t have to do any policing to keep the students focused on the task at hand. However, the basic VEX IQ robotics kits are very pre-processed: students only follow instructions to build something that the kit designers have already envisioned. Ideally, students would have more freedom to build robots that they themselves imagined.
Each group of students build a basic robot, using the instructions manual provided. We then asked students to adapt this robot to solve a problem they’ve faced. For example, two student teams identified ‘picking up trash’ as a problem. In order to adapt their robots, students used the instructions manual to add claws, which allowed their robot to pick up trash. Although the robots they built were impressive, students weren’t actually doing much of the designing. They were mostly following instructions.
The basic VEX IQ robots are a great way to introduce students to robotics, a fairly complex topic. However, the basic kits don’t have “high ceilings,” or the flexibility to allow students to create complex constructions on their own.
Problem: We can’t inspire these kids if our camps aren’t fun
Science can come to life in science summer camps where students conduct hand-on experiments. Students can create museum-worthy art projects after just one week in an arts summer camp with the right tools. Your traditional American summer camps will almost certainly make campers appreciate nature. If our goal is to inspire students to pursue careers in tech, we need to design a programming camp that is equally as experiment-based, creative, and transformative, as its science, arts and traditional summer camp counterparts. Since a programming camp necessitates that students sit in front of the computer, curriculum designers need to craft activities, such that they don’t feel like school or work.
Problem: We didn’t cater the content to our students’ interests
A few activities fell flat with the students, which we subsequently modified for the following week. During a game called Four Corners, students were asked to move throughout the room based on answers to different questions, with each corner representing a given response. The aim of the activity was to familiarize the students with technical terms in English. Students were asked to move to a corner based on what season they were born in, what operating system they preferred, what movies they liked, which platform they prefer to play video games. While these questions may have inspired debate if the students were mostly boys, the participants were almost all female. The existing body of research on video games as an introduction to computer science suggests that video games are more likely to engage boys, than girls, who tend to play fewer video games. Thus, the activity was not tailored well to the interests of the students.
Activities also failed to get students to speak English. This activity only required the students move based on their preferences. It did not require that the students explain their choices in English.
Problem: We didn’t establish expectations around English.
The level of English of the Chilean students enrolled in the camp was not high enough to teach exclusively in English. In response to blank faces and nervous giggling, we would have to explain things in Spanish to move the activity along. Since the students know they could wait for instructions in Spanish, we failed to create an atmosphere that was immersive.
We were also fighting the culture of regurgitation in Chile. Chilean students are often hesitant to engage with the material because they are taught with activities that only have one right answer. It’s difficult to get students to answer open-ended questions, where creativity and expression are required.
Thus, lessons were taught in 50% Spanish and 50% English. Because we were unable to teach exclusively in English, students knew they could wait for explanations in Spanish.
The curriculum used a project-based approach, and the week’s main focus was to have students collaborate in teams to develop their own robots. Each team worked with a VEX IQ robotics kit, which includes Lego-like pieces that can be used to construct various robots. Students use a manual, which walks them through the construction of the most basic robot. Our robotics instructor, walked students through the computer program, where students wrote the code that moves the motors of the robot.
The VEX IQ robotics kits were successful in engaging students, as students didn’t veer off task when left to work on their own. Each team built a robot that addressed a problem the team had identified in their personal lives. Two teams built robots that picked up trash, and the third team built a robot that can entertain cats and otherwise bored pets. Although the main project was a success, the English activities failed to build off the success of the robotics activity.
In order to ensure this camp is considered fun by our high school campers, the morning English-focused activities should focus on encouraging students to speak, rather than building vocabulary. We don’t want these activities to feel academic. They should be fun, and even silly. This will ensure that students won’t be burnt out, when they build their robots during the afternoon. Since camp aims to get students to conversational levels in English, the activities should prioritize having them speak, rather than focusing too intensely on technical English. The technical English will come naturally. This will eliminate the activities that made campers feel like they were in class.
To ensure the students learn to understand and speak English, we need to establish expectations from the first day. Our two native English speakers should speak exclusively in English from the onset. If we reveal that we can speak Spanish, students will push us to explain things in Spanish. If they know that they can’t interact with us unless they try, they are much more likely to try their hand at English. In the case that students aren’t understanding a native English volunteer, one of our Chilean instructors should provide the translation. This will establish clear guidelines, as some Spanish instruction will almost always be required with Chilean high school students.
Although students engaged with the camp’s main project, the English curriculum was too academic. The next iteration of the camp’s English curriculum should be revised to be more conversation-based.
For Week Two, we will:
- establish stronger expectations around English
- focus on conversational English, rather than vocabulary-building activities
- design a project that allows more room for creativity
At the end of the week, students did have the honor of presenting their robots to Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s current president. Each team gave a short presentation in English and demo-ed the functionality of their robots.