The Development of Virtues in Early Childhood Education Through Robotics

Can a robotics-based program — designed to be developmentally appropriate for young children — not only promote the acquisition of important technology skills but also help children become better citizens and human beings? Can robotics be used to support character development and values such as creativity, curiosity and generosity? The Beyond STEM: The Development of Virtues in Early Childhood Education Through Robotics project — funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation — explores these questions. 

The project is conducted in faith-based and secular kindergarten classrooms in Boston, United States and Buenos Aires, Argentina, to develop an understanding of the contribution of religious and cultural variables and to explore the diversity of ways in which robotics can be used. The program utilizes the KIBO robotics kit designed for young children aged 4-7 years old by the DevTech Research Group and commercialized by KinderLab Robotics in kindergarten classrooms. Building on extensive experience, the DevTech research team developed a robotics curriculum specifically tailored to cultivate and practice character virtues in young children and provided teachers professional development in both countries with our pedagogy, which integrates the Positive Technological Development framework and ideas of playful project-based learning described in the book Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom

Here is a video that tells the story of the project and shows both teacher’s and children’s resulting robotics projects.

Here is a blog written by teachers in one of the participating schools.

Research

The research goal is to explore how can technology-rich interventions can not only educate people to fulfill the increasingly technically-sophisticated workforce’s demands, but also to become better citizens and human beings. The new generations will engineer smart objects that know everything about us, they will make smart cities with urban infrastructure that can sense pollution, small bioengineering devices that administer new drugs, and robots that provide elder care. However, these new generations will also need to address the complex ethical questions regarding how those technologies will be used towards a greater good in our complex societies. 

Currently, the growing push for STEM education highlights the need of increasing technical knowledge and skills, but it usually ignores the crucial need to cultivate character virtues alongside the technical aspects. Outcomes from this research show a possible path for integrating technical and moral or character education, in different cultural and religious settings. This research project involves four different stages. 

First, professional development for all teachers involved in the project both in Buenos Aires and Boston.  The PDs are designed to help teachers learn about robotics, coding, computational thinking and problem solving; explore how to use robotics as a vehicle to promote values such as curiosity, creativity and generosity, and connect and learn about different approaches and perspectives represented by the interfaith and secular group of participants. 

Second, after the PD,  teachers implemented the adapted curriculum in their own kindergarten classrooms for a period of several months and data was collected with the assistance of researchers.

Third, final projects were showcased to friends and families during open houses in each of the schools and a website was created to promote collaboration across religious and cultural contexts.

Curriculum

This project utilizes the curriculum “Our Treasure: A KIBO Coding Curriculum for Emergent Readers”, one of the many curriculum units developed by the DevTech Research Group to teach coding and computational children to young children. For the final robotic project children create the treasures representing different aspects of their school and set out in a KIBO treasure hunt to collect them and showcase what is special and unique about their school to others.

The curriculum also integrates the use of storytelling. Two different versions were used. In Buenos Aires, the curriculum was centered on the song Hay Un Balde En El Fondo De La Mar (Spanish VersionEnglish Version). In Boston, around the children’s book, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly by Simms Taback (English Version).

Both of these curricular units focus on sequencing and engage children in recreating the popular book and song by programming KIBO robotics, as way to introduce computational thinking skills and coding concepts.

Team

The project is lead by the Principal Investigator, Prof. Marina Umaschi Bers, professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and the Computer Science Department at Tufts University, and head of the DevTech Research Group

Since the project involves working with interfaith groups, an advisory board composed of experts in the field of education with a strong grounding on their own respective faiths provides invaluable guidance both designing the intervention and analyzing data.

The advisory board is formed by:

Dr. Ziva Hassenfeld, an Assistant Professor of Jewish education at Brandeis University. She earned her doctorate from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Curriculum and Teacher  Education and did a postdoc at the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University. Besides literacy research she has extensive background in studying, teaching, and researching the learning of Jewish sacred texts.

Dr. Mona Abo Zena, is an Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care, College of Education and Human Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her research focuses on the role of religion and spiritual development (broadly defined) as a way of knowing and being and as a particular cultural fund of knowledge that affects learning and development. Her work is informed by over 20 years of teaching, administrative, and board experiences in P-16 educational contexts.

Dr. Frank DeVito, the Education Director and Co-Founder of Equity Lab Charter School. Equity Lab is a project-based learning school where students use an equity-centered design process to problem-solve challenges in their communities. He was also a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood and studied at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, Italy. 

In Argentina, the program coordinator is Valeria Larrart. Valeria is an elementary school educator who specializes in new learning technologies, STEAM and making activities. She holds a license in educational technologies and is co-founder of iLAB and Edumakers. 

The participating schools in Buenos Aires are: Escuela Comunitaria Arlene FernColegio Rey FahdColegio Cardenal CopelloJIN E DE 17 Juana Manso, and Colegio Cardenal Copello.