In the Driver's Seat: Modelling Inquiry Learning with Robotics
Copyright 2005 Miguel Guhlin
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From 8:30 until 3:00 PM on Saturday, June 4, 2005, Summer School Gifted and Talented teachers huddled around boxes filled with gears and components. Practicing a constructivist approach, Jerram Froese (Robotics Trainer from the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), introduced robotics to San Antonio ISD teachers. As we know, an explicit goal of inquiry learning is to put students in the driver's seat. This type of approach allows them to consider valid, sometimes competing solutions or hypotheses (Fleming, 1999). This article presents how robotics can introduce technology-enhanced, inquiry learning embedded within science and math curriculum--without the fear.

Jerram Froese sees robotics as more than just playing with mechanical gadgets. "I think of it as putting students in a 'thinking' seat. It really puts the thinking back on the students instead of giving them the information. We have based our entire teaching system on giving, giving, giving...without them [students] giving it a thought. It puts the thinking behind the learning. The difference being is that it is much more intensive and draining. When students leave at the end of the day, they are physically worn out. When you guide students, they develop the knowledge as a learner so that it becomes their own."

To emphasize that point, Jerram began with a simple task for teachers preparing to re-deliver robotics instruction to students during summer, 2005. The training began with teachers organizing the robotics kits into components.

"In the room," Jim Baldoni, technology integration coordinator, pointed out during a brief respite, "you could feel the interest level rise. Even at the point of categorizing parts, everybody had an idea to share. Round pieces vs square pieces vs gears...everyone had an idea on how to organize the robotics kits, and the groups seem to work through it without fights."
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This professional learning session modelled taking information--objective and external to the learner--and converting it into knowledge that is personal as Jerram refused to answer obvious questions, instead relying on the teachers who took on the role of "students" to resolve problems. In one scenario, after students identify a problem, Jerram emphasizes that polarity can impact the movement of the motor. One group of teachers selects a representative to share their steps in the progress.
"I realized the motors were switched and that's why my car kept going backwards," says one teacher posing as a student in the session. "So, I had to take the robot apart and switch the motor."
Jerram asks, "How do we find out what we need to know?"
"We experiment!" another group of teachers sings out. And experiment they have, from the best ways to build a robot to investigating the use of sensors in their robot to programming their robot using software NASA uses to program the Mars Rover.
This hands-on approach to inquiry learning moves teachers beyond Level 0 and 1 of the Levels of Technology Implementation ( where technology is either not used or used exclusively for teacher productivity. Instead, both teachers and students use technology for primarily analyzing data, making inferences, drawing conclusions from an investigation or related scientific inquiry. This analysis of problems occurs naturally when students try to make the robot do what they want it to do, as illustrated in the conversation below:
"Compare this robot," Jerram points to one team's masterpiece, "to this other one. Now, sit back down. You thought you switched the motors, but you actually did something else. Describe what happened when you switched the motors."
"When I switched the motors, I switched the direction of the cords." "Can you tell me what you did? What do you mean switch the direction?" "Turned the direction of the connector? How many degrees did you turn it?" "It was facing this way, and I turned it 180 degrees."
"This is where we get into polarity."
This is the benefit of robotics as a tool in heightening the discussion of science curriculum. It allows students--within the comfortable environment of a classroom--to debate investigative methods, argue about interpretations, and defend conclusions or proposed solutions. Essentially, they must grapple with problems, developing critical collaboration strategies and skills. This high-end problem solving employs technology as a tool to identify and solve authentic problems, or target technology level.
At the low end of summer school activities are those that require students to develop the ability to acquire knowledge and recall or locate that knowledge in a simple manner. Yet, robotics-based science activities do facilitate assimilation of knowledge, assimilations that are defined by individuals solving complex problems. In Willard Daggett's //Rigor and Relevance// //Framework//, one can see how robotics can bring unpredictable problems into the classroom, and allow students to solve them. Technology manipulatives allow students and teachers to experience that which would have been difficult, if not impossible, without extensive fieldwork or fieldtrips, options not always available to urban school districts.
"This curriculum spirals nicely," comments Jerram,"enabling both you and your students to build a wall, brick by brick over a period of time. I'm giving you the full gamut of what you will be experiencing over a 4 week period in one day." The inquiry learning, robotics curriculum, adapted from Irving ISD for use in SAISD by Lacey Gosch (TCEA Area 20 Director), is available online at the SAISD Instructional Technology web site at
As TCEA Area 20 Director, it's Lacey's goal to help "promote as to help build capacity for regional competitions, and compete." But, on further reflection, she shares that "Robotics fosters higher order thinking skills and can be seamlessly incorporated into math and science curriculum. It's just a natural fit that enables kids to get involved."
Two curriculum offices in SAISD--Advanced Academic Services and Instructional Technology Services--have joined to offer a Summer School program. The Program blends the use of Robotics into the Summer School Science Curriculum. Gifted and Talented students in grades 2 -5 participate in the summer school program. The curriculum focuses on Math and Science objectives within the context of the Solar System. The students involved in this summer school program will be introduced to the world of Lego Robotics. Through this program, students will construct robots using the Lego Educational Kits, and each robot will be programmed through the use of computer technology to perform specific tasks. The software used to program the robots is the same software NASA used to program the Mars Rover. Tasks associated with mission will include traveling a specified distance, taking light reading samples, and tracking terrain changes and alterations.
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The teachers involved in the program will complete a one day intensive training on the robotics curriculum and use of the kits in the classroom. You can visit the Picture Gallery online (check below for more information on the address). Summer School began on Monday, June 6, 2005. The benefit of technology is that it easily allows one to change the variables and arrive at different solutions. You can find a digital picture and video gallery online at:
(Design of the site by Tonya Mills, SAISD Instructional Technology).
Facilitating the Summer School Program will be SAISD's Instructional Technology Staff. They will be available throughout the summer school program to provide assistance to teachers as the students begin to utilize the robotics program. At the end of the summer school session, students will have competed in a Robotics Competition to held in TCEA Area 20, in and around the San Antonio area. In the spirit of inquiry learning, a specific problem or challenge will be shared with students. Robo-Challenge includes providing student teams with specific challenges and building time. Upon the completion of the building and development time allotted, students will compete to determine the champion builders of Summer School Robots. Some of these problems include the following two, although more problems are available online under the heading of Team Challenges:
  • "You are going to build a racecar. There's one catch, though: the last car across the finish line wins."
  • "Build and program a car that will travel in a straight line until it hits a wall, reverses direction, travels until it hits another wall, and then stops."
Carol Frausto, Director of SAISD's Advanced Academic Services, thinks that, "'s [Robo-Challenge] going to mean true competition and prepare students for corporate America. It will challenge kids' minds." To add a spirit of objective assessment that students are familiar with, Instructional Technology staff--Claude Ascolese and Greg Rodriguez--will show up in referee outfits to amplify the idea of a healthy competetion. The District will provide each child with a blue ribbon, attendance certificates, and for the winners of the Robo-Challenge, trophies for 1st and 2nd place. It's so puts the fun back into learning for kids."
Some define constructivism--of which inquiry learning is a premier approach--with the words, "To know is to know how to make." Constructing robots, students and teachers can rediscover the joy of problem-solving as they develop math and science concepts that will endure beyond the summer. Frausto shares that this collaborative effort enables us "to shift from having the teacher as teacher to teacher as facilitator. It puts the responsibility of learning back on the kids. If we're talking about moving toward a more rigorous approach to education, this will move us there in early elementary. For the first time in our District, we are truly offering rigor and relevance to our Gifted and Talented population."
However, the greatest challenge lies in seeing how this connects to the curriculum. During a brief break, Sylvia Martinez (technology integration coordinator) remarked,

I think it's wonderful. One of the teachers was drawing a schematic of what the presenter was saying. They are so cute...they're excited about what they're doing. Those teachers...will go back and convince her principal to do this at her campus.
Fleming, D. (December, 1999). "Inquiry Learning." ITI Review Vol.1 (3). Available online at
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Rigor & Relevance Framework: What is it?

The Rigor/Relevance Framework is based on two continua, a knowledge taxonomy and an application model. The knowledge taxonomy (familiar to educators who have studied Bloom's Taxonomy of learning) describes the increasingly complex ways in which people think. At the low end is the ability to acquire knowledge and recall or locate that knowledge in a simple manner. The high end of the knowledge taxonomy denotes more complex and abstract cognitive activities. At this level, knowledge is fully integrated into one's mind and can be located and combined in logical and creative ways. Assimilation of knowledge is a good way to describe the activity represented by this high end of the knowledge taxonomy. The assimilation level is often referred to as higher-order thinking skills; individuals performing at this level can solve complex problems and create unique work.
The second continuum, known as the application model, is one of action. Although the knowledge continuum is largely passive, the action continuum describes putting knowledge to use. At the low end, an individual acquires knowledge for its own sake; at the high end, an individual uses that knowledge to solve unpredictable real-world problems.

The Rigor/Relevance Framework is represented by a four-quadrant model. Quadrant A (acquisition) represents gathering, understanding, and storing bits of knowledge for its own sake. Quadrant C (assimilation) represents more complex thinking: students extend and refine their knowledge to use it automatically and routinely to analyze and solve complex problems and create unique solutions, but it is still knowledge for its own sake. Quadrants B (application) and D (adaptation) represent knowledge in action. In Quadrant B, students use acquired knowledge to solve problems and design solutions. The highest level of application is to apply appropriate knowledge to new and unpredictable situations. At the Adaptation level (D), students are able to use their extensive knowledge and skills to create solutions to perplexing problems and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.

Source for Framework and Supporting Information Moving from standards to instructional practice Willard R Daggett. National Association of Secondary School Principals. NASSP Bulletin Reston:Dec 2000. Vol. 84, Iss. 620, p. 66-72 (7 pp.)

Matching LOTI to the Rigor/Relevance Framework

The Levels of Technology Implementation (LOTI) are already matched to the knowledge taxonomy. As one proceeds from Level 0-Non Use of Technology to Level 4b-Routine Integration of Technology, there is a corresponding increase in the knowledge taxonomy. Levels 4a-Mechanical Integration and 4b-Routine Integration can be placed entirely in Quadrant D-Adaptation where students are able to use knowledge and skills to create solutions to perplexing problems and take action. Technology at Level 4 of LOTI is best described as “the use of technology to identify and solve real life, authentic problems.” Higher levels of LOTI-Levels 5 & 6-focus on expanded student experiences directed at problem solving, issue resolution, and student activism surrounding a major theme or concept, as well as are comfortable with a wide variety of technology tools. A quick overview of the LOTI is shared below (Click on the image to view full size):