EdTech & Design, Promising Practices

The Great STEM Race

Developing 21st century skills through a STEM inquiry-based unit of study

An interdisciplinary unit on robotics built conceptual understanding of math through authentic problem solving, introduced students to programming, and even encompassed Social Studies and Language Arts.

Adam Quirante and Daniel Walsh were participants in the University of Calgary mandatory STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education course, which focuses on building conceptual understanding of mathematics through authentic problem solving, building and programming robots, and integrating STEM approaches into classroom practice. In their first year, Adam and Daniel entered their four-week Field Experience where they were partnered with practicing teachers who were excited about exploring STEM practices and mindsets in their classrooms. Adam and Daniel took up the challenge of a STEM interdisciplinary unit of study titled “The Great Race.”

Here is their story:

Stepping into our first teaching assignment, we were both eager and motivated to teach a Grade 3 robotics unit. Similar to our expectations for the Grade 3 students, it was a chance for us to “play” with creating a STEM-based learning experience and shape STEM teacher identities.

In Week 1, we began the lesson by using the projector and the robotics software to give real-time demonstrations on identifying the programming blocks (or functions) responsible for movement, sounds, and displays. This was a guided inquiry experience where we asked students questions about how to navigate the software and adjusted certain variables pertaining to certain functions (e.g. What should we do if we want to move the robot forward, then turn? How can we adjust the speed? How would we make the robot “smile” as it turned?). These conversations were important to formatively assess where students were in their understanding of programming and robotics, while scaffolding the skills that would allow them to succeed.

As in our own learning experience with robotics, we agreed that students would benefit most by having hands-on experience, such as programming simple functions and using rulers to measure the differences in distance travelled in rotations and seconds. Once students analyzed the distance for one rotation, they discovered that they could just multiply that number by the amount of rotations to create a larger distance.

Next, students completed a checklist of functions, which required them to make turns, create sounds and displays, move in a circle, and maneuver around a group-made obstacle. The checklist was created in a way that did not dictate exactly how final programming should look. For example, students could design and define what “maneuvering” around an object looked like. Having this choice increased students’ engagement, allowed for multiple answers and encouraged them to think BIG.

With our Week 1 lesson, we were beginning to see the power that robotics has for STEM concepts such as spatial reasoning, pattern recognition and algorithm design.

In Week 2 we transitioned into learning how to program and operate sensors in conjunction with the basic operations learned in the previous week. As in Week 1, we led students through a guided inquiry about how to operate and manipulate the ultrasonic sensor and light sensor, which requires the introduction of an element of programming known as loops. Loops are sequences of programming that continuously repeat until a particular condition or criteria is met – thus stopping the loop. Therefore, a sensor can be the decisive factor that ends the programmed loop and, if programmed to do so, moves on to carry out another set of programming.

In order to ensure students truly understood the relation between loops and sensors, we provided two examples. The first was repeatedly playing a song on a personal device. When we asked students how to do this, they responded by saying “press the repeat button.” We then compared this to a loop because, just like a song on “repeat,” the chosen programming would continuously repeat itself. Secondly, we asked students “how would we stop the song, or loop, from repeating itself?” Suggestions such as pressing stop, shutting repeat off, or pressing next, were all perfect examples of conditions or criteria that ultimately ended the song or loop.

To more closely examine the role of sensors with loops, we had students volunteer to imagine themselves as robots and demonstrate a sample presented on the SmartBoard. To do this, we first explained to the students that the sensors on a robot can be compared to our human senses. In particular, the ultrasonic sensor and light sensor act similarly to our own eyes in perceiving distance and level of light, respectively. This was highly effective for students because it is a relevant, personal analogy. The success of this comparison was shown when selected students were able to effortlessly demonstrate the loop sequence projected on the software (e.g. move forward until you (or the robot) is 60 cm from the wall). Ensuring that students had various models and conceptualizations of loops and sensors was crucial to their success in the following activities.

During the first part of Week 2, students were exploring how to program the distance at which a loop would be terminated to either stop or perform any additional programming. Wanting to make the connection with programming in creating games, we had students create a game where the robot spins in a circle and all group members move together slowly towards the robot. When a group member is the first to be within a specified programmed distance, the robot would move toward them. Having students take the position of a “programmer” both motivated students and gave them an appreciation for the programming involved in the electronics they encounter in their daily lives.

In the latter half of the activity, students explored how to operate the light sensor in conjunction with programming with loops. Students were given pieces of black paper to use as the signal to stop or end a loop. Although we encouraged students to use trial and error during the activity, the light sensor activities were difficult to complete because of the nature of the sensors themselves. Light sensors operate based on a programmed sensitivity to the amount of, or lack of, light. In addition, the light sensor itself can either produce or not produce light. All these factors led to many groups’ robots not functioning properly despite having the correct programming in place. Given the discouragement that students encountered with this task, we had students come together as a class to address these factors. This discussion helped students move along because they became conscious of the factors that may affect their programming.

Exploring sensors and loops further demonstrated how integrated robotics is with mathematical concepts. Once again, there was the potential for students to learn or demonstrate measurement, estimation, and increasing and decreasing values. In addition, the group work fostered attitudes such as responsibility and willingness to work with others.

The Great Race is the hallmark of our robotics unit as it demonstrates how robotics encompasses an interdisciplinary approach. The unit included Social Studies and Language Arts. The Great Race was a challenge where students programmed their robots to “visit” Peru, Tunisia, India and Ukraine. While there, students performed a robotics obstacle/task that was associated with each given country. For example, they programmed their robot to trace the outline of the Tunisian Flag and to trace the outline of a giant psyanky egg in the Ukraine. As they completed each leg of the race, they received an “award” for completing the task: an envelope containing interesting facts about the country. Students felt accomplished and motivated to complete each activity, while learning about their world.

Following the completion of The Great Race, the students reflected on what it would be like to be a robot and the importance of robotics in our world. Students who were reluctant to engage in Social Studies and Language Arts were successful in these wrap-up activities. Most importantly, this allowed for students to reflect on their own learning, which we believe impacted their overall conceptual understanding.

To conclude the unit, we assessed students’ individual programming skills. Students had the opportunity to choose one of three assessment activities, the first of which was creating a program that included basic robotic functions that addressed the goals and objectives of the unit. Two additional options offered “intermediate” and “expert” challenges, and some students excelled at these. Every student met the expectations or went above. Having multiple entry points allowed for all students to succeed.

Our robotics unit showcased students’ innate inquisitiveness, curiosity and problem-solving ability and provided them with a rich, engaging, authentic learning experience. STEM is and will be everywhere in our world. Therefore, we strive to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach at every opportunity to prepare all students for the demands of our world.


Photo: Mary Kate MacIsaac / Werklund School of Education

First published in Education Canada, June 2019

Meet the Expert(s)

Dianne Dodsworth

Instructor /Researcher, Werklund School of Education University of Calgary

Dr. Dianne Dodsworth is a STEM instructor at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. She is very interested in how students’ understanding...

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Adam Quirante

B. Ed Student/Teacher

Adam Quirante is in his final year of the BEd After-Degree Program, specializing in elementary science at the Werklund School of Education, University of Cal...

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James Daniel Walsh

Bachelor of Education Student, University of Calgary

James Daniel Walsh is in his final year of the B.Ed After-Degree Program at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, specializing in elementa...

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