With the in­creas­ing fo­cus on Science, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing and Maths (STEM) in schools across Aus­tralia, more and more ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions are im­ple­ment­ing ro­bot­ics pro­grams for their stu­dents.

The Australian Education Reporter - - CONTENTS - EMMA DAVIES


IN 2015, the Com­mit­tee for Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment of Aus­tralia (CEDA) re­ported that an es­ti­mated 40 per cent of Aus­tralia’s work­force could be re­placed by au­to­ma­tion within the next 20 years. That’s ap­prox­i­mately five mil­lion jobs that could be re­placed by ro­bots.

Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy’s Dr Christina Chalmers says that with the speed of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, we need to bet­ter po­si­tion chil­dren to face this fu­ture.

“Ro­bot­ics is a great for teach­ing STEM sub­jects and STEM skills have been iden­ti­fied as es­sen­tial for de­vel­op­ing cre­ative thinkers and prob­lem solvers; skills that are needed for fu­ture jobs and for solv­ing big world prob­lems,” she said.

The Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment is spend­ing $3.5m on the ‘Cod­ing across the Cur­ricu­lum’ ini­tia­tive in a bid to in­cor­po­rate cod­ing into ex­ist­ing sub­jects.

Even Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull has de­clared that cod­ing is as fun­da­men­tal as read­ing and writ­ing.

The Gov­ern­ment also in­tro­duced the Na­tional In­no­va­tion and Science Agenda to in­spire all Aus­tralians in dig­i­tal lit­er­acy, to em­brace in­no­va­tion and science from an early age and har­ness new sources of growth to de­liver the next age of eco­nomic pros­per­ity in Aus­tralia.

The agenda aims to up-skill both stu­dents and teach­ers through free on­line cour­ses, sup­port, equip­ment, part­ner­ships with in­dus­try, men­tor­ing, dig­i­tal lit­er­acy grants and fund­ing so that teach­ers and stu­dents can un­der­stand how STEM is ap­plied in the real world.

Ro­bot­ics and cod­ing is an in­ter­ac­tive and en­gag­ing way of in­tro­duc­ing STEM in to the cur­ricu­lum and in­spir­ing young peo­ple to pur­sue Stem-re­lated sub­jects and ca­reers. Dr Chalmers said the Na­tional Dig­i­tal Tech­nolo­gies Cur­ricu­lum is a pos­i­tive step to­wards help­ing chil­dren to de­velop tech­no­log­i­cal skills.

“It puts dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy and cod­ing within the school cur­ricu­lum and means that all stu­dents have the op­por­tu­nity to learn new skills in or­der to take ad­van­tage of fu­ture em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties,” she said.

Many pri­vate schools have al­ready im­ple­mented ro­bot­ics into their cur­ricu­lum. There has been an in­crease in school teams par­tic­i­pat­ing in ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tions, such as FIRST LEGO League and the FIRST Ro­bot­ics Com­pe­ti­tion (For In­spi­ra­tion and Recog­ni­tion of Science and Tech­nol­ogy).

The Queens­land State Gov­ern­ment has made cod­ing and ro­bot­ics com­pul­sory in schools with its Ad­vanc­ing Ed­u­ca­tion Ac­tion Plan aim­ing to fast-track the Na­tional Dig­i­tal Tech­nolo­gies Cur­ricu­lum by im­prov­ing teacher prepa­ra­tion in STEM sub­jects through pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment, men­tor­ing, and ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy.

Ev­ery state school will have ac­cess to spe­cial­ist science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and maths teach­ers. The #cod­ing­counts ini­tia­tive is sup­ple­men­tary to the ac­tion plan and aims to de­velop stu­dents’ dig­i­tal lit­er­acy and to sup­port the teach­ing of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, cod­ing and ro­bot­ics through the pro­vi­sion of high qual­ity and in­no­va­tive cur­ricu­lum re­sources.

The #cod­ing­counts plan states that cod­ing and ro­bot­ics are im­por­tant for ev­ery stu­dent to pre­pare them for the jobs of the fu­ture, where tech­nol­ogy will be part of ev­ery work­place.

The stress is not only on cod­ing but learn­ing the lan­guage of cod­ing, which en­gages stu­dents in de­vel­op­ing their skills in crit­i­cal think­ing, cre­ativ­ity, col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­no­va­tion. The Queens­land State Gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing cod­ing as the new lit­er­acy and a must have skill for ev­ery stu­dent.

Swin­burne Uni­ver­sity Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion deputy chair Dr Therese Keane be­lieves there should be in­no­va­tive pro­grams like ro­bot­ics in schools to en­tice kids to par­tic­i­pate in STEM ac­tiv­i­ties.

“Rather than just hav­ing stan­dard science, maths and IT classes, things that in­ter­est stu­dents in a more col­lab­o­ra­tive way, that are in­no­va­tive and use those skill sets are a re­ally good way of en­tic­ing kids to ap­ply what they’re learn­ing in to a real life con­text,” she said.

Dr Chalmers agrees, stat­ing there is a need to ad­dress STEM in ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralia as stu­dent en­rol­ments in th­ese sub­jects at sec­ondary and ter­tiary lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion are de­clin­ing.

“The de­cline im­pacts on stu­dents’ en­gage­ment in higher STEM stud­ies and on their fu­ture em­ploy­ment op­tions. Ro­bot­ics has proved to be an en­gag­ing tool for mo­ti­vat­ing stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate in STEM ac­tiv­i­ties and stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ing in ro­bot­ics ac­tiv­i­ties have been shown to be more likely to pur­sue STEM based uni­ver­sity path­ways,” she said.

While Dr Keane has noted many pos­i­tives in bring ro­bots into the class­room, she has some reser­va­tions with fol­low­ing the lead of Queens­land and mak­ing ro­bot­ics pro­grams com­pul­sory across Aus­tralia.

“My nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion is to say yes, but I am well aware that if you make any­thing com­pul­sory and there’s not enough pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment for the teach­ers, there’s not enough re­sources and de­pend­ing on which ro­bot­ics pro­gram, it could be very ex­pen­sive,” she said.

“Not ev­ery school has the re­sources, or even the labour, so be­fore you go down the path of mak­ing some­thing like that com­pul­sory, there needs to be the pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment for teach­ers and the re­sources avail­able.”

Al­though there are chal­lenges to na­tion-wide im­ple­men­ta­tion, Dr Chalmers is pos­i­tive that cod­ing and ro­bot­ics are cen­tral to the fu­ture and that the new Na­tional Dig­i­tal Tech­nolo­gies cur­ricu­lum will see the rest of the coun­try adopt­ing ro­bot­ics and cod­ing into their schools.

“Learn­ing to code is about learn­ing to solve prob­lems, break­ing the prob­lem down, to recog­nise pat­terns, and to think in a log­i­cal man­ner,” she said.

“There is a short­age of STEM teach­ers in gen­eral and while cod­ing and ro­bot­ics are seen as es­sen­tial for stu­dents to learn from an early age we need teach­ers with the ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence to teach with ro­bots.

“Hav­ing ac­cess to spe­cial­ist STEM teach­ers would as­sist class­room teach­ers im­ple­ment en­gag­ing cod­ing and ro­bot­ics ac­tiv­i­ties in their class­rooms.”

Ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tions such as FIRST LEGO League and the An­nual FIRST Com­pe­ti­tion have a role to play in ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren in a fun and en­gag­ing way with more and more teams par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pop­u­lar events.

Dr Keane, a tour­na­ment di­rec­tor for the FIRST LEGO League in Vic­to­ria and men­tor for an all girls team in the FIRST Ro­bot­ics Com­pe­ti­tion, thinks th­ese com­pe­ti­tions are an ex­cel­lent way to get more young girls in­volved in STEM ac­tiv­i­ties.

“We’ve opened the in­vi­ta­tion for all sec­ondary school girls so it doesn’t mat­ter if you’re from a catholic school, an in­de­pen­dent school or a gov­ern­ment school,” she said.

“It’s there for any­body and we’ve also taken the so­cio eco­nomic fac­tor out of it through fundrais­ing.

“It’s very ex­pen­sive and that’s why all schools can’t do it.”

The Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy runs a ro­bot­ics out­reach project and Dr Chalmers has seen a rise in the num­ber of girls par­tic­i­pat­ing.

“Th­ese types of events have an im­por­tant role in build­ing stu­dents’ STEM skills. Stu­dents have fun and work to­gether to prob­lem solve in teams as they make pre­dic­tions and test and ad­just their ro­bots,” she said.

“How­ever, the prob­lem is we need to reach more schools with th­ese en­gag­ing ac­tiv­i­ties and not all schools can af­ford to en­ter th­ese com­pe­ti­tions. We need to make sure that ev­ery child has the op­por­tu­nity to work with ro­bots and cod­ing in school and to give them fur­ther op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue their in­ter­est in th­ese ar­eas.”

Teacher train­ing is def­i­nitely a chal­leng­ing fac­tor for ro­bot­ics pro­grams. Ac­cord­ing to the Ad­vanc­ing Ed­u­ca­tion Re­port, face-to-face work­shops, we­bi­nars, men­tor­ing by STEM cham­pi­ons, in­dus­try role mod­els and en­trepreneurs are nec­es­sary for up-skilling teach­ers.

Ac­cess to dig­i­tal plat­forms is es­sen­tial, par­tic­u­larly in re­mote lo­ca­tions.

There also needs to be ad­e­quate in­vest­ment in hard­ware, soft­ware, net­work ca­pac­ity and speed, band­width, broad­band, and tech­ni­cal sup­port. In gen­eral there is a lack of qual­i­fied staff, train­ing staff and STEM teach­ers to im­ple­ment th­ese pro­grams.

Dr Chalmers says the main chal­lenges are ac­cess to re­sources and build­ing the skill set of teach­ers.

“Ro­bot­ics and the Dig­i­tal Tech­nolo­gies cur­ricu­lum take teach­ers away from be­ing the ‘ex­pert’ in the class­room to be­ing a fa­cil­i­ta­tor as stu­dents are lean­ing dif­fer­ent ways to solve prob­lems,” she said.

“Teach­ers need to put in the time to look at the tech­nol­ogy,” Dr Keane said.

“They need to see what they can do, what the mis­takes they make so that in a class­room and when a stu­dent has an is­sue they can say oh I’ve seen that prob­lem.”

STEM ed­u­ca­tion is now em­bed­ded in pre-ser­vice teacher train­ing at uni­ver­sity, which means new teach­ers are start­ing with a range of skills in this area.

It is the teach­ers cur­rently in schools who need sup­port to en­gage in ro­bot­ics and cod­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. The Queens­land Uni­ver­sity


of Tech­nol­ogy (QUT) runs work­shops to up-skill teach­ers in th­ese STEM ar­eas of cur­ricu­lum.

Another chal­leng­ing fac­tor is cost. QUT also runs a ro­bot­ics out­reach pro­gram from low in­come area schools and Dr Chalmers says not many schools would be able to af­ford the tech­nol­ogy along­side their usual lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy pro­grams.

“We’re pro­vid­ing ro­botic loan kits and free pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment work­shops but not ev­ery school has ac­cess to it. Pri­vate schools have the fund­ing and the re­sources to do a lot of this stuff but we’ve got a lot of state schools that are re­ally strug­gling and they don’t have funds or the ex­tra time to do th­ese re­ally in­ter­est­ing, fun and en­gag­ing things,” she said.

While there are some chal­lenges, Dr Keane thinks STEM study is be­com­ing main­stream and that ro­bot­ics and cod­ing in schools has re­ally raised the pro­file of STEM ed­u­ca­tion.

“It’s not nerdy, it’s not some­thing you do un­der­ground,” she said. “We’re get­ting promi­nence with STEM, promi­nence with ro­bot­ics, pro­gram­ming, we’ve got the new dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies cur­ricu­lum and I think it’s a good in­no­va­tive space to be in.”

Chil­dren in school to­day are go­ing to be the fu­ture con­sumers of ro­bot­ics tech­nol­ogy, and the builders and pro­gram­mers of au­to­mated jobs; it makes sense to get them in­volved in ro­bot­ics and cod­ing at a young age.

“By de­vel­op­ing their un­der­stand­ing of cod­ing and ro­bot­ics through­out a child’s school years we can not only help them de­velop their un­der­stand­ing of ro­bot­ics and cod­ing but also help them de­velop im­por­tant skills for their fu­ture,” said Dr Chalmers.

All im­ages: QUT.

Ca­bool­ture FIRST LEGO League Tour­na­ment.

FIRST Ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tion at Swin­burne Uni­ver­sity.

Ro­bots solv­ing sim­ple prob­lems at Swin­burne Uni­ver­sity.

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