Improving Student Attitudes Toward STEM: Finding from a VEX GO Curriculum

Abstract

Educational robotics has the potential to become a cornerstone of STEM education for its ability to provide hands-on, project-based learning through interdisciplinary curriculum. Research has shown that student attitudes toward STEM learning decrease as they progress through our educational system; cultivating positive attitudes towards STEM topics is crucial in elementary-aged students. Integrating robotics curriculum with STEM subjects has been shown to have many positive learning benefits for students while also improving student perceptions of these topics. In this study, 104 students ranging from third to fifth grade participated in a research project to identify if student perceptions of STEM topics would change after six weeks of robotics curriculum. Students were given a pre-survey to evaluate attitudes on math, science, engineering, and 21st century skills. Each grade then completed a robotics curriculum using the VEX GO robot classroom bundle and the VEX GO curriculum STEM labs and activities. After the six weeks of lessons, students were given the same post-survey questions to evaluate if their attitudes had changed. Results show significantly improved student attitudes across all STEM subjects, as well as perceived improvements in creativity, engagement, teamwork, and persistence.

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Introduction

Robotics has become increasingly integrated into primary and secondary schools across the United States in recent years, spurred by national reports and policies. In 2015, the National Science Foundation stated that the acquisition of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) knowledge and skills is increasingly vital to Americans to fully engage in a technology-intensive global economy, and that it is critical for everyone to have access to high quality education in STEM topics. Educational robotics is not simply a popular trend in educational technology, but has been shown through research to be effective for improving student perceptions of STEM subjects as well as learning outcomes. A meta analysis (Beniti, 2012) found that, in general, educational robotics increased learning for specific STEM concepts. Research focusing on different age groups revealed that robotics increases student interest and positive perceptions of STEM subjects (Nugent et al., 2010; Robinson, 2005; Rogers & Portsmore, 2004), and further research found this in turn increases school achievement and furthers science degree achievement (Renninger & Hidi, 2011; Wigfield & Cambria, 2010; Tai et al., 2006). For high school students, robotics has been used to support college preparedness and technical career skills (Boakes, 2019; Ziaeefard et al., 2017; Vela et al., 2020).

The National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education put forth a report in 2018 to outline a federal strategy for interdisciplinary STEM education: “The character of STEM education itself has been evolving from a set of overlapping disciplines into a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach to learning and skill development. This new approach includes the teaching of academic concepts through real-world applications and combines formal and informal learning in schools, the community, and the workplace.” Educational robotics should not be taught as a stand-alone topic, but rather, take full advantage of an interdisciplinary curricular approach. Researchers have found a spectrum of benefits for incorporating robotics into existing school curriculum, from the development and application of STEM knowledge, to computational thinking and problem-solving skills, to social and teamwork skills (Altin & Pedaste, 2013; Bers et al., 2014; Kandlhofer & Steinbauer, 2015; Taylor, 2016). Benitti (2012) found that most robotics programs were being taught as its own subject, and this made it more difficult for teachers to integrate it into their classroom. One goal of this research study is to evaluate student attitudes towards STEM topics using a robotics curriculum that combines the robotics construction and programming with standards-aligned math, science, and engineering content.

Introducing educational robotics has been especially helpful to young students, who can begin to form negative attitudes toward STEM subjects as early as 4th grade (Unfried et al., 2014). Young students benefit from an integrated learning context and develop more positive attitudes toward STEM subjects with early experiences of success (McClure et al., 2017). Cherniak et al. (2019) found that introducing robotics to elementary school students helps to develop inquiry and problem-solving skills. In a study by Ching et al. (2019), upper elementary students were introduced to an integrated STEM robotics curriculum in an afterschool program. Using a survey instrument (Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, 2012), student attitudes towards math, science, and engineering were measured before and after the program. Results showed only the math construct increased significantly. Ching et al. identified that these results were consistent with other research from informal learning settings and short (one-week) pilot programs (Conrad et al., 2018; Leonard et al., 2016). Ching et al. also noted other difficulties that may have impacted the null results for other subjects: students struggled to build the robots, taking up to four 90-minute sessions to complete them. Difficulty understanding build instructions and building robots has been a reported challenge for upper elementary students in other studies as well (Kopcha et al., 2017), and researchers have noted that a strong understanding of the various robotic components is necessary for robotic construction (Slangen et al., 2011). Ching et al. (2019) stated, “In the future, when a learning goal involves the construction of an original and functional robot, it is highly recommended that students develop a deep understanding of the various components of robots prior to embarking” p. 598. These insights make it clear that it is especially important for young children to have early experiences of success with STEM learning, and using a robotic kit that is easy to learn and construct is a valuable component of implementing a robotic curriculum so that all students achieve success.

In this study, we investigate how an interdisciplinary robotics curriculum—delivered as part of the school day—impacted student attitudes toward STEM subjects. The research questions are:

  1. How did a six-week, interdisciplinary robotics curriculum impact student attitudes toward STEM subjects?
  2. What kinds of perceived benefits or learning are observed as students work through the robotics curriculum?

The continued investigation of how robotics can benefit upper elementary students is of increasing importance to improve student perceptions of STEM, and hopefully, improve engagement and outcomes. In this study, we aim to contribute to the research by investigating:

  • students from third to fifth grade
  • a robotics curriculum integrated into the school day and delivered over six weeks
  • interdisciplinary robotics lessons that align to STEM standards
  • a robotics kit designed for elementary-aged student

Methods

This study was done in a public school district in Western Pennsylvania with 104 total students across three grades. The teacher who developed and delivered the robotics curriculum serves as the Elementary Technology Integrator for the district and sees students on a rotating schedule. This study includes both quantitative and qualitative data. Students answered survey questions to empirically evaluate their attitudes towards STEM topics before and after a robotics curriculum. Additionally, the teacher kept a journal where she recorded notes and reflections on student behavior and learning during the STEM labs and activities they completed.

Pre-survey. To evaluate student perceptions of STEM topics, students completed the Student Attitudes toward STEM Survey - Upper Elementary School Students (Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, 2012). To help make the process easier for students, the teacher recreated the survey items in a table form and removed the neutral option that she believed would cause confusion for students when answering.

Letters describing the research project and consent forms were sent home with students for parent review. In order to participate in this research study, students were required to return a signed consent form. The survey instrument was printed and distributed to students in an in-person class. Students who returned the consent form took the survey, while the students who did not were given another activity during that time. The instructions were read aloud to students, and some terms were defined when requested. The surveys were taken by third, fourth, and fifth graders from Monday to Wednesday of the same week.

At the time the first survey was delivered, students had been introduced to the robotic kit using the Intro to Building lab, and the lesson to build the astronaut character. No other STEM labs had been completed, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students had not received robotics curriculum in the previous year and a half. This provided an opportunity to evaluate how students felt about STEM topics without recent experience with the STEM curriculum shaping their responses.

The teacher noted that students in different grades responded to the surveys differently. The fifth-grade students took the survey quickly and with few questions. The fourth-grade students asked for many definitions for terms. Third grade students had the most challenges with terminology and took the longest to complete the survey.

STEM Learning Curriculum and Robot. The Elementary Technology Integrator teacher had many robotic and programming tools collected for use in the district, but chose to implement a six-week curriculum with the VEX GO robot for the Computational Thinking and Computer Science classes they were able to have at the end of the 2021 school year. The VEX GO robot is a kit of plastic parts that can be manipulated by elementary students, who have different fine motor requirements than older students. The kit is color-coded to help students understand the sizing of pieces, and organized by type: beams, angle beams, plates, gears, pulleys, connectors, standoffs, and pins. The teacher used a single classroom bundle (ten kits) to serve all sections of the third, fourth, and fifth grades that she taught. Sharing robot kits from a classroom implementation perspective meant students had to be able to complete the lesson and put away their robot in a single class period, so another class could use them later. The teacher also had to be able to move to different classrooms for different grades throughout the day.

Each grade level completed six weeks of robotics STEM labs. Due to the atypical learning situation brought about by COVID-19, students rotated through a schedule of in-person lessons three times in a ten-day rotation. Not all students were seen exactly the same number of times, depending on their schedule and external factors. The teacher dealt with this through differentiation: “With this in mind, I tried to really look to differentiate for each classroom. I didn’t want to pound as many lessons down in each grade level but instead really dig deeper into lessons for understanding.” The fifth grade students were seen the least. The teacher noted that it was difficult to teach fifth graders at the very end of their elementary career as they had so many events scheduled in the weeks prior to their graduation.

While all students completed a set of VEX GO robotics STEM labs and activities during those six weeks, the curriculum was differentiated at the teacher’s discretion, to accommodate the abilities of different aged students. For example, all students began their robotics curriculum with the Intro to Building STEM Lab, as this lab introduces the robotics kit. All students also completed the Look Alike STEM Lab, which teaches how traits are passed genetically from parent bunnies to baby bunnies. Each grade then completed a different set of labs and activities:

  • Third grade: Intro to Building, Look Alike, Fun Frogs (2 Lessons), Adaptation Claw, VEX GO Activities: Lunar Rover, Pin Game, Engineer It & Build It, Copycat, Habitat, Creature Creation and free build time
  • Fourth grade: Intro to Building, Simple Machines Unit (4 Lessons), Look Alike, Adaptation Claw, VEX GO Activities: Lunar Rover, Pin Game and free build time
  • Fifth grade: Intro to Building, Look Alike, Fun Frogs (2 Lessons), Adaptation Claw, VEX GO Activities: Lunar Rover, Pin Game, Engineer It & Build It, Copycat, Habitat, Creature Creation and free build time

The STEM labs are structured activities that guide students through an interdisciplinary, standard-aligned lesson that provides context for a robotic build, class discussions, experimentation, and iterative improvement. Labs are organized as with Engage, Play, and Share sections that guide students through the lesson. Activities are shorter than a STEM lab and range in topic and structure, often providing open-ended challenges with fewer instructions.

Post-Survey. After the completion of the curriculum, which coincided with the end of the school year, students were given the post-survey in the same manner as the pre-survey. Once the post-surveys were collected, the teacher anonymized and recorded the data in preparation for analysis.

Data Analysis. The survey items would be evaluated using prescribed quantitative methods. The answer choices were scored (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree, 4 = strongly agree), and specific items were reverse coded where needed. Paired t-tests were run on the pre- and post-survey means for each construct, for each grade. The teacher’s journal was evaluated using thematic analysis, which revealed insights into perceived student learning as well as curriculum design/needs.

Results

Third Grade. The results of the third grade pre- and post-survey (Table 1), show increased mean scores for each of the survey areas. Each construct pre- and post- mean were compared using a two-tailed t-test, and all results were significant (p < 0.001). The smallest mean increase was for the 21st century skills attitude construct, indicating that students only varied slightly from their original agreement to those items. Students had the lowest mean score on the pre-survey math attitude construct, with a mean score of 2.27, but would increase this mean construct score by 0.25 on the post-survey. Both the science and engineering constructs had mean increases of over 0.6, indicating students felt much more confident after the curriculum to increase their choice. The science construct pre-survey mean of 2.8 to 3.44 shows that students were originally a mix of disagree and agree (2 and 3) but changed to a mix of agree to strongly agree (3 and 4).

Table 1. Third grade pre- and post-survey paired t-test results (n = 39).

Pair Variable Mean t Sig (2-tailed)
Pair 1 Pre Math 2.2664 -8.775 0.000
Post Math 2.5197
Pair 2 Pre Science 2.7982 -21.255 0.000
Post Science 3.4415
Pair 3 Pre Engineering 3.1228 -26.504 0.000
Post Engineering 3.7281
Pair 4 Pre 21st Century Skills 3.0000 -3.894 0.000
Post 21st Century Skills 3.0906

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Fourth Grade. Table 2 shows the fourth-grade students similarly had increases in means scores on all constructs, and all were significant (p < 0.001). However, the increases were smaller than were seen with the third-grade students (mean changes typically less than 0.3), indicating fewer students changed their responses than their younger counterparts. Like the third-grade students, the math construct was the lowest mean in both the pre-survey and post-survey, and the 21st century skills had the smallest increase in mean scores. Notably, the engineering construct had the largest increase for these students.

Table 2. Fourth grade pre- and post-survey paired t-test results (n = 34).

Pair Variable Mean t Sig (2-tailed)
Pair 1 Pre Math 2.0871 -7.136 0.000
Post Math 2.2652
Pair 2 Pre Science 2.9125 -7.124 0.000
Post Science 3.1987
Pair 3 Pre Engineering 3.0673 -8.151 0.000
Post Engineering 3.3030
Pair 4 Pre 21st Century Skills 3.6498 -4.629 0.000
Post 21st Century Skills 3.7003

Fifth Grade. The fifth-grade student construct scores show different trends than the third and fourth grade students (Table 3). This group had the only decrease in mean score on the engineering construct, though it was not statistically significant and due to the higher mean scores itself, not of any concern. The mean construct scores for math, science, and 21st century skills all increased to a smaller degree from the pre-survey to the post survey, and were significant to a smaller degree (p < 0.01 for math and science and p < 0.05 for 21st century skills).

Table 3. Fifth grade pre- and post-survey paired t-test results (n = 31).

Pair Variable Mean t Sig (2-tailed)
Pair 1 Pre Math 2.8167 -3.427 0.002
Post Math 2.9042
Pair 2 Pre Science 3.2333 -3.751 0.001
Post Science 3.3111
Pair 3 Pre Engineering 3.4259 0.810 0.425
Post Engineering 3.3370
Pair 4 Pre 21st Century Skills 3.8296 -2.350 0.026
Post 21st Century Skills 3.8741

Discussion

Student Attitudes. The results for these four constructs showed some surprising results. Mean scores on the pre-survey were higher for the fifth-grade students on all constructs than it was for the third-grade students. Findings from the literature indicates that STEM attitudes decrease over time. Do these findings negate that? Not necessarily. The nature of the end of the school year meant the fifth graders were seen fewer times as they attended various events leading to their graduation, and fewer lessons may have reduced the impact on their attitudes at this point in the year. The teacher also noted that each age group responded to the survey items differently. The third graders asked a lot of questions and responded with general enthusiasm, while the fifth graders completed the survey quickly and with few questions. The age of the children may be influencing how much nuance they have when interpreting the questions and providing their response. Younger students may be valuing “agree” and “strongly agree” differently than older students, for example. The teacher added a comment in her notes specifically about the fifth-grade students and wondered if they answered survey items with a sense of expectation or in an attempt to please her. As older elementary students become more attuned to expectations, their natural responses could become shaped by that.

What is clear from the results is the difference that the VEX GO robotics curriculum had on each age group. The third-grade students had large increases in their mean scores across all domain constructs (math, science, engineering). While the fourth-grade students did not have as large an increase in mean scores as the third-grade students, they still consistently increased mean scores by several tenths on the domain constructs. The fifth-grade students, however, were the only students with non-significant changes in any construct and significance values less than p < 0.001. These general differences among students in different grades indicate that the robotics curriculum had a more impactful effect on the attitudes of younger students than older students, highlighting the importance of starting robotics curriculum early.

Perceived Learning. The teacher’s journal recorded the labs and activities done by each group of students, as well as many observations of students as they worked through the lessons. While the survey instrument was able to identify student attitudes, thematic analysis of the journal entries identified several topics of perceived learning consistent with the research literature.

Creativity. A major theme of the journal was student creativity. Mentioned heavily for third graders, but across all three grades, creativity was called out explicitly for how students engaged in Simple Machines, Look Alike, Creature Creation, and Frog Life Cycle. The teacher noted: “3rd grade was so excited to build a frog. This grade level wants to be as creative as possible and building a habitat really allows the kids to open up those skills again.” While there are many goals for learning materials, sparking creativity in students is a valuable outcome that brings many other advantages.

Engagement. Providing structured labs with fun and authentic themes spurred student creativity, which helped increase engagement. Starting with the Intro to Building lab, the teacher noted students did not want to stop working. Similarly with the Look Alike lab, she found that, “Class was really hard to end. I found that students wanted to go on and on by adding more iterations to their animals…I found that kids didn’t want to clean up but continue to add to their creation.” Though the third-grade students were noted as being the most enthusiastic, she described how even the fifth graders were very engaged in their Simple Machines lab: “I found that all students had a hard time wanting to put the pieces away. We were just having too much fun!”

Teamwork. The VEX GO STEM Labs are designed to be completed in teams, with students assigned specific roles and tasks. The third graders began with Adaption Claw and the teacher observed, “The students were also excited to break into groups so that they could work together, each having their own job.” For the fourth graders, she similarly noted how having roles helped students get into their groups and get started quickly. She also noted that students began to choose to work together on open ended activities, such as building habitats or building the Lunar Rover.
The teacher also noted several instances when students spontaneously worked together as a class. Some students explored new things with their robot, and when they “discovered” something new, other students would run over to see and then try it themselves. Students who picked a fun activity from the “choiceboard” would often share with other students, who would switch to that activity. Whether working in groups or alone, students were eager to share and help each other.

Persistence. Not all activities were easy for students. The third graders did the Adaption Claw lab first after the Intro to Building lab. The teacher identified that the lab was a bit advanced to start with and would move this to later in the curriculum order. Whether or not they completed the activity, groups persisted until the end.

I found that this was a GREAT lesson in frustration and understanding that failure is just a part of learning. I had each group describe what worked and what didn’t. I found that many groups really understood each other once they heard some of the same issues.

Some activities used were also designed to be open-ended and give students a challenge to overcome. Students were tasked with creating houses that could withstand an earthquake, but were not provided build instructions. While there was an element of frustration involved, students used this and persisted in iterative improvement cycles:

Students absolutely loved the challenge! I found that student groups realized their mistakes after experimenting with an “earthquake” and were able to redo their house based on what worked and what didn’t. I was so surprised how happy and excited groups were to have a challenge that was frustrating and so fulfilling once groups solved it.

Curriculum. The teacher’s journal also revealed many insights into the importance of differentiation in the robotics curriculum. Each group of students completed the Intro to Building STEM lab, which introduced the VEX GO kit and all the pieces within it. All students also completed the Look Alike STEM lab, which teaches students about traits by having them build parent and baby bunnies with different traits. While some labs were completed by each grade, there was differentiation by age group. The older fourth and fifth graders completed the Simple Machines lab unit, while the third graders completed the Fun Frogs lab. The third graders also completed more of the stand-alone activities than the older grades, as the teacher noted these were beneficial for the younger students’ skills. The teacher also used the activities for the older students when groups finished labs early—a necessity in the classroom to keep students occupied when groups work at different speeds. Having many options for both lab and activity differentiation was a valuable curriculum asset for the successful implementation of a robotics program into the classroom.

Interdisciplinary labs were also a benefit, according to the teacher’s journal. The third-grade students were excited about the science-themed labs where they got to build and evolve animals and their habitats. The first animal lab third graders completed was the Look Alike lab, where they were able to create bunnies and pass down traits. The teacher noted how much students loved making animals and wanted to explore different variations. This led the teacher to choose an activity called Creature Creation for their next lesson to expand on students’ building creativity. When students were working on the Fun Frogs lab, she noted how excited and creative students were, with the added benefit of a low barrier of entry for building skills.

Kids loved making and learning about the frog cycle. I saw kids get hands-on experience with science topics that they had learned in a textbook. I talked to the 3rd grade teacher to collaborate more next year to try to teach this when she’s teaching about habitats.

The fourth-grade students completed the Simple Machines lab unit. The teacher noted how enthusiastic students were because they had knowledge of simple machines from their other class. They asked how engineers used simple machines, and were given time to do research. The teacher noted:

4th grade is centering around simple machines in science so this STEM Lab was so right for this grade level. I found that kid’s faces lit up when I said we would be making levers. Most of these students had done a worksheet but not a hands-on investigation. I told the science teacher that we will collaborate more next year so that I’m teaching this STEM lab when she’s teaching simple machines.

The fifth graders also completed the Simple Machines lab unit, but their age and experience showed in how they engaged with it differently than the fourth graders. The teacher noted that this group of students finished early and used the “choiceboard” activities to explore on their own.

5th grade needs exciting and engaging activities - and this STEM Lab fit the bill. I found that students wanted to get on the floor and experiment how to lift different weights using the lever. I found also that unlike 4th grade, these students had background knowledge and took the STEM Lab to the next level by adding weights and giving the STEM Lab an authentic learning experience from group to group.

Students in each grade benefited from having an interdisciplinary approach in the robotics curriculum. Being able to connect robotics to science, math, or engineering helped not just engage students, but provided a foundation for them to explore concepts with deeper understanding. The teacher notes indicate several areas where the robotics curriculum can be incorporated or synchronized with lessons taught in other subjects, which could be a valuable next step in integrating robotics across disciplines in an authentic way.

Conclusion

As the use of educational robotics increases in classrooms across the country, it is vital to research how robotics benefit students, as well as lessons learned from the practice of teaching a robotics curriculum. This study revealed that a robotics curriculum improved student attitudes on nearly all STEM subjects for all grades. In addition, the teacher perceived additional learning categories for students in areas such as creativity, engagement, teamwork, and persistence.

In order to continue to explore how educational robotics can be most beneficial to students in real classrooms, we must continue to learn directly from the teachers who implement the curriculum. Reflecting on the entire experience, the teacher provided her overall takeaways:

I found that if kids wanted to learn more – we learned more. I wanted this to be enjoyable and each classroom was honestly completely different (which is totally normal). Some students wanted to learn more about building where others wanted to break away and create their own monster or creature. I found that 3rd grade was so engaged – it was hard to end lessons. 4th grade was so excited to learn about STEM lessons like simple machines that connected with their own science curriculum. 5th grade loved the challenge of coding, building and learning about Mars. I think the big part was each classroom sometimes needed more time with a STEM Lab or more time to explore and I gave that to them. I’ve found that when kids are excited, it’s best to run with that excitement and dig deeper instead of moving on.

This study also provided meaningful insights into the implementation of an interdisciplinary robotics curriculum. As a six-week program, students were able to complete many different labs and activities. This indicates that the length of the curriculum could reasonably impact how successful it is in shifting students’ STEM attitudes. Lesson scaffolding and differentiation were also key to the success of the curriculum. The teacher found that students of different ages had different skills and needs, and that she could adjust curriculum plans easily for each grade. The VEX GO robot kit itself was also well suited to students’ needs. Students were easily able to follow instructions, construct the parts, and learn how pieces worked and connected. Students could complete builds and labs in a single class period with time to clean up, which is a necessity for making a robotics curriculum work in the constraints of a regular school day. A robotics kit designed for an elementary age group and a full interdisciplinary curriculum are both critical to teaching and learning with robotics in a real classroom.


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