How to teach robotics

It is relatively simple to get started in robotics, explains Denis Hallam, Associate Deputy Headteacher at East Barnet School


“I used to want to be a dancer, now I want to be an engineer,” professed one teenage girl, fresh from taking part in a national robotics competition.

Anyone working in technology and engineering will understand the true value of this statement. In spite of high demand for fresh young talent, there is a lack of young people leaving school and entering into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) related careers. A recent survey found that 59% of business leaders believe there are not enough suitable candidates leaving education to meet industry’s employment requirements. It is clear then that improving the way these subjects are taught and getting pupils engaged in this sector is what’s needed to help bridge this skills gap.

At East Barnet School, one way in which we’ve been getting our pupils actively involved in technology is through the teaching and building of robots. In 2008 we created a robot lab where students could select basic starter kits provided by Mindsets. Fast forward five years and we’ve won numerous awards, twice winning the UK VEX Robotics Competition, securing us a place at the World Championships in Los Angeles.

Other schools and teachers may wonder how it was possible to get involved in such a project, but in reality it is relatively simple to get started in robotics. The need for STEAM education to inspire future innovators across all sectors is changing the way lessons are taught as we try and encourage the younger generation to take an active interest in these subjects.

The prospect of teaching such a seemingly complex subject as robotics is one that would put off the most experienced of teachers. However, one of the great things about this particular type of education is the collaboration between teachers and their pupils. The ‘Millenials’, or even ‘Generation i’, have a natural flair for ICT and digital creativity; this is a generation that doesn’t remember a life before the internet. They naturally adapt to technology in a way that rivals most IT professionals, making lessons more collaborative and instinctive. It is with this mentality that schools should approach the teaching of robotics and other technology-based projects; when students feel that they themselves are actively playing a part in the process, they are filled with a much greater sense of achievement then they would with a normal lesson format.

This type of education also allows for the development of different skillsets. It has often been thought that engineering is solely about the mechanical processes, when in fact a lot of different abilities are required. Teachers have an opportunity to develop a wide range of skills among their pupils that will support them in their career beyond the classroom. For example, being able to code is going to be very important for a range of STEAM-based careers in the future, but it needs to be linked to something tangible, such as programming a robot, to ground it in reality, and give a purpose to why pupils are learning it. Students will not only benefit from developing the creative and technical skills specific to robotics, but they will also gain essential teamwork and time management experience transferrable to any future career.

The teaching of robotics is the perfect way to inject more fun into the curriculum, as well as providing a solid starting point for the future generation of designers, engineers and manufacturers. Along with the prestige and excitement of taking part in competitions, being taught how to use the relevant software is also vital. If you’re being taught to use something like Autodesk Inventor in the classroom, then you will be well prepared for using it in university and industry. This kind of education acts as an excellent springboard into any STEAM-based career.

IT skills are no longer just ‘nice to have’, but a necessity in order for students to succeed beyond their school career. Robotics is a perfect way to weave ICT into the design and technology process, merging both technical and creative skills. This is something we strongly believe in at East Barnet and we’re currently pushing for a collaborative KS4 course in robotics, combining both the ICT and D&T departments. We suspect that it will not be long for other schools follow suit.