Computational thinking and computer programming are increasingly considered as basic competences in our education, and these skills are increasingly included in curricula in schools at a very early stage (primary schools). Such inclusion is already a reality in Switzerland with the Lehrplan21 and the PER NUM (Plan d’Edutes Romand Numérique). Primary teachers are therefore asked to help children to learn concepts related to computational thinking and digital technologies and practice them in programming projects, for instance on robots.
Although significant design efforts have been invested in the past decade in successful gamification of the programming experience for children, almost no effort has been invested in supporting teachers in their educational task. Today, children can develop intricate programs in a well-gamified environment, but when they need support (i.e., finding a bug, moving toward abstraction, improving code), primary school teachers are able to offer little help because they often have a very limited background in computer programming; in addition, these gamified programming environments do not provide tools to help students and teachers compare, analyze, conceptualize, trace, and debug programs. These environments also provide insufficient help to teachers to organize the learning process, to take into account learning goals of the curriculum and orchestrate a class activity. Therefore, while primary school teachers can find many robots and programming tools that enable gamified programming experiences, none of them offer specific help in educational activities taking place in the class. This often results in robot programming activities that are primarily oriented toward fun but that do not provide the necessary associated education, methods, and concepts.
This project aims at taking a step beyond the gamification of robot programming. Its goal is the design (graphic, interaction, and technical) of a programming environment that brings primary school teachers into the loop, enabling them in the following requirements set by the education framework: (1) teach the right computational thinking and technology concepts to students, (2) follow the evolution of the activity in class, (3) easily identify the problems and contributions of students, and (4) help the students in their progression, at their pace. None of the existing programming environments used in schools supports these professional actions of primary school teachers.
The design of this type of tools must take into account their use in a professional context, but they must also be designed for teachers who have a very little training in robotics and programming, usually provided during a few days of continuing education. Therefore, standard debugging tools, for instance, are not applicable. Instead, programming activities need to be made accessible to teachers by providing an environment compatible with the educational purpose and the competence of the teachers. The programming interface has to provide professional support to the teacher in the simplest and most efficient way. Paper-based tools need to extend the programming environment to the class, enabling collaborative design and analysis, while better including the teacher. This is the core technical/design problem of this project.
What is special about the project?
The project is very innovative, as no such educational tool exists on the market or in the research field. This project created an environment that is unique in education and that will extend a new educational field that is critical for our society.
The project is also extremely creative as it involves a very broad set of technologies, from software to paper, and a wide range of possible approaches. We face an open field similar to that explored through gamification of development tools.
The deployment of the results builds also on a unique network of existing users:
– Thymio is already officially included in the teaching material of all French speaking cantons, in Ticino, and its diffusion in German-speaking parts of the country is progressing quickly.
– EPFL is involved in most teacher trainings of these PH and is extremely well positioned to introduce the results of this project to a very large number of teachers.
– The focus of this project on the Lehrplan21 and PER NUM concepts and on computational thinking will ensure a good match with the goals of the PH of all three regions.
As final result we have a software tool (called "teacher tools") enabling teachers to prepare, exchange, install and manage lessons using the Thymio educational robot. Associated with this tool we have activities and papers tools that enable to make the connection with the classical teaching tools used in classes. In more details:
– Among the paper tools, a successful example is the paper "Thymio shape" with two holes to simulate the two sensors that look to the ground. This small "thinking aid" allows to understand the situations in which Thymio find itself when following the line, and therefore better plan the algorithm for line following, for instance.
– The VPL3 language has been developed to correct all problems found in years of experience of the previous version (1.6). It allows to reach better functionalities in a simpler way, and is fully modular, allowing the teacher to choose the complexity of the environment for the kids. Moreover, this environment has been designed from scratch using only web-based technologies, allowing a deployment in many very different situations.
– The teacher tool environment enables teachers to prepare a lesson with many aspects that are specific for schools: various levels of instructions, switch of activity by teacher or pupil, possibility to submit a program to the teacher, logging of all activities on the teacher's computer, switch of programming features available to the pupil during the activity. One functionality that was not planned and came from the interaction with teacher is the possibility to have all files related to a lesson packaged in a "pack" that can be exchanged among teachers.
The final version, tested in several classes, will go through a finalization and diffusion by the Mobsya association, producing and selling the Thymio robot.
F. Mondada, M. Bonani, F. Riedo, M. Briod and L. Pereyre et al. Bringing robotics into formal education using the Thymio open source hardware robot, in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, vol. 24, num. 1, p. 77 - 85, 2017;
M. Chevalier, F. Riedo and F. Mondada. Pedagogical Uses of Thymio II: How Do Teachers Perceive Educational Robots in Formal Education?, in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, vol. 23, num. 2, p. 16-23, 2016.
Persons involved in the project
Last update to this project presentation 17.12.2021