How Robots in English Class Can Spark Empathy and Improve Writing

[In this Mindshift article students interact with the Sphero robots to develop stories. For the past two years I’ve worked with Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The Hummingbird, a robotics kit, developed at CMU’s CREATE Lab out of a project originally called “Robot Diaries.” In my early days of programming in the Logo language I had students create “Turtle Stories.” There’s definitely something engaging about robots that allows students to expand their literary skills while developing STEM skills at the same time. After I wrote this introduction, Seymour Papert, one of the creators of Logo died. Without the wisdom of Seymour Papert many educators like myself would never have discovered the power of computational thinking.]

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Mention robots to many English teachers and they’ll immediately point down the hall to the science classroom or to the makerspace, if they have one. At many schools, if there’s a robot at all, it’s located in a science or math classroom or is being built by an after-school robotics club. It’s not usually a fixture in English classrooms. But as teachers continue to work at finding new entry points to old material for their students, robots are proving to be a great interdisciplinary tool that builds collaboration and literacy skills.

“For someone like me who teaches literature by lots of dead white guys, teaching programming adds relevance to my class,” said Jessica Herring, a high school English teacher at Benton High School in Arkansas. Herring first experimented using Sphero, essentially a programmable ball, when her American literature class was studying the writing of early settlers. Herring pushed the desks back and drew a maze on the floor with tape representing the journey from Europe to the New World. Her students used class iPads and an introductory manually guided app to steer their Spheros through the maze.

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