How to Make Your Robot_ Maker Movement Makes It into Language Teaching Classrooms

By 7 de novembro de 2014English, Sala de Aula

It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm of many teachers when they hear about The Maker Movement, for its experiential aspect and how it engages people with a kind of learning that triggers emotions and connection.  Some months ago, I came across a great tutorial that called my attention because the activities proposed have students explore and then brings in the theory behind them, which make learning significant and authentic. However, any teacher committed to learning might consider any change carefully. Do we have class time? Is this activity going to help students learn? How are students going to react? How can I facilitate learning? The maker movement is relatively new in Brazil, and early adopters are the ones responsible for reflecting, opening the way, and helping change teaching in private and public schools. Last week, Ellen Cintra proposed a maker activity to her teen students and shares her insights below.

UntitledI have been an English teacher for the past 9 years, 4 of them at Casa Thomas Jefferson, and the the contact with different technologies, from paper to Ipads, have always made me think about how I could improve my classes. When I am preparing my classes for Casa and for Fundação, where I teach Portuguese to sophomore high schoolers, I keep on thinking “How can I make use of different technologies and tools to prepare relevant activities that  basically present the “gain-gain” side of the equation (challenging and engaging, efficient and not too long) and fit my schedule? How can education really make a difference in these students’ lives?” These questions are always on my mind and after different conversations with Dani Lyra, who led me into this maker world (where I’m still crawling…), I was able to realize that we can make our teaching more meaningful when we give students different opportunities to manipulate and produce knowledge, try, fail and succeed.

I have recently had a first hand experience with the maker movement when together with Dani Lyra and Carla Arena at the former´s house I witnessed kids building a robot from scratch.

I then thought we could try it at Casa after working with Unit 11, from the Teens 2 course. The connection was clear: we had just talked about a robot (Asimo) and students had worked on readings and had watched videos about him… and they loved it! Next step was to produce a paragraph in which they would give life to their imagination and create their own robot. I tried to make the writing about the robot a fun moment and we speculated and played around with ideas about what our robots could do. Next, after talking to Dani, I teased them about how nice it would be if they could really produce a robot and when I told them we would really go for it, they were enthusiastic and looked forward for the big day!

The preparation included selecting materials at home, doing some more specific shopping for the missing parts and making a robot on our own, so that we really understood the steps for building the robot. In class, a little before taking the students to the Resource Center, where the librarians and school staff also helped by monitoring and guiding students, we brainstormed what the robots would be able to “really” do with the materials we were going to use additionally students started to think about closed circuits and equilibrium. Next, we started by eliciting vocabulary (the names of the pieces we would put together) and then we checked pronunciation a little bit. The students spoke in English most of the time, especially when they needed to use the target vocabulary. First students checked if they had all the necessary parts and then they connected the batteries while Dani and I prepared the containers by making holes  which would later receive different pieces. After that, students used plastic clamps to tie the batteries and the motor into the container and that was followed by attaching the switch. In the following class we continued by having students try to close the circuits and then we could see some more critical thinking going on: they tried, failed, asked a more knowledgeable mate, tried again, got angry, tried something new until they understood what they were doing wrong and how to fix things, so that they worked. It was great to watch students persistence and progress, as well as using creative alternatives to make their robots work. They used the target language, and relied on their peers and teacher to assist them with the “little bit” they needed to move on. In the end, students used different materials to personalize their robots and used some parts of the writing they had produced before to talk about their robots abilities. Teacher Dani recorded the students´ robots description and later combined the recording and the pictures of the robots using the app ChatterPix. Students then played around joyfully and left the class in excitement. They had learned lots of things and I can assure you that their brains were releasing lots of dopamine!

This fun and challenging activity could also be used in different scenarios, as for example in my Portuguese classes to sophomore high schoolers. I could tease students to think about technology and how we human beings can manipulate materials to suit our needs until we got into talking about robots. Then, I would challenge students to try to build robots in groups of 4 (I would give them the kits with everything they needed) and would assist them as necessary. After that, they could play around a little and engage into “competitions” before we started exploring written fiction related to robots and their use. An interesting link would be having students relax a little in the dark and listen to me reading an interesting piece of the book “Frankenstein”, by Mary Shelley. Next, they could work in groups or individually and elaborate a new end to the narrative.  Later, we would work on having their robots “tell” their stories by using the website “Blabberize”, which connects voice recordings and pictures the same way the app does. This could be extended to a more interdisciplinary approach by having other areas work cooperatively to enrich students’ critical thinking and scientific background. History, Philosophy, Sociology or Physics teachers could engage by bringing in discussions about Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” and how circuits and energy distribution work; Geography and History teachers could talk about technological innovations and how they have changed history and the way humans socialize, produce and consume (food, equipments, etc); Biology teachers could have students think about alternative ways to reduce pollution by having robots perform certain roles and help in research.

It seems too much to be done… it really does. Nevertheless, once we give students the power to go after things, we reduce our workload and they actually produce and engage much more than if we just stood at the front of the class lecturing… I truly believe it is worth a try.

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