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Building the Future Brick by Brick: Unraveling the Lego Robotics Program at SCIS

Unveiling the dynamic world of robotics education at Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), the recent interview with design educators Joel Sutton and David Rempel elucidates the exciting nuances of the LEGO-based robotics curriculum. Diving into its benefits, future implications, and ethical considerations, the conversation provides a captivating insight into the evolving landscape of education and technology. 

Hello! Please introduce yourselves.  

David: My name is David Rempel and I’m from Canada. This is my fifth year at SCIS Hongqiao. In my career I have taught English Language & Literature for 13 years, transitioning to Design three years ago. Currently, I am teaching Design to Grades 6-8 and a Grade 7 English as well. 

Joel: I’m Joel Sutton. I joined SCIS Hongqiao in 2011, making this my 13th year as a Dragon. Before our MYP transition, I taught Digital Media, Graphic Design, and Percussion. Presently, I'm the Head of the Design Department where I teach Grades 8 and 9. Before joining SCIS, I taught math and computer technologies for Tulsa Public Schools in the U.S., and even worked for Apple as a Mac Genius.  

What is the robotics program taught at SCIS? 

Joel: The robotics curriculum we use at SCIS is standards-based and assembled by LEGO Corporation, marketed under the brand Spike Prime LEGO Robotics. We like the LEGO robotics curriculum because it teaches problem-solving and independent research. And the curriculum brings to the classroom a series of challenges that fit both the MYP framework as well as providing contextual real-life examples of problems such as product distribution, factory automation, etc. This allows students to be presented with real-life challenges that they must independently or collaboratively overcome through experimentation, giving them a greater extent of problem-solving than most other Design units.  

David: For any career that a student goes into, they are going to experience the discomfort of facing problems that are new and they will need to adapt and pivot. This experience is presented in robotics with problem-based learning: problems that seem at first like they will take five minutes to solve, but when the first attempt doesn’t work students must go beyond their initial idea and approach the problem from a different perspective. Students have to accept that their first try is not always going to work, so they need to reflect, collaborate, and persevere. Robotics helps students to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the effort that goes into making everything around them. 

Why is the LEGO robotics unit so special to students?  

Joel: LEGO is a globally recognized and beloved brand. Many of our students grew up with LEGOs and those that haven’t are super excited to finally play and learn with them. LEGO has a special ability to engage learners and stimulate their creativity and excitement. Our students also love to work with their friends collaboratively. They get to socialize while they learn and develop their teamwork skills. At the same time, it also gets them up, away from the table, and actually off their laptops for a while. They love their computers, but they love to do other things more when it comes down to it. For the development and construction part, there’s a competitive aspect to it where we see who can make the fastest robot or accomplish a certain task the most efficiently.  

David: It’s the play of it; putting things together, taking them apart, and putting them together in a new way. We sometimes have students who lack confidence at the beginning of the unit, so we begin with something simple with a straightforward goal. Students begin by making a little hopper that is guaranteed to be successful in moving, and yet fun because they can be unpredictable. They race these little creatures against one another and thereby have a first positive, collaborative experience with robotics. We then introduce further challenges, involving a purpose-built map. Playful inquiry and scaffolding are central to our unit and often keep students struggling through the problems they face.  

What are the benefits of having a LEGO-based design curriculum? 

David: The LEGO company is well-known for its emphasis on providing healthy, skill-building experiences. We had a training session at the local LEGO office, opening the kits and doing a few of the lessons ourselves, showing us the ways LEGO applies standards and expectations, and giving us a tour of the facilities. We then adapted what they showed us to the MYP framework and built our units. 

Joel: LEGO has been developing this robotics program and supporting it for a couple of decades, probably 25 years or more. SCIS chose to adopt the LEGO Spike Prime Robotics platform because students are already familiar with their systems, the depth of quality resources they bring to the classroom, and the fantastic local support from the LEGO corporation and suppliers.   

David: Also, building LEGO is quick, modular, and iterative. Build, deconstruct, build again. Deconstruction is so quick students can swap out parts and change the position of attachments as soon as they have the idea to do so. It's so modular that they can take the entire thing apart and rebuild it in 15 minutes and have another try at completing a mission. Students must understand the importance of iterative design, constantly reflecting and improving on an initial concept, and this unit is especially good in this regard.  

What do you expect from robotics in education in 10 years? 

Joel: In 10 years, the coding aspect of any kind of robotics process will be streamlined through some sort of AI support. It’s not fantasy to think students will be able to speak to the robot, and the robot will aim to interpret their speech to attempt an action or series of complex instructions. The reality is I don’t see classrooms getting that anytime soon though, but I do think that is very much on the horizon. I think the traditional method of keyboard and mouse interactions with computers is going to slowly fade away. 

We need to teach a lot more about digital citizenship, such as how to use technology appropriately, as our technology is perpetually becoming easier to use and more accessible.  

David: What we’re all good at is the consumption of technology, but not the utilization of technology for improving our lives or making things better. How can we use technology that exists not to just entertain ourselves but to solve problems? We need to learn how to manage these tools more effectively in our personal and work lives especially with ethical automation. 

Ethics is a huge concern. When it comes to the robotics unit, is that something you teach? 

Joel: Actually, it is. Before we get out of the actual robotics kits and start building, we explore a range of issues that AI, robotics, and technology present. For example, we watch a series of short videos showcasing Disney audio-animatronics, automation at Amazon warehouses, etc. Then, we talk about the concern of robots replacing people in the workforce and how that affects us. Are robots taking jobs? Do they make people lazier like in Wall-E? One of the points we try to explore is that while robots have the potential to replace people in some areas, they also have the potential to open entirely new industries and markets that may not have been possible before. They provide us with the opportunity to focus our time on other tasks, hopefully making us more efficient and improving our quality of life. 

And lastly, do you think robots will take over the world one day?  

Joel: We are on Earth because space is incompatible with our biological needs. As a species, we need food, warmth, and air to survive. Robots don’t need any of these for survival. I mean, if they’re not limited by biological constraints, what is the purpose of staying on Earth? No, I don’t subscribe to the line of thought that robots will seek to dominate Earth, despite the popularity in the movies. If humanity truly develops sentient AI, I suspect it would be more inclined to explore our galaxy than seek world domination against its creators. Let’s face it, Earth is big, but space is much bigger and would likely hold a much greater appeal to that kind of lifeform.  

David: I agree; I don’t think there's any real threat to humans from intelligent robots. Yet there are so many interesting and important topics of conversation regarding the implications of robotics and AI. I think we must seek to understand and reflect on this technology as it develops, to ensure we understand the implications. We need to be conscious of the fact that our students are growing up in a time where automation is increasingly working in the background, from screening job applications to processing photos as you take them, so students must develop an awareness of this and reflect on how it impacts our lives, both negatively and positively. 

In the distant future, I do think it is likely that we will start to integrate or augment ourselves with computers and robotics, though that’s probably a long way off. We will start to see more robots present around us and more robots and humans combined. So, by the time we worry that intelligent robots are going to take over, we’ll probably be somewhat on par with them anyway. But for now, let’s just be sure to play nice with them. 


Thank you Joel and David for sharing your thoughts and insights about the LEGO-based robotics curriculum and the future of education.

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