Robotics toys teach young students the value of coding

Robotics toys teach young students the value of coding

  The West is one big consumerist society, for better or for worse. We show our love on birthdays and holidays by getting people things. But there are some toys and trinkets that are far more advanced than others, and may even teach someone a thing or two. Robotics kits are a great gift to give, since they open up a whole new field to learn and explore. Unlike other sciences, it doesn’t feel like a chore to learn robotics. Instead, it feels like you’re playing with a new toy, and unwittingly learning such skills as coding and discipline along the way.

Although this looks complex, a kit like this can provide much more fun than a simple plaything. This is an advanced robotics kit, so don’t be scared. Beginner’s kits are far less intimidating.

Although this looks complex, a kit like this can provide much more fun than a simple plaything. This is an advanced robotics kit, so don’t be scared. Beginner’s kits are far less intimidating.

  Besides being focused on consumer goods, our society has a growing fixation on technology. The Internet and the smartphones in our pockets make all the information we could ever want readily available at our fingertips. Technology is a dominant driver of commerce, globalization, communication, and business. And the only way to understand and utilize it is to learn how to code. Although English, Spanish, French, or Mandarin may prove effective lingua franca in different parts of the globe, the code that forms the software we all use is the only truly common language we all share. Through code, engineers in London can show their work to colleagues in Shanghai, and instead of dealing with a language barrier it’s more of a speed bump.

     This hits on another benefit: being able to code is important for many jobs, and many of the largest growing sectors require technologically-literate workers. Securing a position in one of these fields is a way to find exciting work, as well as a stable demand for your skills. And even those who don’t necessarily work on the code themselves still need some kind of proficiency with it. Managers need to understand what the engineers are working on, just like bosses need to understand product development. Those who don’t need it every day still need to be able to communicate with their peers in the field.

   These reasons to learn code are all focused on jobs, a shifting global economy, and navigating a stable life in such an environment. But before we can get our students to the point where they need to think about such concerns, we need to begin teaching them about code. The good news is that it is easy to get started, and can even be a fun type of puzzle solving if it is taught correctly. Much like education for other STEM fields like math and science, young students won’t be taught how to code straight on. Instead, the groundwork will be laid out incrementally. Kids as young as 8 or 9 are already learning about critical thinking and problem solving, so why not frame that in a computer-based setting?

     Coding at the fundamental level is a way to express language that solves problems, often specified for computers. Like any language, young kids pick up on it much more easily than they do once they’re older and their brains lose some of the neuroplasticity. Just like a verbal or written language, there are special words, syntax, punctuation, and structures that need to be learned. We already teach our young students about nouns, verbs, and commas, so we might as well teach them about loops, ‘if’ statements, and classes too.

     The biggest draw for teaching young kids about robotics and the coding that it requires is the algorithmic thinking that underlies any operation.  This is a way of thinking that breaks a large problem into smaller pieces, then solves those pieces and fits their solutions together in such a way that the larger problem is solved. This way of thinking doesn’t force the kids to sit at a desk in front of a computer screen, typing away. Any problem can be solved this way. It is a logical, structured way of thinking, but it doesn’t mean their creativity is stifled. In fact, they will find that building a robot and telling it what to do gives them a creative license that they probably haven’t felt in other subjects.

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   The value of code in real life has hopefully been made clear, but the value of code in the field of robotics is also huge. If you get someone a robotics kit instead of a cheap plastic toy, you want them to use it to its full potential; being able to code unlocks that potential. The software that the robot runs on interacts with a circuit board, which is the processing ‘brain’ of your robot, through code. When you sit at your computer, you can only ‘speak’ to the circuit and all the pieces connected to it through that special language. So if you want to control the servomotors and LEDs, receive information from light and sound sensors, or make the robot automatically respond to a certain stimulus, that can only be achieved by telling the circuit board what you want. Soon enough, your kid will be eager to make his or her robot do incredible, complex things, exploring topics like Boolean logic and electronics. This is a type of engagement lacking in other STEM fields, and is what makes robotics special. So if your kid like to explore, think, and learn skills that will help them for the rest of his or her life, get them a robotics kit instead of that silly toy.

Derek Capo