Innovation, Problem-Solving and Learning from Failure: Is it really in your school?

robotics

This year I had the experience of starting a robotics team for our students in grades 5-7. I have absolutely NO experience with robotics, engineering, programming or anything of the sort, but after hearing our high school robotics team present at a school board meeting, I knew I had to find a way to make this become an opportunity for our younger students.

Following the lead of our high school robotics team, I applied to FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) to start a First Lego League robotics team and was fortunate to receive a grant from John Deere to purchase the robot and supplies. I started a journey of incredible learning for myself and our team that included 18 students and 4 other adults to serve as mentors; including an engineer from John Deere and my husband who is a computer programmer.
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If you are like me and have no idea what on earth a robotics team would do, here’s a quick synopsis: Given a robot and lego kit, students have to build a robot and can decide on different components to add to it. Students have to learn how to use the programming software to create the programming commands that get loaded into the robot for each mission it will run, so the robot runs autonomously. (Stuck on that word? Me too, I had to research that one…it means that once you load the robot with the program, it runs on it’s own, not with a controller like a remote control car.) Then for this season’s challenge the students had to put together each of the 15 different missions that would be on the play field, that were all made of legos. It may look like just fun and games for 5-7th graders to build with legos, but it was still amazing to see problem solving have to come into play in terms of following directions correctly or where to backtrack to when they made a mistake. Then students have to become experts at what each mission’s task is, how many points each are worth and decide what they were going to attempt with the robot. If you’re curious what the missions are, you can see a video HERE.  Being a new team, I followed another coach’s advice to just attempt 2 missions, because our students started out knowing nothing about programming. My secret goal for our competition was to not get last place (I say secret, because I did not want to tell the kids).

Throughout our season, the team members that were programming the robot learned so much in their work, because they were never given any manual or class on how to program. On their own, they had to research, innovate, problem-solve and were in a continuous cycle of learning from failure. I had students begging to stay late on Friday nights and on the weekends to keep plugging away at their programming. I can tell you firsthand (as mom of one of them) that these were average kids that love sports and recess more than classwork and are more than likely to put off doing any sort of homework or reading until their parents nag them.

What was most eye opening to me was seeing some students, those that have always excelled academically, struggle with this experience, because they are used to things coming easily to them. They were used to there always being a right answer and knowing the answer. In robotics, there is NO right answer.

This had me reflecting on school.  Are we really challenging our top students? We have been embedding Growth Mindset in all of our classrooms so why did I have students just giving up when it got difficult? Are we really teaching what it means to have a growth mindset?

Remember my secret goal about not getting last place at the tournament? Our team took 17th place out of 28 teams and were nominated for the Programming Design Award. They more than exceeded my goal! If you’d like to see them at the competition, just fast forward to about 2 minutes in this video:

I made so many connections to our robotics team experience as I read George Couros‘s book Innovator’s Mindset. How can school be more like this? How can we provide all students with experiences like this to engage them in learning on their own? To innovate? To enjoy the challenge of problem-solving and learning from failures? I love Couros’s comparison of school vs learning, providing so much for us to reflect on as educators:

school vs learning

I am proud to say that these opportunities are happening in many of the classrooms in our school as teachers are exploring STEM based projects and being innovative in their classrooms. Once teachers experience what I shared…seeing true problem-solving and learning from failure, they want to do more of it in the classroom!  All of our students have also had their first experience with coding thanks to our amazing Tech Integrationist and her Tech Ninjas (yes…students taught all of our classes about coding…isn’t that awesome?!) Next year ALL students will have this experience as we implement the engineering and computer science strands of Project Lead the Way (thanks to another grant from John Deere!) I am excited to see the amazing opportunities our students will have in the future, because I know we are creating future engineers!

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