Katy Nilsen on the ALERT and Robopad Systems

Dear fellow evaluators,

I want to share about the importance of developing computational thinking skills in young children that I learned from my research. Recent policy in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) outlines science and engineering practices for K-12 students, including computational thinking. The creation of programming environments as spaces where children have opportunities to develop these skills is essential, as well as the evaluation of children’s experiences in these contexts.

In a recent study on the affordances of spatial programming, we performed a qualitative investigation of children’s interactions in two programming environments: Active Learning Environment with Robotic Tangibles (ALERT) and Robopad. The ALERT system allows for physical human-robot interaction (HRI), where children can use their whole body to physically interact with the robot in a room. In contrast, the Robopad system is a virtual programming environment that parallels the ALERT experience on a computer screen. We recruited nine study participants (7 boys, 2 girls) of first grade students. Students were divided into pairs or into a trio, with the two girls forming their own pair. Students interacted with each other and with the robots over the study’s five day period. They first participated in a “play robot” session, followed by free play and task sessions with each technology. Video data were collected and transcribed. The transcripts were coded and analyzed for trends across groups and days. We found that both systems afford opportunities for young children to engage in spatial programming, including sequential programming and improvisational “just-in-time” programming. In addition, children were collaborative with each other in their programming and interactive with the technology in these environments. There were some study limitations in that the sample size was small and came from one school, so the results are not generalizable. Also, all students first engaged with the ALERT system and then interacted with the Robopad system. As a consequence, students may have applied what they learned in the ALERT environment to the Robopad environment.

In conclusion, both the ALERT and Robopad systems supported children’s spatial programming. For both environments, students engaged in planned sequential programming; however, this was not as obvious in the Robopad environment. Also, there was evidence for both systems that children engaged in just-in-time programming, but these interactions comprised the majority of activity with the Robopad system because programming the virtual robots tended to be more instantaneous than planned. Technologies like ALERT and Robopad show promise for providing spatial programming opportunities to students in order to foster engagement in computational thinking.

For more information, please refer to the following reference and click on the link to access the full text from the publisher: Burleson, W., Harlow, D. B., Nilsen, K. J., Perlin, K., Freed, N., Jensen, C., … & Muldner, K. (2017, July 7). Active learning environments with robotic tangibles: Children’s physical and virtual spatial programming experiences. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies, 99. doi:10.1109/TLT.2017.2724031

Katy Nilsen, PhD, is a researcher and evaluator with a focus on K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). She examines teacher practice and student learning within the disciplines of environmental science, computer science, and robotics. She also studies technology implementation initiatives in schools.


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