Bringing fun to the classroom
Australia and New Zealand’s longest-serving educational resource supplier, Modern Teaching Aids, is preparing students for the future with its wide range of robotics resources. Business Development Manager – STEM and Robotics Joanna Burk describes the skills robotics brings into play.
Founded in 1956, Modern Teaching Aids (MTA) has been providing resources to educators for more than 60 years, with more than 10,000 products and a passionate team that will create resources tailored to suit if the perfect teaching supply isn’t already available.
MTA’s products are aligned to curriculums to achieve the best results and it is the largest supplier of childcare, primary and high school resources in Australia and New Zealand.
Parents of today’s students probably grew up using MTA products in their own classrooms and homes, and while many of those products are still in use, their children are likely to be using the company’s digital offerings, particularly robotics.
Joanna Burk, as Business Development Manager – STEM and Robotics for MTA, knows better than most the benefits technology can bring to a classroom and both students and teachers.
A former teacher who is trained and certified in the application of the LEGO Serious Play methodology, Ms Burk worked with LEGO when it first released its Mindstorms resources in Australia and joined MTA in 2007 when partnered with LEGO Education to distribute its resources.
MTA’s robotics range goes from Bee-Bots, floor robots that help young children learn early computing and programming, through the more specialised LEGO Mindstorms EV3 and LEGO WeDo, and on to drones and other platforms.
“When I first started, we were knocking on doors and trying to make people understand what robotics was all about,” Ms Burk said. “After a lot of knocking on doors, people realised that this is something quite valuable and can be used in the classroom.”
The ultimate goal of teaching is to spark students’ curiosity and their enthusiasm for learning, and robotics does that, Ms Burk said.
“It encourages them to investigate and understand for themselves how to control technology, but robotics also brings many classroom activities that cater to all ability levels. It allows them to take risks, which is bringing in critical thinking. But mostly, bringing robotics into the classroom helps students develop problem solving skills and look at different solutions to the same task.”
Robotics ticks all the boxes a teacher wants to in the classroom, without the students realising how much learning is taking place.
“It’s fun, so they don’t even realise the maths that they’re doing, the science they’re doing, the data logging they’re doing, the skills they’re developing. They just know it’s fun, and they learn to work as a team, to work in groups, and to share their learning.
“Before, a lot of students might not like to share their work or their ideas, but now they’re encouraged to look at other students’ work and develop it further. It’s praise for that student that you really like their design so you’re going to copy it and do something else with it.”
Teaching the teachers
Ms Burk also conducts professional development workshops for teachers in the effective use of robotics and the LEGO Education resources. Her presentations at curriculum days, workshops, information sessions, conferences and network meetings provide participants with a wealth of information to assist in their teaching.
“It’s very important that teachers have professional development to make robotics more effective for them in the classroom and to be able to apply all their knowledge and have a good understanding of the products,” she said.
“A lot of teachers are fearful of robotics still so going to an introductory workshop such as the ones we offer helps them get past that hurdle.
“Teachers also have a lot of fun at the workshops, which is important because they take that back to the classroom. Plus they network with other teachers who are doing likeminded projects.”
Ms Burk said she sometimes had teachers with no prior knowledge of robotics.
“They have to build their own robot to start with, which is a challenge to a lot who have never built a robot. But they love it, and they won’t let anyone help them. It’s good for them to be like a kid again and it helps them to realise that their students can be engaged but talking as they network and solve problems.
“It’s been a whole new world for teachers to have a look at and they have had to meet the challenge of that.”
Because there are so many robotics platforms, Ms Burk said, schools and teachers must be careful to select carefully what is best suited for each classroom and school and their budget.
Whether a robot they put in the hands of a five-year-old who would work out how to use it, or a more advanced system requiring sophisticated design and coding skills, robotics promotes learning through an inquiry-based approach.
“It gives teachers a lot more scope for what they can offer their students in the classroom.”
MTA is a Platinum Sponsor of RoboCup Junior Australia, a project-oriented educational initiative that sponsors local, regional and international robotic events for young students. The competition was brought to Australia by a group of high school teachers in 2001, and is now in every state and territory, as it is in about 40 countries around the world.
“It’s exciting and it’s growing every year in Australia,” Ms Burk said. “All the committees are run by passionate teachers and mentors who offer their time voluntarily.”
She said she was privileged to have been part of RoboCup Junior from its beginning in Australia and had seen what a difference it had made with participating students. Many of those had gone on to act as mentors to younger students and some now sit on the committee for the event. Many university alumni also started their careers at a RoboCup Junior competition, which gave them the inspiration to continue on to higher education.
This year’s National Competition is scheduled for 5 – 7 October at the Melbourne Park Function Centre in Batman Ave, Melbourne.