Using VEX Robotics To Teach Computer Science

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In January of 2016, then President Barack Obama addressed the changing demands of the 21st century economy, and identified computer science (CS) as the “new basic skill required of contemporary students.1 To meet the challenge of his time, he announced a plan to give all students access to CS education.

President Obama’s identification of the importance of CS education mirrors the attitudes and opinions of many educators, and also that of the nations parents and students themselves. This is emphasized by the findings of a recent study conducted by Google; 82% of students were at least somewhat interested in learning CS, with 84% of parents citing CS as being at least as important as required (and more familiar) subjects like math and reading.

Reflecting on the all-pervasive presence of the new basic skill of the century in society, former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt recently stated,

“If you are joining the company in your 20s, unlike when I joined, you’re going to learn to code. It doesn’t matter whether you are in sales, finance or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.”2 Immelt describes a goal in which the transferability of the fundamental skills of computer science is recognized and valued, and CS-training byproducts (e.g. problem decomposition, logic, identifying alternative solutions, creativity) are also appreciated for their non-CS application within the workforce.

A corresponding goal has been to broaden participation in CS education classes; addressing the gender gap in this subject area has also been a consistent goal. Currently, girls account for approximately half of all AP test-takers, but account for only 25% of those taking AP computer science classes.3

Educational Robotics can be an effective tool to teach CS while also helping to broaden participation goals.45 Recent advances in Educational Robotics have lowered costs and increased ease of use, making them more accessible to students and progressively turned to as a reliable way to learn CS concepts. As such, the connection between CS and robotics is clear; students have the ability to program their robots to perform complex tasks, both in the classroom and on competition fields. While the performance of complex tasks may be the end, the means involve decomposing these tasks into smaller parts and then iteratively building them together to create a solution.

In classrooms, the scaffolding of that process is vitally important, and once again, Educational Robotics can be effective in facilitating both the decomposition and scaffolding of complex tasks. The ability to effectively teach generalizable CS skills, while simultaneously offering ways to help diversify the students that enter these fields, makes Educational Robotics a significant contributor to the Computer Science for All movement.