In our schools or media today, you may have seen the acronym STEM or STEAM. In Canada, there is an acknowledgement that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are cross-curricular or related to each other. There is also a recent development where Art is also understood to be connected. Canadian economists see the fastest growing industry for the next twenty years to be STEM related jobs which is why the Ontario Ministry of Education is now focusing on numeracy instruction. However, as parents, it can be difficult to stay up with all the new developments happening in this field. Well, don’t worry, you don’t need to know it all, because all the resources you need are readily available.
I believe you should always look for items that are well established and have good tech support. In the world of robotics, Lego continues to lead the pack. Every techy child knows how to build with Lego, and Lego gives you the entire schematic right on their website. And because they are so well-known, there are Youtube videos for every question you can imagine. Lego is phasing out the NXT model so don’t go cheap and buy from Kiiji. You don’t get any support and good luck getting replacement parts. The easiest thing to do is buy the EV3 basic kit for $400 which will provide you with everything you need to participate in the Robotics Competition that happens every May in Ottawa http://www.orc.ieeeottawa.ca/en/. And you program it from the Lego Mindstorms program which can be done right from the brick or any standard laptop. If you don’t want to start that expensive, I would suggest the Dash robot from Wonder which sells for about $200 at Toys R Us. Don’t get the Dash and Dot kit. Dot doesn’t do anything. The reason I would suggest this one is because of the related apps. Wonder provides the Go app, Blockly app, and Wonder app free on both Android and Apple. The Go app basically runs it like a remote-control robot and fabulous for the beginner. Blockly allows the child to learn how to program and Wonder is essentially game creation. The Blockly language is the most common type of beginner coding. The best part is once your child learns Blockly, they will be able to apply this learning in a lot of different areas. The reason I like Wonder over the other 100 robots on the market, though, is the support they provide. There are online contests your child can participate in, loads of tutorials online, and actual people who will reply to your questions. They are new but seem to have the lead right now on this market. And like I said, you can always go to Lego later if necessary.
Robotics lend themselves so well to STEM education. With Lego, you can start with the large blocks in kindergarten, go to the smaller blocks in grades 1-3 and then start building your robot in grades 4-6. Most robots I see are basically vehicles. What the child doesn’t realize is they are learning about automotive engineering, using math like patterning and symmetry and figuring out what creates speed and force. On top of it, they also learn coding and programming through universal languages. And the best part for parents is they don’t need to know anything. Every child I have worked with will inevitably ask me how to do something. I always reply, “Figure it out yourself.” If they come back a second time, I tell them, "Look it up on Google.” I haven’t had a child yet who couldn’t figure it out eventually. In our school system today, the emphasis is on inquiry learning or discovery learning. The students are expected to figure these things out independently.
When you consider an 8th grader has never lived in a world without smartphones, STEM is here to stay. The reason our children are so much more comfortable with technology then we were is simply because it is all they have known. As an elementary math teacher, when parents ask what should they be working on at home, I tell them “Don’t worry about the times tables, look at buying some Lego.”
Rob More is a tech writer for Canadian Family magazine, a Capital Region Educator Finalist 2016, member of the Centre of Excellence in Mathematics and Computing, and lead instructor of the Beckwith Summer Tech Camp.