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 Inc. — 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 integrating the Positive Technological Development framework. A final video telling the story of the project and showing both teacher’s and children’s resulting projects and experience can be seen here.

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 the proposed research will 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, a one day professional development for all teachers involved in the project. In Buenos Aires, the PD will happen on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. In Boston, the PD will happen on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. 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, between November and December, teachers will implement the adapted curriculum in their own kindergarten classrooms and data will be collected with the assistant of researchers.

Third, final projects will be showcased to friends and families during an open house.

Fourth, a final virtual conference, bringing together teachers from Boston and Buenos Aires will happen at the end of the project. Resulting from this project, will be a website in which robotic projects will be displayed and through which children and teachers from across religious and cultural contexts will be able to communicate. Results from the research will be disseminated through conferences and academic publications as well as popular media.

Curriculum

This project utilizes a curriculum developed by the DevTech Research Group to integrate computer science and literacy in the context of the Positive Technological Development framework. Two different versions have been developed. One, centered around the children’s book, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly by Simms Taback (English Version), and the other around the song Hay Un Balde En El Fondo De La Mar (Spanish Version, English Version). Both of these 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. In addition, as a final project, Students create treasures representing different aspects of their school identity and set out in a KIBO treasure hunt to collect them and showcase what is special and unique about their school to others.

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, a postdoctoral fellow at the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University. She came after earning her doctorate from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Curriculum and Teacher  Education. 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 Fern, Colegio Rey Fahd, Colegio Cardenal Copello, JIN E DE 17 Juana Manso, and Colegio Cardenal Copello.