Conducting this interview with Jason McKenna of VEX Robotics unlocked a core memory for me.
In the audio and transcript that follow, you’ll hear me mention that I never saw myself as a STEM person or someone who was good at math and science. I wasn’t interested in it, struggled with it, and was even diagnosed with a learning disability in math.
But here’s the part I didn’t make a connection with until I was listening back to the interview.
I was a kid in the 80s, and in the 80s, there was this sense that robots were the future. Robots featured prominently in several sitcoms at the time, like Small Wonder, and cartoons, like the Jetsons. I loved the Jetsons as a kid, and especially loved Rosie the Robot.
In fact, my parents bought me a little remote-control robot that I named Rosie. She was about a foot high and carried a tray like on the Jetsons, and she was one of my favorite toys. Unfortunately, because this was the 80s, Rosie was pretty limited in how much I could interact with her and what she could do. Over time, I outgrew Rosie and she probably got sold off at a yard sale.
I can only imagine what spark might have been lit inside of me if I’d been able to program Rosie or write code for her. Experiencing that as a child — even just being exposed to it as an interest of mine — could have completely changed the way I viewed myself. I knew I was a good reader and a strong writer, but I didn’t think anything to do with machines, robotics, engineering, or technology was something that I was particularly good at.
The fact that STEM experiences in general and robotics, especially, are options for kids today is an incredible wonder and gift, and privilege. I imagine the possibilities that a young Angela might have uncovered or problems I might have been able to solve if I’d had access to those tools, and more importantly, saw myself as a person who was capable of doing those kinds of tasks.
While most of us as educators didn’t get the opportunity to experience robotics and STEM projects when we were kids, we do have the opportunity to have fun experimenting with these challenges NOW alongside students. In fact, being brand new to the ideas can help you practice being a fellow learner with kids and experience the joy of making new discoveries together.
If you’re curious about how to foster the belief in your students that they, too, can shine in areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I think you’ll really enjoy listening to my conversation with Jason McKenna.
Jason has over 20 years of classroom experience implementing STEM programs and robotics competitions for students at all levels. He now works as the Director of Global Educational Strategy for VEX Robotics, so his job is to oversee all curriculum development and classroom integration for the company. He’s also the author of the book, “What STEM Can Do for Your Classroom: Improving Student Problem Solving, Collaboration, and Engagement,” published by Solution Tree Press.
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ANGELA WATSON: There’s a popular saying in education that there’s no such thing as a child who doesn’t like reading. They just haven’t found the right things to read. Meaning, if we can find texts that a student is interested in, then they will enjoy reading them because the content itself is engaging, even if the act of reading is perhaps not their favorite. I’m wondering, do you think a similar thing might be true with STEM, that there’s no such thing as a student who doesn’t like STEM, they just haven’t found the right problems to solve?
JASON MCKENNA: I would agree with that. I think if you think about STEM education and what it is that we’re trying to do in STEM, oftentimes the reason why students are disengaged in the classroom is because they’re presented with problems that are different than how they see those same problems in the real world.
Problems in the real world always have a STEM context in that they always integrate different aspects of STEM. But oftentimes in classrooms, we present problems just as being a science problem or a math problem or an engineering problem, and not, for example, a STEM problem. So showing problems as they appear in the real world, that authenticity — which means a lot to students — really helps students drive the engagement forward.
So the reason why we see students so disinterested in school, and the question as educators that we all hate to get — “When am I going to use this in the real world?” — STEM really eliminates that question because it always presents students the context of the real world. Now, that doesn’t just mean as educators that we should just present the STEM problems. It takes a little bit more than that to really make sure that we have engagement with all of our students.
We want to make sure that we present the problem in a way that we collaborate with the students. It’s not something that we’re giving to the students, per se, but instead, it’s something that we’re working on together. And I think if you frame it that way, you’ll get that engagement that you’re speaking of.
What are some effective ways you’ve seen teachers get disinterested students hooked on STEM? I’d like to hear first about what you’re seeing at the middle and high school level, and then in a bit, we’ll talk a little bit about elementary.
Yeah, and I think I have an entire chapter in my book dedicated to assessment. I think that’s oftentimes where we get sideways with students. In my book, I start each chapter with a quote and the quote at the beginning of this book is, Is this going to be graded? And it’s quoted by literally hundreds of students I taught over the course of my teaching career. It’s similar to what I talked about previously in that it’s a question we don’t like to hear from our students. But what I realized upon reflection was that was kind of the incentive structure that I created in my classroom, and the only thing they were worried about was the end grade.
In STEM education and all education, we talk a lot about learner-centered instruction, but we don’t talk about learner-centered assessment, and really bringing assessment to something we do with the students as opposed to something that we do to the students.
You can really utilize this in order to help this engagement that you speak of, especially in middle school and secondary schools. I think the research is very clear about this, that as soon as you grade something, that’s when students stop learning, and also when motivation begins to go down. So instead, treating grading as more of a collaborative process with the students, creating student-centered learning targets with them as opposed to just dictating what it is you want students to get out of a particular assignment or problem-solving activity — I think that’s how you really help to drive engagement forward.
That question about Is this going to be graded? or Does this count? is such a common one. And especially at the secondary level, teachers will say, “My kids will not do anything unless it’s graded.” And I love this framing of thinking about what is the incentive structure that I’ve set up in the classroom. Have I set it up so kids think that the learning stops once they’ve been assessed, they get their grade recorded and they’re done? What’s a better approach to that? Can you give me more examples are more information about how this might work to do student-centered assessment?
I think very simply to begin, let’s just talk about a STEM problem. Instead of beginning a STEM problem with, “This is what I want you to learn,” or putting the objectives on the board to start, instead create those with the students.
So first of all, in problem-solving when you have an open-ended project, the research tells us that where students and teachers can get on different pages is that they both think there’s a different definition of success.
So really the first thing that you do is say, “Okay, we want to solve this problem. We want to engage in this activity, and this is what success looks like.” And you put the teachers and the students on the same page. Now after you do that, then you go through and you say, “What do we have to do in order to be able to achieve that?” And you have that conversation with the students, and you go through and you talk about with them, “These are the things that we want to be able to achieve when we’re done.” And that’s how you actually create your lesson objectives as opposed to, again, just trying to dictate something to the students.
Now, when you talk about this with teachers, you’re going to get some pushback from them. You’re going to get pushback in terms of, These are the standards I have to be able to teach towards. You’re going to get some pushback in terms of, Is this actually authentic assessment?
The research, again, is very clear on this. If you want to know how the students are actually doing in your classroom, ask them. That is a very reliable measure of how the students are actually performing in the classroom, by simply having a conversation with them.
I used to teach language arts to sixth graders, and when I would have them write essays, I would mark up all these things in the essay. I would circle things, I would underline things, I would highlight things, and then I would give it back to them. And of course, what would they all do? They would leaf through the essay, find a grade at the very end, look at it, and then throw the paper away. And all that work that I put into it went for naught.
So instead, what I would do now is I would actually have a conversation with them about it. “Hey, here’s what we said we wanted to learn, that we actually achieved that with what is being shown here,” and get the student’s impact from it.
So those three things: 1) Create a common goal — make sure everyone understands what success looks like; 2) Have a conversation about what you can do to achieve that success, and 3) Have the conversation to evaluate whether you actually achieve those things or not.
Two resources I would actually push your listeners towards. I have a chapter in my book about this as well, but Myron Dueck has written extensively on this. He’s actually written two books just dedicated to assessment — Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage and Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn — and I would definitely look up this work also.
I know that you’re a big proponent of introducing STEM to students early in their educational journey. How do we prepare elementary students for this kind of STEM learning and problem-solving and assessment that you’re describing?
I think the biggest thing that you can do for young students is really focus on their mindset and focus really on the opportunity. I think as educators, what we have to realize first is that all of our students can be successful at STEM. You hear adults talk about concepts like, “I was always very good at math, but I was terrible with words and I was terrible with writing,” or vice versa of that.
I think eliminating that kind of talk is very important because we know, again, from the research that that’s not true. No one is born with a math brain and no one is born with a reading brain. Instead, we all have the capacity to learn about this so then going into your classroom with that mindset of understanding that every student has the opportunity to do this and they can be successful at it is really important.
And then you imbue the students with that same attitude — you make them realize that this is something that they can be successful and good at. And something simple that you can do to implement that is by talking about the people that have been successful in STEM and showing the diversity of people that are successful in STEM so students can see someone that looks like them, talks like them, and acts like them be successful in STEM which can really help open their minds to it and pursue STEM successfully.
So representation, and also mindset.
I think it’s the growth mindset. It’s something we’ve all been familiar with in education due to the work of Carol Dweck over the last few years. I think it’s one thing to recognize it, but then it’s another thing that actually makes sure that you go through and talk about it intentionally in the classroom.
That’s a great point about how there’s no such thing as a math person, or there’s no such person as a words person. I’m definitely guilty of talking that way and growing up, I always thought that I was only a words person. And I actually was diagnosed with a learning disability in math, but I was gifted in reading and writing. And looking back now I’m realizing — I think with math and really STEM as well because I also struggled with science and all those kinds of things — I didn’t see the connection.
And now as an adult, I’m getting more and more into art and painting, and I’m realizing how much STEM, and science in particular, ties into that because you have to understand the different mediums, the different substrates. How does this liquid work with this? And I’m realizing this was science the whole time. I just never made connections to things that I was interested in or that seem to come more naturally to me. But of course, I can learn this!
I’m glad you brought up your own example as an adult because this is another misconception that we have sometimes as educators — we think that young kids are a sponge and young kids can learn anything, but as students get older, that’s when it kind of stops and stagnates a little bit. And again, we know from the research — I’d recommend Anders Ericcson’s book Peak on this — the research is very clear that there’s no limit on it.
There’s no such thing as a math brain or a reading brain like you mentioned. But also we have the capability to learn new things no matter what our age is. So I think it’s very important that we keep all those things in mind.
I know one aspect of STEM that you’re really passionate about is robotics. Tell me about what you’re seeing in classrooms. Who’s using robotics? What impact is that having on students?
I talk about in my book how I fell in love teaching robotics. Not because I’m a robotics person — I don’t have a background in engineering or computer science or software — but I fell in love with teaching robotics because the things that I was struggling to teach in my classroom, whether it was around collaboration or whether it was around finding multiple solutions for a problem, using robotics as an organizer, made it very easy for me to teach any of those things. And that’s when I fell in love with it.
Secondarily, when you talk about high-quality STEM instruction, you’re talking about integrating all of those different aspects of STEM. So integrating science and technology and engineering and math together whenever you can. And robotics really allows you to do that easily. And the third thing about STEM, we talk about this with student motivation also, but giving students real-world examples, authentic examples of how to solve problems in the real world.
If you think about a robot, it’s software and hardware working together to do something, and that’s really what an embedded system is. Our world today is driven by embedded systems — all of us probably have one in our pockets, our phone! It’s software and hardware working together in order to be able to do something.
So by exposing students to robotics, really what you’re doing is you’re exposing students to integrated STEM, into authentic applications of what they’re doing. And it really allows you to explore these concepts of persistence, try multiple solutions, the engineering design process, and all these wonderful things that we’re trying to elaborate upon in our classroom.
I’ll admit, I feel a little intimidated by the idea of robotics and I’ll share my reasons for that. The first is that I myself don’t know a lot about it, so it’s hard for me to envision doing robotics with kids. And the second reason is that robotics sounds expensive. It sounds like something that I would need to convince a school to invest a lot of money in and that’s daunting. So tell me your thoughts on that: Do I need to have a deep understanding of robotics myself first? And are there a lot of barriers to getting the materials in the curriculum that I would need?
Yeah, great questions! I think going back to what we were talking about before, it’s more of a mindset thing. Teachers don’t expect themselves to be a published author to teach fourth-grade language arts. They don’t expect themselves to be a professional mathematician in order to be able to teach sixth-grade math or even pre-algebra. So therefore, we should not feel that I have to be a software engineer, nor do I have to be a mechanical engineer in order be able to teach robotics. Just like I can teach language arts without being a published author, you can teach robotics without having to be a mechanical engineer or a software engineer.
The other thing about that is that this allows us to learn with our students. One of the things that we have to get our students to be able to do is to understand that failure is just feedback. It’s okay if I don’t know all the answers. It’s okay if I make mistakes. Let me learn from those things, be persistent, and take those mistakes and take that learning and apply it to what I am doing.
It’s great if we can actually model that as educators because sometimes we have this notion that we have to be the sage on the stage. We have to know all the answers and have to know everything — all the ins and outs that are built to teach us to our students. But what a powerful way to actually teach students to be risk takers, to model persistence by actually doing that ourselves and learning alongside our students.
Now, that doesn’t mean as a product company that we don’t create curriculum and we don’t teach professional development in order to ensure that teachers feel prepared in order to teach robotics in their classroom. We don’t just throw a kid at them and say, “Okay, now go figure it on your own.” We have a responsibility also to make sure that you have all the tools and resources to be successful.
But at the end of the day, it’s just having that curiosity. It’s having that willingness to take some risk in your classrooms, and most importantly, modeling all those same things so that you can implement it within your classroom.
Now to your second point about cost, absolutely — we want to make sure that we can provide teachers and students with low-cost options that they can implement these things into their classroom. Now to be honest though, it’s important that we’re very frank and direct when we have these conversations about cost. I was department chair when I taught in elementary, and I know that a K-6 math series and a K-6 language arts series are both very expensive and they’re very expensive when compared to teaching robotics in a K-6 setting or in a middle school setting also.
So when we talk about cost, oftentimes we look at those things in a vacuum. We look at the price of one robotics kit, or we look at the price of one thing to bring computer science into our classroom. And we don’t actually take a look at it and compare it to the other things that we’re actually doing within our classrooms themselves and realize from a relative perspective, the costs really aren’t that much.
I like to look at costs in a different way: What is the cost of not doing it? How are we limiting our students by not exploring STEM in a real way? How are we limiting our students by not exposing them to something like computer science and showing them that this is something they can do in their lives? And especially not exposing it to them early.
Education Week just had an article about this two weeks ago talking about how students in kindergarten often form a mindset about their proficiency in STEM fields, and then once it happens, it’s very difficult to change. And oftentimes it’s our minority students that form the negative perception of it.
So when you look at the research around it and you look at things like all the STEM jobs that are out there, you look at things like artificial intelligence and the impact that’s going to have on jobs of the future, we need to also have the conversation of what’s the cost of not doing it.
So you work with VEX Robotics. Tell me about what goes into developing the educational robotics solutions like VEX has done.
Yes, so it piggybacks off what I mentioned before. What we try to make sure that we do is we have certain things that we keep in mind anytime we develop a product. We want to make sure that the product has a low barrier of entry.
To your question a few minutes ago, we want to make sure when teachers take a look at this robotic system, their initial feeling is not intimidation. So that goes into the organization of it, how the robot itself looks, that goes into how the kit is actually packaged, etc. We want to make sure that teachers don’t feel intimidated by it, and also they’re not intimidated by the price, by your previous point. We do a lot of testing with teachers to ensure that we maintain that brand promise.
And then secondarily, we want to make sure that these kits have a very high ceiling. The worst thing that can ever happen in a classroom is that students actually max out what they can do with a particular robotics kit. And then you’re left with what do you do with that student then? So having a low barrier of entry and also having a very high ceiling are both very important.
And then thirdly — I stole this from Mitchel Resnick in the MIT Media Lab — is having wide walls. So having a robotic system, having the curriculum and the teacher professional development so that all students can feel like they have an entry point into what it is that you’re doing — having a variety of activities and having a variety of things that you can do with that particular robotics kit so that all these things can actually take place.
A great example of this is VEX 123, which is the robotic system that’s developed for our youngest of students. Students can program that robot just by using the touch commands on it. They can program that robot using our coder which does not need a device to sort of allow computer science to come off of the screen. And you can also code that by using VEX code, which is you use with an iPad or a desktop computer, the traditional way that you think of teaching computer science. So having multiple entry points for the students to make sure that you have those wide walls is very important.
Once students get done with VEX 123, then they can then use VEX GO or VEX IQ, and having that continuing of products where students always have somewhere to go is really important to be able to engage students with computer science and engage students with robotics effectively. That’s what we try to do here at VEX.
Thanks for zeroing in and giving those specific examples of how this would be accessible to both teachers and kids. I wonder if we could zoom way out now and talk about your vision for how robotics can help shape the future of education in a positive way.
I’m going to take computer science as an example of that, and there’s been a big push beginning with the Obama administration in which we want all students to be exposed to computer science. And as you look at the stats that Google comes out with a survey every few years, we talk about the numbers which are 80-90% of parents feel that their children should be taught computer science in school.
But we know we struggle in doing that. We struggle to keep students engaging in computer science. We struggle with introducing computer science to students, and I really feel that robotics is the answer to that problem for a couple different reasons.
I like to say that drive forward is the new hello world. If you think about what is the challenge of teaching computer science, if you think about students in that 10th-grade biology classroom, for example, when I’m teaching biology to students, they’re learning about the world around them. They’ve spent their entire life in that world. And so you’re teaching with all this context that the students are used to.
But when you teach computer science, that context is gone. Now we make the mistake of thinking that because students have used the phone or they’ve played video games their entire lives, they actually know what computer science is and they have that context. But that’s not what computer science actually is — that’s a misunderstanding and a misapplication of what computer science actually is.
So in doing that, then these students come to a computer science classroom and all of these concepts are very abstract for them. A robot makes those abstract concepts much more concrete because I can see my code, and then I can see my robot do something with that code. If I’m teaching conditional statements or loops, I can see the output of the actual physical robot and I can see what my code is actually doing. I can troubleshoot, I can diagnose it. And all of those things help make them very abstract concepts of computer science much more concrete for them.
So if we are really serious about computer science for all, and we feel like it’s important for all of our students to be exposed to computer science, robotics has been proven to be a way to teach it fundamentally well, and also to teach it more engaging with the students. Robotics are fun and authentic.
The last point about this is VEX got started in the informal educational space with robotics competitions. And finally, if you want to make robotics or you want to make computer science and STEM fun for students, turn it into a team sport — go to robotics competitions and see how engaged these students are. The introduction of my book talks about VEX Worlds in 2019 — the last one before the pandemic with 20,000 students watching the finals. It’s like a rock concert where students are yelling, they’re screaming, they’re having fun. They can’t wait for the new game to be unveiled.
That’s what every teacher wants in their classroom. If you could put that in the bottle and take it back to a classroom, every teacher would want it. Well, how do you do it? You make it into a team sport, and that is what helps to drive engagement up.
I love this so much. Jason. Your passion is just contagious for this. Tell me where folks can go to learn more about VEX and VEX Robotics.
You can go to our website VEXrobotics.com and check things out there. You can also follow us on our various social media channels like Instagram and Facebook. We have a bunch of different things going on like the VEX Robotics Educators Conference, which is taking place at Vex Worlds April 27th-29th.
Let’s close out with a takeaway truth, something short and memorable for listeners to take away with them And remember in the week ahead. What is something that you wish every teacher understood about STEM or robotics?
The main thing I’d want teachers to take away from this, and I’ve kind of hit upon in some of my previous answers, is the importance of starting STEM early, and the importance of starting STEM with our young students so that they can be exposed to computer science and STEM in a way that helps keep them engaged and it opens their eyes to what they could actually do in their future.
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