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Robot technology has taken child care centers in Odense, Denmark, by storm. Children aged 3-5 are learning how to program using the modular and playful robots Cubelets. Together with Blue Ocean Robotics, students from the University College Lillebaelt have started a project aiming at giving preschool children tools for developing coding skills. The introduction started in March 2017 and has been already positively evaluated by the teachers as a good way to develop children’s skill set for an uncertain future labour market.
Future job market calls for employees with competencies in STEM
Due to the rise of new technology, robotics, fintech, the future job market calls for skilled employees with competencies in STEM related fields. Jens Klarskov, the managing director of Dansk Erhverv – a Confederation of Danish Enterprise, sees digital knowledge and understanding of new technology as important skills in today’s society but according to research, fewer and fewer people possess them. In an article published by Berlingske Business, he said:
The role of public schools is important in this context. We believe that the education should not be focused on showing children how to use a computer or an iPad but instead it should introduce a creative subject that teaches children technicalskills. The issue doesn’t concern only public schools. It is important that all our educational institutions put emphasis on development of strong digital skills. It does not bode well that 35% of all newly qualified people say they lack technological skills and that at least 10% of people working believe they have the required digital skills to handle their jobs.
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Students of pedagogy introducing robot programming for children
Robots in a day care center might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but nevertheless, it has been a reality for children in a number of day care centers in Odense since March 2017. Students of pedagogy have introduced robot programming for children in the 3-5 age range. Together with Blue Ocean Robotics, the students from the University College Lillebaelt have started the project aiming at giving preschool children tools for developing coding skills. Moreover, the project aims at answering the question: Can children learn to program robots in kindergarten?
The robots involved in the project are the educational modular robot blocks, Cubelets. It is a series of magnetic robot blocks that makes it easy and fun for children to build playful robots with different functions, without the necessity of knowing how to code. The blocks can be joined in different combinations which give each robot a number of different features. With Cubelets, children can learn something about robotics, math, critical thinking, logic, problem-solving and teamwork while also utilizing the concept of ‘learning through play’.
Janie Hekkelman, a bachelor student with a specialty in daycare at the University College Lillebaelt says:
Yes, children can learn to program robots but on a basic level. We found out that children learn how they should use a specific combination of the Cubelets in order to make the robots do what they want them to do.
During the project, she and another student, Kasper Huszar, saw that a four-year-old girl, Marie, had problems with a robot she was building. It had, among other things, two blocks with wheels but kept overturning. In this situation, she was able to figure out that she needed one more block to stabilize the construction. When she placed the block, the robot started to move forward.
Marie figured out, that she needs to change something for her robot to work as intended. And this is exactly what programming is. These Cubelets need the right instructions to function in a specific way.
Help for socially marginalized children
Two child care centers of Holluf Pile Tingkær are participating in the project. The head of institution, Karen Sterling, is pleased with the project’s results. For her, it is important to provide the children a wide range of tools so everyone can find an interest in which they are good at and that makes them happy.
Every child is different and learns in a different way. In our day care centers, we try to develop children’s perseverance. We recently participated in another project, which showed that children who are persistent also are the ones doing well in the long term perspective. When children in nurseries are playing with toy bricks and are trying to fit the bricks into a specific box, it is the most persistent children that will succeed.
She believes that the robots can create an interest for a different group of children than other activities do, adding a huge value to the education process. Moreover, she is interested in how socially marginalized children can benefit from a robotics solution like Cubelets, and wants to explore this aspect in depth.
In one of the kindergartens, there is a child that is socially marginalized and is having a hard time. He is now a part of the Cubelets project and he is doing fine. All of a sudden, he has a different role in the group and the kindergarten teachers are looking at him in a new way. He acquired a special skill, he is greatly enjoying this type of activity and is very interested in robotics. We must admit that the kindergarten has not previously succeeded in presenting him something as valuable as robotics. It is fantastic to witness his newly discovered interest in robotics. It makes the project worth the effort, says Karen Sterling.
Kindergarten teachers showing courage
One of the reasons for the success of robots in the two kindergartens is the focus on the fun. The playful aspects of robotics are important for participating children and if the process of building robots is too structured, there is a risk that the children will feel discouraged and left out. It is all about the principle of learning by doing. Following a specific formula, risks losing the innovative part of the process.
Furthermore, Janie Hekkelman points out that the success of the Cubelets also depends on the kindergarten teachers’ willingness to play with the new technology.
It requires some courage from the kindergarten teachers. Cubelets do not come with a manual because it encourages to play and experiment. It is all about learning by doing, which can be scary for some kindergarten teachers. Studies have shown that kindergarten teachers can be afraid of using the technology in a wrong way or be worried about breaking it. But sometimes, you just have to throw yourself into a new situation. One should be able to let the children play with the technology by themselves but also not be afraid to use it.
The introduction to the future
Another important element for the head of institution, Karen Sterling, is that the children are prepared for the future. Technology has become a bigger part of our daily lives and the children have to be willing to adapt to the new technological demands. Thus, it is important that children become acquainted with the new technology as early as in the kindergarten.
The children are learning a little bit of the technological language, and this is an advantage that other children may not have. If you want to understand the technology, you need a language to be able to talk about it. I believe that the fact that they are developing a technological language, will give them some amazing opportunities in the future, says Karen Sterling.
Camilla Kennedy, the daily leader in the child care center in Fraugde which is one of the two institutions participating in the project, ads:
We are aware of the fact that the children’s future jobs do not exist yet. Thus, the children have to be very innovative and be comfortable with the new technology. When they are experimenting with robots, they develop different thought patterns and learn to be curious and reflective. Possessing these competencies is important in a modern society and a project like this will make the children fit for the future demands of the labour market, says Camilla Kennedy.
For the next five months, the two kindergartens will have the pleasure of working together with the two bachelor students from the University College Lillebaelt and when the project ends, the two kindergartens are going to purchase the Cubelets. Moreover, the kindergarten teachers at the two day care centers soon will become experts in using the Cubelets the best way, and so they will be able to continue the successful work when the project ends.
The educational robot blocks, Cubelets, combine play and learning. Cubelets is a series of magnetic robot blocks that makes it easy and fun for students to build robots with different functions and without the necessity of knowing how to code. With Cubelets you can teach robotics, math, critical thinking, logic, problem-solving and teamwork.