There has been a significant focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) instruction in primary and secondary educational levels throughout the country and around the world. One key component of a robust STEAM education program has robotics instruction. Developmentally appropriate robotic education can start as early as kindergarten (5–6 years old) and continue through college and beyond.
Over the past few years, robotics and robotic instruction has become mainstream in elementary and middle schools throughout the country and the world. Additionally, robotic tournaments at all educational levels have shown exponential growth and have been a great showcase for schools at all levels. Most all school cannot have championship level athletic programs but can have championship level robotics teams. Many robotics team consist of top tier students and many school use their robotics team for their “enrichment program” of identified intellectually gifted students. While it is educationally consistent for schools to offer such programs for the gifted students, one group of students that would benefit greatly but are often not engaged in robotics programs are students with special needs.
The concept of resilience and perseverance is an important life skill. This skill is difficult for all students, but is often extremely difficult for students with special needs. Robotics allow students to cooperative work as a team which strengthens and reinforces the life skills of cooperation, collaboration, and communication as well as teamwork and sportsmanship. Additionally, hands-on activities and working with small parts and components which build fine motor skills, enhances organization, and problem-solving are results of robotics. Many students with special needs are very efficient at consuming technology but robotics and STEAM education allow them to apply their skills and content knowledge in meaningful ways to them.
There are four major dimensions of Inclusive Education: Special Needs, Socioeconomic Status, Cultural Diversity, and Gender. Students can reside in one or all dimensions simultaneously.
A major component of special education is inclusiveness as defined in the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Unfortunately, students with special needs often have limited access to authentic and engaging STEAM and robotics instruction due to a variety of factors. Robotic instruction allows students with special needs to truly participate in kinesthetic learning while also allowing the freedom for students to express their learnings in a way meaningful to them.
There can be challenges including environment, materials and resources, background knowledge, and interpersonal relationships. Additionally, instructors may need a “fresh” perspective on STEAM and robotic instruction to students with special needs. However, with appropriate modifications and accommodations students with special needs can be authentically and meaningfully engaged in STEAM and robotics instruction resulting in a high degree of success and positive self-esteem.
Over the past few years there have been great progress in students of the dimensions that have been historically absent in robotics instruction: socioeconomic status, cultural diversity, language development and gender. Many programs strive to engage all students and thus “leveling” the playing field and allowing all interested students to participate.
Historically, robotics education and robotics have typically been extracurricular clubs for enrichment. If the objective of education is to engage students with 21st Century Skills, then STEAM and robotics instruction needs to be a major component of the core instructional program along with Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Social Studies/History, and Science. Educational robotics is a 21st Century learning tool that allow all students access to the skill sets that will be needed for 2020 and beyond.