How to build a more inclusive STEM program in early childhood using robotics and conductive blocks

How to build a more inclusive STEM program in early childhood using robotics and conductive blocks

Technology offers rich educational and creative opportunities for young children. But how can we make sure that all children can access these opportunities, regardless of their abilities or special needs?

Dr Sarika Kewalramani, Dr Kirsten Ellis (Monash Faculty of IT), and Associate Professor Gillian Kidman outline a STEM program for early childhood that tackles this challenge.

Robots and virtual reality apps are great educational tools that can harness a child’s natural curiosity and sense of play. They also offer multiple ways of engaging –  be it through touch, visually, physically or digitally –  that go far beyond simple screen time or printed text.

Our research shows that when integrated well, technology can also improve the way that teachers and children interact. However, when it comes to accessing interactive technologies, children who have special needs may get left behind.

Using robotics, electronics, TapeBlocks – blocks wrapped in conductive tape to form a circuit – we have developed a pilot STEM program for children between four to six years of age. It is designed to foster inclusion, engagement and can be adapted for all children, particularly those deemed ‘at risk’. It’s an inclusive STEM program that prepares teachers and children to learn in a world where difference, disability, or language are not barriers to playful learning.

Simple tools yield great results for a range of learners

The activities in this pilot project are structured to support children to engage with scientific principles in a creative and hands-on way. Through simple modifications, they are designed to work for children who may have sensory, motor or cognitive disabilities.

The tools we used were:

  • TapeBlocks that can be used to build robots and interactive toys,
  • Artificially intelligent robotic toys that look like insects, dogs or mice,
  • MERGE cubes that use virtual reality apps.

Our research has shown these tools support foundational learning of problem-solving, spatial reasoning, scientific thinking, engineering skills and number sense. The TapeBlocks are particularly good for children with sensory, motor or cognitive disabilities since they large and colourful foam blocks that are used for creative circuitry making.

Our focus was to engage all children, of all abilities in the activities, and celebrate what they can achieve rather than be restricted by their limitations.

A town of buildings and roads made with TapeBlocks
A town of buildings and roads made with TapeBlocks

Focusing on interaction and communication when using robots

When working with the robots, we kept the focus on interaction and communication. The children spoke to the toys like they were real, and had feelings. The toys became a tool that fostered the children’s curiosity and motivation.

The interactions became a motivational pleasure for the children. They were naturally inclined to communicate with the toys and imagine empathy-based situations.

This was particularly good for the children who had speech delays, and by exercising control over the toys, they were also able to practice their numbers and sense of direction.

Working with TapeBlocks

TapeBlocks are a simple STEM tool that can be used by the children to create interactive robots and structures that light up, using circuits.

Teachers can either pre-build the blocks so the children just need to put them together, or the children can have a go themselves.

To build them you will need some basic equipment.

  • EVA children's foam blocks
  • Double sided conductive fabric tape
  • Battery holder
  • CR3032 battery
  • LEDs
  • Vibration motors, resistors, buzzers and tilt switches.

You can purchase these components from AliExpress. The electrical components are available through electronics stores.

Tips for using TapeBlocks help create inclusive STEM activities

Blocks are often used in children’s play. They are engaging and versatile. Wrapping them in conductive tape, and creating opportunities for simple circuits can harness children’s natural curiosity.

  1. Blocks are large and easy to manipulate. This makes this circuit-building activity accessible for children that may have special needs.
  2. Children should be allowed to construct, as this helps them understand the cause and effect of their actions. Let children use their own exploration, imagination and curiosity as they experiment.
  3. Tinkering time and thinking time help children find the answers to their own questions about how technology works. For example, “How high can you stack the blocks and still have a light?” and “Does it get less bright when it is bigger?”
  4. As creators of the technology, the children have control and are active participants. “See how many lights can I put in a stack”. This way they are not just consumers of the solution.
  5. Ensure the selection of characters and shapes for the activity fundamentally considers accessibility for children with special needs or who may need support with sensory motor skills.
Kids' robot creations with TapeBlocks
Robots created with TapeBlocks

Sample of a STEM-based play experience using robotic toys

We have created a sample step-by-step experience for early years teachers using robotic toys keeping ‘inquiry’ as the central focus to enable STEM learning. Examples of the robotic toys used are COJI, Qobo, LEGO Boost, and the virtual reality MERGE CUBE.

Step 1: Planning

Activity/Actions

  • Employ a child-centered approach and co-create the play with teachers, co-educators and children.
  • Intentionally introduce the robots and VR.
  • Ensure the inquiry process is driven by the children.

Our example

  • Children wanted to go on an adventure with their robot by coding it, and other children (those were classified as ‘at risk’ by the educators) wanted to build happy and comfortable homes for their robots.

Step 2: Scaffolding through question-driven inquiry

Activity/Actions

  • Allow the children to free-play with the toys and ask them what would they like the robots to do for them or with them? Where do they live and survive?
  • Ask the children if they encountered any problems.
  • Specifically introduce robotic toys such as COJI or Qobo.
    • Coji is programmable, shows emojis and can laugh and dance. The children can program stories and tasks for it to perform.
    • Another robotic toy, Qobo can also be introduced at this stage. Qobo can support children’s understanding of directions, patterns and sequencing. It is coded by Robobloq Puzzle Cards with different designs and meanings.
  • Targeted scaffolding by the teacher is useful for the children to inquire, engage and interact with these robotic toys.

Our example

  • Children used block play to build ramps and roadways for their robots to travel. The children were asked what problems they encountered building the ramps, and how did they solve them.
  • Then we introduced COJI at this step.

Step 3: Building children’s inquiry skills

Activity/Actions

  • Use effective questioning techniques at the beginning of each session.
  • Plan a series of weekly provocations including VR Mars - MERGE cube app experience. This provokes children to imagine and enquire whether COJI might like to live or visit planet Mars.
  • Through the MERGE cube app children can go for a ‘real’ Martian experience.
  • Continue the teacher-child inquiry process by asking more questions.

Our example

  • We’ve been talking about all the places Qobo and Coji can go and what they might like to see. I’m wondering how they will get to see these places?
  • Last time we discussed how we could go for adventures with Coji and Qobo. Where do you think the robot family can live happily?
  • Children’s responses and inquiry included:
    • SuperBot COJI can live under water
    • Is it waterproof?
      It could live in the ocean
    • I know one thing about robots - if you put them in water they might not work anymore
  • This is linked to scientific language development.

Step 4: Assessment/review of children’s learning

Activity/Actions

  • Ensure to have post-activity discussions about what children have imagined, constructed and why? This enables a deeper and richer learning experience, fostering further inquiry into why things might not have worked their way.

Our example

  • We linked the results to being a persistent problem solver.
A boy playing with Qobo
Creating a map for Qobo, a hands-on and unplugged coding toy.

Monash Education is offering a short online course titled Coding and Robotics: Enabling STEM-based play in Early childhood.

Subscribe to our community newsletter for details of online workshops to be run during National Science Week in August 2020.

If your centre/service would like to organise a customised professional learning program for your educators in the area of planning and implementing STEM, robotics and technology integration, please contact Monash Professional and Continuing Education team on  +61 3 990 52700.

Resources

The 10 Best VR Apps for Classrooms Using Merge VR’s New Merge Cube

Merge Cube (from MERGE) lets you hold virtual 3D objects, enabling an entirely new way to learn and interact with the digital world.

Galactic Explorer for Merge cube - download a free app

Coji (from WowWee) - this robot is coded by using emoji language.

Qobo (from Robobloq) - this robot is coded by joining Robobloq Puzzle Cards together.

TapeBlocks: Reimagine education (presentation on YouTube)

References

Kewalramani, S., Palaiologou, I., & Dardanou, M. (2020). Children’s Engineering Design Thinking Processes: The Magic of the ROBOTS and the Power of BLOCKS (Electronics).

Kewalramani, S., Palaiologou, I., Arnott, L., & Dardanou, M. (2020). The integration of the Internet of Toys in early childhood education: A platform for multi-layered interactionsEuropean Early Childhood Education Research Journal.

Kidman, G. & Casinader, N. (2017). Inquiry-based teaching and learning across disciplines: comparative theory and practice in schools. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.