Engineering Meets Liberal Arts

Olivia B. and her partner, Siena C., sat down with their computer, LEGO Robotics kit, a mission to build the “Smart Spinner” and, for Olivia, a question.

“Do we exactly know what this is going to do?” she asked.

“No,” Siena replied flatly. She sat at the screen, and of the pair was clearly more at home with the programming aspect than the LEGO building part.

“Here,” Siena said, passing the box of LEGOs to Olivia as she brought the schematic up on the screen. “You’ve got the magic touch. Why don’t you handle this part?”

It was an ordinary afternoon in Tammy Calhoun’s fourth grade class and Siena, whether deliberately or not, was being coy about her own building skills. The previous section had just finished up making interactive games and animations by writing code using an MIT program called Scratch, while their peers in class at this moment were delving deep into what had become comfortable territory: assembling the physical parts and digital instructions to make inanimate LEGOs come to life.

“When I first introduced LEGO Robotics, everything was new to the kids and everything was more difficult,” said Head of Lower School Caroline Badri. “Starting with just logging in, for example. Then the directions kids followed for building the robots weren’t nearly as elegant, and the program itself has become much more refined and user friendly. When you combine that with just how tech-savvy kids are today versus 10 years ago, it’s really impressive what they manage to do.”

And Badri was quick to point out that while there was no question as to whether or how the students would use programming knowledge in their later lives, the children were learning other, equally important lessons too.

“When you see the kids work as a team, they have to figure out how to negotiate and work with one another and collaborate to diagnose and solve the problem when something goes wrong.”

Calhoun picked up the thought.

“Many people consider coding akin to learning a language and I think that’s absolutely right,” she said. “As a teacher, you see kids working through problems on their own and my job is often to step back and just plant a seed of a possible solution, to be almost indirect when helping, because the kids can — and want to — figure it out on their own.

“Obviously what they’re doing ties in perfectly with rise of STEM and the future demand for skills like these,” Calhoun continued. However, what makes LEGO Robotics and writing programs in Scratch so much more engaging for teacher and student alike is their ability to engage the students’ creative side. So while the skills they’re learning are certainly practical, they in no way feel vocational; it’s more like engineering-meets-liberal arts.

“It can change a child’s whole mindset,” said Badri.