A ‘Eureka!’ moment that enabled children as young as four to code with confidence, from Allen Tsui.

How it all started

The 2014 Computing curriculum reboot elevated Computing from being keyboard skills focused to having a more scientific emphasis, enabling learners to become creators of new technology instead of simply being consumers. As a fledging teacher at the time, becoming a subject leader for any part of the curriculum, let alone becoming recognised as leading expertise in robotics within a MAT, could not have been further from my mind.

My ‘break’ came in 2015 (on the day that Tim Peake began his mission on the International Space Station) when I was offered a classroom teacher role at Willow Brook Primary School Academy. While Tim Peake’s mission ended on his return to Earth in June 2016, my mission at Willow Brook continues to this day. The ‘can do’ attitude of senior colleagues meant they encouraged me to become Enrichment Lead. Members of our Board of Trustees noted my interest in the impact that cultural and, more specifically, scientific capital had on raising attainment, as well as diversity and inclusion. To support this, I was invited to be part of the first cohort of the Trust’s Action Research programme, as well as one of the lead contacts for the inaugural Trust-wide Science Symposium held in 2017.

Through my work as Enrichment Lead, I have seen the progression from computer programming to physical computing – and the pedagogical link to the concept Professor Danielle George coined in the 2018 Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture as ‘thinkering’. 1 Collaborating with Kano-enabled learners as young as six to build a computer system using the Kano Computer Kit Complete – and the visits to the school by international delegations from Hungary and Taiwan in 2019 showcased how much Willow Brook valued learning about physical computing.

Towards the end of the most surreal school year in recent living memory, I was exceptionally grateful to be invited to become computing subject lead in 2020. The offer was made more exciting by the invitation to also teach A-Level Computer Science part-time to a cohort of Year 13s at one of the Trust’s Secondaries and working with these students meant that I got to consolidate my professional practice and subject knowledge to university entrance expectations. This understanding means I can see the importance of teaching and learning about physical systems and why it is essential be able to handle and learn about technological tangibles within the primary computing curriculum.

Collaborating with Robotical Ltd

At the start of my second year as Computing Subject Lead, staff and students had become more eager to learn about new technology, following the success my Year 13 pupils had in Summer 2021 where their outcomes enabled them to go to the university or start the apprenticeship programme of their choice.

I got in contact with Ben from Robotical to set up a video call to find out more about Marty the robot. While some might baulk at the thought of ‘investing’ in this kind of Computing equipment and consider ‘toys’ like Marty as gimmicky, the very generous loan scheme offered by Robotical means schools can explore and decide for themselves without the pressure of a sales pitch.

Unboxing Marty for the first time in October 2021, the brilliant Ms Grant and I were delighted with what we heard and saw. We both teach Computing to multiple year groups and this working relationship is wonderful as it means that I have somebody to share ideas and work with on strategic planning. We made intense use of Marty during the four-week loan period and were so inspired by the impact it had on the children, I was determined to make a bid for either one, or perhaps a few Marty the robots. To help with this, I devised a plan to demonstrate how Marty can be linked to all but a handful of statements from the coding strand of the Primary Computing curriculum for schools in England.

When Robotical announced the launch of its #MartyMasters programme in February 2022, I just had to be part of it – and I was doubly delighted to be invited to be part of the first cohort of Robotical’s Educator Ambassadors Programme.

Robotics in the classroom

Since February 2022, Marty has been working tirelessly with every year group. It made its first appearance at the 2022 Science Symposium and I made a video recording of Marty showing off its sensor capabilities and collection of coloured postcards. As Google Workspace for Education is established across the school, I was able to demonstrate Marty’s range of motion and sequences of pre-programmed moves by using Google Meet to set up ‘Marty-Cam’, providing every class I teach a Marty-eye view of the classroom. This made the transition from learning about how to program a graphic or sprite on a two-dimensional plane to taking a bird’s eye view to physical computing, seamless.

The Year 1 classes have reached a stage where they have been using decomposition (breaking the problem down into smaller parts) and abstraction skills (only using the important parts) to create pseudocode to make a connection between the coloured postcards and the blocks available in MartyBlocksJr. Ms Grant and I have taken Marty into our Reception classes and introduced children as young as four into coding using MartyBlocksJr too, which they absolutely loved. But teaching in this way is not just about the high level of engagement; it means being able to explain how to give technology instructions broken down into a way Marty can understand. This is a key Early Years learning goal and simply a short link away from introducing leaners to the more advanced concept of ‘algorithms.’ Some Reception pupils have even taken to amending the ‘scripts’ they create and showing their progression by demonstrating the skill of debugging.

For the older Primary age groups, the introduction to robotics and the understanding that their technical basis is a combination of battery, brain and motors means being able to to focus their learning on ‘thinkering’ about the design and purpose of automated mobile systems. Marty’s sensor and ability to recognise colours means that learners are introduced to the technology that forms the basis of driverless vehicles. The Marty I am using veers to the left by 4 centimetres every 30 centimetres it shuffles forward. This has become a teaching point in itself, as leaners consider how to correct that in their coding. Through ‘thinkering’ about the sensor, learners have also discovered that the combination of a single sheet of deep green juxtaposed with a yellow sends Marty into a continuous loop, shuffling forwards and backwards. With the veering left effect, one of the children has suggested that a paper path of deep green be complemented with purple to provide an automated correction process.

For those focused on the ‘catch up’ curriculum, the experience of using MartyBlocks has meant a very cross-curricular approach, e.g., with Maths, by applying arithmetic skills and framing geometric understanding into practical contexts. Furthermore, the humanoid properties of Marty inspire learners to write his back story, of upcoming adventures and daily exploits, as well as working on non-fiction writing by creating digital media content. Using Marty as a focal point for group work also enables a positive impact on oracy, as well as a wide range of qualities expected of future Computer Scientists. To link with British Science Week, all the year groups were set a challenge to try to write a program for Marty to enable it to rescue its robotic buggy friend (which resembles the probes landed on Mars). By giving their coding projects purpose, learners have had to focus on attention to detail and consider the importance of position and direction, especially given the additional challenge that if Marty really was on Mars, he could not be handled to be physically repositioned.

It was a real privilege to be invited to showcase all of this work at the after-school Science Museum exhibition. At the event, families were invited to see and try out for themselves what their children had been experiencing in their classrooms. Many were very impressed with how open and engaging the whole field of STEM learning is in terms of its inclusivity and accessibility.

Marty mission on Mars. Speech bubble reads, "I'm over here and only have enough battery to follow a special path you need to program."

Far from compromising on standards, using a resource like Marty the robot means being able to work beyond age-related expectations and lift the limits on learning for the digital citizens of the future.

References

  1. Could you make a robot orchestra? – The Royal Society: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWO-QWebpK0&t=1s

Author

  • Allen Tsui

    Allen is the subject lead for computer science at Willow Brook Primary School Academy in East London. He teaches Year 4 to Year 6 and Reception classes across two primaries within the trust, as well Year 1 classes at his ‘base school.’ He has also worked at one of the trust's secondary schools teaching A-Level computer science.
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