Social Emotional Learning and Robotics: Authentic Integration with VEX 123

Introduction

Imagine this situation: In a Kindergarten classroom, a small group of students are working together at a learning center, to try to sequence button presses, so that a robot will travel the path they have drawn. The robot makes a wrong turn, and the students look at each other and frown. One offers a different idea, and they try again, with the same result. The teacher then reminds the students that they can draw their steps, so they don’t lose track when pressing the buttons, and gives them a worksheet to use. One student draws their path on the sheet, then others color-in the button presses in order. When they try their project again, the robot does what they intended. The students share their excitement with their teacher, who congratulates them on their perseverance.

Is this Computer Science (CS) or Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)? Oftentimes subject area learning, Computer Science or otherwise, and SEL are thought of as being on opposite banks of an educational river. However, authentic problem solving opportunities, like this one, and many in Computer Science and education, are not just CS or SEL – they are both, they are intrinsically linked.

While there is much that can be learned from specific social-emotional learning lessons and activities, that bring topics like emotions, perseverance, conflict resolution, and self-regulation to the forefront; this is not the only time that students are engaging in social and emotional learning in their school day. Moreover, traditional short-term, isolated efforts to promote SEL have not been shown to be as effective in their impact, as longer term, coordinated efforts.1 The human element of schooling, especially in the younger years, means that all subjects and tasks in the day have some component of social or emotional learning to them. Our emotions are a part of everything we do, and learning about what those feelings are, why we feel them when we do, and how to cope with those feelings in prosocial ways, underscore every interaction and lesson we will teach and learn in early childhood. In this view, what better marriage is there between social-emotional learning and a subject area that revolves around problem-solving, inquiry, iteration, and collaboration?

VEX 123 offers early educators and students the opportunity to infuse Computer Science concepts into their school day, while capitalizing on the social-emotional learning opportunities presented by working collaboratively with a robot. With VEX 123 STEM Labs and Activities, students naturally enter into situations where they need to persist and try again, they feel a range of emotions and need to communicate in prosocial ways, and where they can develop their sense of self-efficacy and embrace a growth mindset. VEX 123 integrates Computer Science and SEL in authentic ways that build on students’ natural curiosity about the world around them, and strengthens their 21st century skills.

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What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and why is it important?

It is readily acknowledged that for students to be successful in school, from elementary school onwards, and eventually in careers, they must be not only academically competent, but socially and emotionally competent as well.2 “Addressing students’ social and emotional development is not an additional duty charged to school along with academic instruction, but rather is an integral and necessary aspect to helping all students succeed.”3 The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identified five key sets of competencies that comprise social and emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.”4 These five core competencies underscore our ability to learn both inside and outside of the classroom, and reflect the social-emotional awareness needed to interact effectively with others. 21st century learning skills, like collaboration and communication, rest on a foundation of SEL, making it a necessary component of educational practices from a young age.

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Source: World Economic Forum. "New vision for education: Fostering social and emotional learning through technology." Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016.

Knowing how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors connect enables us to develop the social skills necessary to learn from and with others throughout our lives. This development of self-regulation is a big part of the work of early childhood, and the ability to accurately and effectively name and identify feelings is an important building block in this process.5 Our emotions change throughout the day, and for young children, those changes can be felt with great intensity. Being able to give voice to those feelings, to give them a name, helps to share those feelings with others in prosocial ways. It is the first step in being able to exert some control over a feeling, and your expression of it. Helping students to build an emotional vocabulary can help them notice the range of emotions they feel, and to name them effectively, so that they can begin to manage and regulate them in the context of others. As young children are building this emotional vocabulary, their behavior tends to show their feelings before their words do. Helping children to see this connection between their actions, expressions, and feelings is an important step in ensuring that children see that they have control over their behavior6 — and, more importantly, that their behavior is not a reflection of their self-worth.

Understanding how you express emotion connects to how you interpret the emotional expressions of others — an important part of developing empathy.7 To have a truly empathetic response to someone, children need to be able to identify how someone else is feeling, and connect that to how they experience that feeling themselves. Classroom activities that make social-emotional learning a shared endeavor, help build students' capacity for, and expectation of, empathy with their peers and their teachers.

This empathetic development can be channeled to support students’ behavior, relationship skill development, and self-regulation during their interactions with one another.8 Mediating disagreements and differences of feelings with young children is part of every classroom, and helping students to talk about their feelings regularly gives them the tools to be able to begin to solve social problems for themselves.9 Empowering students to make the connection between their own feelings and actions, and how that affects the feelings and actions of others, creates space for an empathetic loop to occur. So when disagreements take place, in any context, students can work towards social problem-solving in healthier and more effective ways.

To do this successfully, children need to feel safe and heard, so they can build the confidence to be vulnerable, without judgment from others. Viewing all school activities through the lens of SEL, makes it easier to have an effective approach to promoting social-emotional development, where SEL skill instruction is embedded into general teaching practices, not only in stand-alone lessons.10 This extends to teaching students coping skills for negative emotions, as well as positive ones. Much attention has been given to promoting children’s positive self-esteem, however, consideration for their experience of negative emotions, and the ability to persist and find motivation when one is experiencing negative emotions is important to learning.11 Acknowledging and persevering in the face of failure or feelings of frustration is also linked to career choices later in life, particularly the pursuit of STEM related paths, like Computer Science.12

The emotional experiences of students are an undercurrent running through every school interaction, academic and social, and as such, paying attention to how social-emotional learning is infused into as many aspects of the curriculum as possible can pay dividends for students as they develop 21st century skills, like collaboration, communication, creativity, and persistence.13 14

Pedagogical Connections between SEL and Robotics

Young students are naturally curious about the world around them, and Computer Science and robotics are increasingly becoming a part of that world, and students’ everyday experiences in it. As such, using robots to introduce young students to Computer Science, capitalizes on this curiosity, so it can be leveraged to teach a variety of skills and competencies, including SEL. Robots, like VEX 123, can reach students before they have developed a fixed perception of Computer Science, or themselves in relation to it. Through engaging, hands-on experiences with VEX 123, young students can begin to see themselves as creators and problem-solvers in the world of Computer Science,15 giving them positive self-efficacy associations and combating the perception problem that can develop in relation to Computer Science.16

Infusing social emotional learning content into robotics and Computer Science lessons has been shown to enhance young children’s interest in and appreciation for science and its applications.17 While design based experiences, like makerspaces and project based learning, can trigger an initial interest, students’ motivation and self-efficacy towards CS disciplines and experiences is directly affected by their emotional experiences, especially in the elementary years.18 Increasingly, researchers are beginning to give consideration to the emotional climate of students in classes, and the ways that SEL can be leveraged to improve learning outcomes.19 20 21

Robotics lends itself well to a project-based pedagogy, which can support skills like critical thinking, problem solving, higher-order thinking, design, and inference, while also promoting the development of behavioral competencies like organization, responsibility, and cooperation.22 VEX 123, and the project-based curriculum associated with it, can provide students with an interdisciplinary approach to learning Computer Science, and an experiential learning pedagogy, whereby students are given the opportunity to see the “connection between the content they are studying and the application of that content in authentic and relevant ways.”23 The emphasis on authentic, real world problem solving in working with a robot requires students to build their 21st century skills – to have communicative competence, the ability to work collaboratively and creatively, as well as demonstrate critical thinking skills, and character qualities like curiosity, persistence, and adaptability.24 25

While initial successes with Computer Science and robotics may spark an interest for students, much of their learning will not necessarily be instantly successful. Students need to practice working through challenges, a skill set endemic not only to Computer Science, but to most areas of life and learning. Experiencing the pride that comes with success after perseverance has the potential to ignite and sustain that initial spark; while being overwhelmed by moments of failure can extinguish it.26 Seeing failure as an opportunity for learning, rather than a deficit of character, has the potential to not only promote creativity and innovation,27 but also contributes to the development of a growth mindset, and a positive sense of self-efficacy as a problem solver.28

During the course of a typical day, students navigate a variety of emotions with varying intensity – from being content in the morning, to disappointed that something didn’t go their way, to happy when playing with a friend, to frustrated when they have a disagreement with that friend, and on and on and on. Learning with VEX 123 puts students in a position to experience many of these same emotions, but within a safe, structured learning environment, where frustration, failure, disappointment are expected and given space.

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Consider the example earlier – the students had a problem to solve, getting their 123 Robot to travel a designated path – and it took them multiple tries and strategies to find the solution. They needed to communicate with one another effectively, demonstrate patience to try new ideas, and listening skills to take a strategic cue from the teacher. The students in the group were navigating their own emotional landscapes simultaneously, and working through those feelings in real time to offer tangible solutions to their given problem. Additionally, they were learning about sequencing commands and observing the connection between those commands and the robot’s behaviors – foundational components of Computer Science. VEX 123 is uniquely positioned to be able to infuse concept knowledge with social-emotional learning, as it can personalize learning, and build on students’ natural curiosity about the world around them, including technology like robotics.

VEX 123 as a Tool for Social-Emotional Learning

VEX 123 is an interactive, programmable robot that takes STEM, Computer Science and Computational Thinking off of the screen and brings them to life for Pre-K through 3rd grade students. The VEX 123 platform contains both hardware and curriculum. Hardware includes a 123 Robot with a Touch button interface, a Coder and Coder Cards for creating larger coding projects without a screen, and a Field, to give robots a clearly defined space on which to move. The curricular component includes STEM Labs, plug-in lessons based around hands-on, collaborative learning activities in a variety of curricular areas with the 123 Robot; Activities, short exercises connected to the content and coding students are learning in the classroom; and Teacher Resources that offer background information and support for curriculum development and implementation, like the worksheet mentioned in the introductory example. The VEX 123 platform is designed to be flexible, giving teachers and students the ability to incorporate VEX 123 into their schedule in the way that best meets their needs – from using Activities in a learning center, to a whole class engagement during Circle Time, or even as small group Math practice.

VEX 123 is designed to offer hands-on, experiential learning around authentic problem solving, with students working in groups to accomplish their goals. With a few button presses on the Touch interface, even the youngest students can be “coders”, and learn the fundamentals of Computer Science through playful learning activities. As students progress to building larger projects and coding more complex behaviors and logic, they can use the Coder and Coder Cards to create longer sequences, loops, and even explore conditional statements in their code.

Core Computer Science concepts, like sequencing and decomposition, tie into other areas of early education curriculum, and VEX 123 offers educators and students the opportunity to practice these skills in an engaging way, with a robot. Why use a worksheet to practice sequencing, when you can do the same activity in a hands-on way to code a robot to complete a similar task? Rather than using passive practices, students engaging with VEX 123 are being creative problem solvers, and can begin to see themselves as such. As students work with the 123 Robot, they are learning computational ways of thinking and behaving, and are actively creating the projects they imagine, which supports their development of self-efficacy.29

The project based learning pedagogy of VEX 123 makes space for social and emotional development through its implementation, as students experience and learn to cope with both positive and negative emotions. VEX 123, like much of educational robotics, sets students up to engage in real-world problem solving experiences, where they will likely need to be able to persist in the face of a perceived failure, as they design and iterate on solutions to authentic problems. Doing this individually can be challenging, and when coupled with the collaborative element of robotics – the need for students to develop strong social, emotional, and behavioral skills is even more evident. Coping with failure, disappointment, and frustration are life skills that students are learning well before they enter school. Rather than protecting students from ever experiencing these feelings, robotics challenges, like VEX 123, can provide rich opportunities for language, communication, and social and emotional learning.30

Like other STEM pedagogies, the VEX 123 curriculum engages students in building, testing, and iterating on their projects within their groups, and lessons are structured around conversation, collaboration, and iteration. Students’ initial experiences of immediate success are scaffolded into longer engagements, where they are less likely to be successful on their first try. All curricular materials organically incorporate time and space for problem solving, and social-emotional learning practices connected to collaboration, communication, persistence, and resiliency into the lesson design.

Each VEX 123 STEM Lab has three sections: Engage, Play, and Share. During the Engage portion, students can make a personal connection to their learning, as the concept of the lab is introduced through a facilitated conversation or guided demonstration. Students' initial impressions, feelings, and prior experiences can be shared and build a collective foundation for the group. The Play portion, completed in two parts, offers students an opportunity to work in small groups with the 123 Robot to code and test projects to accomplish a goal. The coding can take place with the Touch interface or the Coder and Coder Cards. A Mid-Play Break offers students a moment to reflect on their learning, problem solve together, and prepare for the next phase of the challenge. STEM Labs conclude with a Share component, during which students come back together as a whole group, to reflect on their learning, talk about challenges, and celebrate their learning and persistence. Teacher notes and resources are included throughout STEM Lab materials offering guidance for scaffolding students’ learning, collaboration, and supporting the development of SEL. Conversation prompts, facilitation notes, and reflective questions are embedded throughout the pedagogy of VEX 123 STEM Labs and teacher support materials to support SEL and the development of 21st century skills like resilience, persistence, collaboration, and communication.

SEL is not only infused into the curriculum, but is also presented in more overt ways, with “Act” commands, and social-emotional learning specific STEM Labs. “Act” commands are precoded complex behaviors that can be used in a coding project to have the 123 Robot “act” out a particular emotion, like happy or sad. These commands offer teachers and students a meeting point to discuss emotional expressions, and the behaviors that correspond to different feelings. This concept is the foundation of an SEL STEM Lab Unit, Role Play Robot, in which students begin by observing and discussing the behaviors that the 123 Robot performs for each “Act” command. They then build upon that to create their own “emotion codes”, pairing sequences of robot behaviors with emotional vocabulary as they explore the connection between emotions and behaviors in humans. Talking about feelings and emotional expression can be difficult for young children, but being able to do so in the context of coding a robot not only can make it a more engaging experience, it can give students some much needed distance between themselves and the topic at hand, engaging in social-emotional learning in a safe space.

Computer Science, robotics, and SEL are authentic partners in students’ learning and development of 21st century skills in many ways, and VEX 123 offers educators the tools to blend these subjects together in engaging, meaningful learning experiences for young learners.


1  Zins, Joseph E., et al. "The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success." Journal of educational and psychological consultation 17.2-3 (2007): 191-210.

2 Dusenbury, Linda, and Roger P. Weissberg. "Social emotional learning in elementary school: Preparation for success." The Education Digest 83.1 (2017): 36.

3  E Zins, Joseph E., et al. "The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success." Journal of educational and psychological consultation 17.2-3 (2007): 191-210.

4 Dusenbury, Linda, and Roger P. Weissberg. "Social emotional learning in elementary school: Preparation for success." The Education Digest 83.1 (2017): 36.

5 Housman, Donna K. "The importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth: A case for the evidence-based emotional cognitive social early learning approach." International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy 11.1 (2017): 13.

6 Poole, Carla, Susan A. Miller, and Ellen Booth Church. "How Empathy Develops: Effective Responses to Children Help Set the Foundation for Empathy." Early Childhood Today 20.2 (2005): 21-25.

7  Ibid.

8  Ibid.

9 Dusenbury, Linda, and Roger P. Weissberg. "Social emotional learning in elementary school: Preparation for success." The Education Digest 83.1 (2017): 36.

10 Ibid.

11 Vongkulluksn, Vanessa W., et al. "Motivational factors in makerspaces: a mixed methods study of elementary school students’ situational interest, self-efficacy, and achievement emotions." International journal of STEM education 5.1 (2018): 1-19.

12 Simpson, Amber, and Adam Maltese. "“Failure is a major component of learning anything”: The role of failure in the development of STEM professionals." Journal of Science Education and Technology 26.2 (2017): 223-237.

13 World Economic Forum. "New vision for education: Fostering social and emotional learning through technology." Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016.

14 Dusenbury, Linda, and Roger P. Weissberg. "Social emotional learning in elementary school: Preparation for success." The Education Digest 83.1 (2017): 36.

15 Bers, Marina Umaschi. Coding as a playground: Programming and computational thinking in the early childhood classroom. Routledge, 2017.

16 Sullivan, Amanda Alzena. Breaking the STEM stereotype: Reaching girls in early childhood. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019.

17 Garner, Pamela W., et al. "Innovations in science education: infusing social emotional principles into early STEM learning." Cultural Studies of Science Education 13.4 (2018): 889-903.

18 Vongkulluksn, Vanessa W., et al. "Motivational factors in makerspaces: a mixed methods study of elementary school students’ situational interest, self-efficacy, and achievement emotions." International journal of STEM education 5.1 (2018): 1-19.

19 Fraser, Barry J., Felicity I. McLure, and Rekha B. Koul. "Assessing Classroom Emotional Climate in STEM classrooms: developing and validating a questionnaire." Learning Environments Research 24 (2021): 1-21.

20 Davis, James P., et al. "Uniformity, diversity, harmony, and emotional energy in a Chinese STEM classroom." International Journal of STEM Education 7.1 (2020): 1-15.

21 Garner, Pamela W., et al. "Innovations in science education: infusing social emotional principles into early STEM learning." Cultural Studies of Science Education 13.4 (2018): 889-903.

22 NSTA. “STEM Education Teaching and Learning” NSTA. https://www.nsta.org/nstas-official-positions/stem-education-teaching-and-learning

23 Ibid.

24 Garner, Pamela W., et al. "Innovations in science education: infusing social emotional principles into early STEM learning." Cultural Studies of Science Education 13.4 (2018): 889-903.

25 World Economic Forum. "New vision for education: Fostering social and emotional learning through technology." Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016.

26 Willingham, Daniel T. Why don't students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2021.

27 Simpson, Amber, and Adam Maltese. "“Failure is a major component of learning anything”: The role of failure in the development of STEM professionals." Journal of Science Education and Technology 26.2 (2017): 223-237.

28 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., 2008.

29 Bers, Marina Umaschi. Coding as a playground: Programming and computational thinking in the early childhood classroom. Routledge, 2017.

30 Clements, Douglas H., et al. "STREAM Education at Work-No, at Play!." YC Young Children 75.2 (2020): 36-43.