Timing could not be better for exploring robotics curriculum

June 26, 2018

Russell Munkler (left) and Patrick A. Kossmann are two of the enthusiastic robotics curriculum writers who see great benefits from making the program available to younger students in the future.

These days it has been well-documented how resources can be difficult to come by in the public education sector.

Other than the fact that they feed off each other’s enthusiasm while also having the opportunity to try out their latest creations, how come this group of science teachers working to develop new curriculum for robotics are downright giddy?

As Dean Elliott, Science Consultant in the Curriculum Unit of the Ministry of Education, indicated at this workshop, it is ironic that in the room right across the hall is the Saskatoon Industry Education Council (SIEC), who are beneficiaries of more than a million dollars through the national CanCode program. You see, it is not only the province of Saskatchewan, but also the federal government, that are fully on board with this notion of providing opportunities for coding and digital skills for students from K to 12.

SIEC is a non-profit organization that works in partnership with the Saskatoon Public, Greater Saskatoon Catholic and Prairie Spirit school divisions, as well as the Saskatoon Tribal Council with the hope of adding more in the future.

It is therein that Elliott draws particular optimism from the fact that these new programs will be there for students in Grades 7 to 9 in the future.

“I’m sure this will have a big impact when you think of the potential in middle years when you have maybe 14,000 kids who could be doing some kind of robotics or coding. It wasn’t a big part of the conversation at that grade level previously,” Elliott offered.

When it came to bringing on teachers to help write the coding and robotics courses at the 10, 20 and 30 level, Elliott said there were triple the number of applicants before the field was narrowed.

Russell Munkler, who teaches at Caroline Robins Community School in Saskatoon, is one of those engaged in writing the new curriculum. He sees the similar potential, adding that this has also changed the lens for teachers.

According to Munkler, he has been playing around with robotics for three or four years “and I’m really excited to see it brought down to the younger grade levels. There are lots of elementary teachers who are working through other areas of curriculum writing, but this opens new avenues.

“If the kids can buy in and are excited, that will drive the course. Being involved in robotics and coding can also teach the students other skills. Before, they didn’t have that opportunity until the higher-level sciences,” he said.

“I would say there will be a significant difference in that when you work though other areas of the curriculum, you get that layered approach. Any time you see the application and how it can be interwoven into other subject areas, it is beneficial because it helps the students see the bigger picture and where they fit. It is also beneficial for the teachers to see that level of excitement among their students. Absolutely there’s motivation to see the kids get it, and how it applies to the real world and not just on a screen.”

Patrick A. Kossmann teaches at Greenall High School in Balgonie, but he is looking forward to the level of preparedness students will have when they enter high school in the future.

He agreed with his colleague that motivation could be a great byproduct for students, adding with a chuckle that “sometimes it can take more effort to slow things down, but as the teacher it’s your job to keep them on task in terms of reaching their goals and outcomes.

“You definitely see kids in robotics who are maybe not your typical ‘A student’ in terms of academics, but who excel in this sort of hands-on activity. It can really enhance their confidence. It helps them feel successful and we all want that feeling because it spills over. As someone who has been teaching robotics for eight years, it’s great to see them making this step to enhance the accessibility for the younger students.”

Munkler said by its nature, robotics invites teachers and students alike to think a little outside the box.

“I’ve seen it myself that it can be a huge relationship builder, and for some students it gives them a sense of belonging and adds relevance to school. The more positive frame of mind you can establish for a student, that’s just great.”

As far as Elliott is concerned, his enthusiasm isn’t just based on what opportunities there are for the short term, but he said there are so many applications in terms of careers.

“It’s not just working with robotics, essentially it always comes back to problem solving and that’s a skill that is always going to be very valuable. There’s no question Saskatchewan needs more programmers, and this is one of the ways we can meet those needs in the high-tech sector.

“When I look at the work these teachers are doing, I think we’re as far ahead as any other province, things are lining up really nicely and the timing is right.”