A recent addition to our curriculum has been our Future Skills programme. This is a rotation of activities and lessons that allow our children to develop skills, outside the standard curriculum, that will benefit them in the future or give them an insight into a particular vocation and help them to flourish in the modern world. We sometimes use external experts, but most of the sessions are provided by teachers who share skills (maybe outside their normal teaching qualifications) with the children. My role is to expound the values of technology, and particularly robotics.
Why is robotics so important?
It is fair to say we stretch our pupils when it comes to teaching technology and computing — and robotics is a big part of that. We aim to prepare our students for careers in a technological world, and robotics and coding are huge areas, with many implications and opportunities for future employment. It’s estimated that between 400 and 800 million people worldwide will be displaced by automation and have to find new employment by 2030. We try to connect our robotics teaching to these real-world examples, inspiring students with outstanding technological achievements — from Amazon’s automated warehouse robots to the first aircraft to fly on Mars. The considerable increase in the use of automation, and the associated skills required in robotics, programming, and AI, means that a growth in the employment market is inevitable, and the time to prepare our pupils for it is now.
We use the VEX Robotics system across our school. It has hardware and software capabilities for all our age groups, and this provides a beautiful linear progression of learning, using something that is already familiar to our pupils as they progress. Through events such as Bett, we have seen a huge increase in the range of robotics products available, such as Invent-a-Bot and Bit:Bots. However, I decided to use VEX after seeing how successful it was as a club-based activity in a previous school I worked at, allowing pupils to compete in national and international VEX Robotics competitions.
At these competitions, pupils could form teams and progress from Year 7 to 13 (ages 11–18) through the various categories, and develop innumerable skills and qualities that are completely separate from the normal teaching curriculum. When I finished training, I worked with a group of three boys who started doing VEX in Year 7 and kept it going throughout their time at the school, before leaving to go to one of the country’s top universities to study robotics. There is no doubt that they benefitted from all their education. But this achievement rested solely on the background of the voluntary VEX club they had been part of for five or so years. For me, that meant that when a Future Skills curriculum was proposed, I jumped at the idea because it allowed me to take the robotics program from being just an after-school club to being part of every student’s education.
It’s still early days at Belmont Prep School, but we’ve already seen robotics move from being just a Year 7 club to being incorporated into the Future Skills curriculum. This includes a focus on the making and building side of VEX IQ and also on the coding side of robotics, with Year 5s (ages 9–10) attempting to master the art of programming a virtual robot.
Our goals are now twofold. The first is to incorporate robotics into other year groups, to create a linear approach to the complexity of the subject. This may include trying to incorporate a different coding language, stepping up to the most advanced level of VEX, or even seeing what other products are available. The options are wide-ranging.
The second target is to see if we can introduce robotics earlier. Can pupils handle coding at a younger age? I hope that the answer is yes, with the introduction of VEX Go into our Future Skills curriculum in September 2021. This will give our youngest pupils their first taste of robotics and also start them developing other key skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, and programming.
There is only so much time in a busy curriculum, but we intend to promote robotics and coding within our computing programme and teach our students that this is truly a career for the future.