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701 E. Chocolate Avenue, Suite 200, Hershey PA 17033-1240, USA 36 Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007
This paper appears in the publication, International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education , Volume 3, Issue 1 edited by Lawrence Tomei 2007, Idea Group Inc.

The Didactical Potential of Robotics for Education with Digital Media

Andreas Wiesner-Steiner, University of Bremen, Germany Heidi Schelhowe, University of Bremen, Germany Heike Wiesner, University of Bremen, Germany

The project Roberta girls conquer robotics was launched by the Fraunhofer Institute (AIS) with the aim to help promote girls interest in sciences, mathematics and technology. As a summary of this research program, this article presents substantial results from the scientific evaluation of Roberta and suggests a new pedagogical approach towards the use of robotics in education. We discuss how didactics and technology (LegoMindstorms) interact in Roberta courses and how the materiality of robotics itself plays an important role here; that is, it already comes along as gendered material. Due to that, we draw conclusions towards general educational concepts for digital media. If carefully used as a didactical actor, robotics not only suits boys and girls interest in technological messiness but enables them for a technological-mediated life instead of just feeling overwhelmed. Robotics, therefore, can function as an appropriate medium for general education in the more comprehensive sense of developing personality and agency. Keywords: cyber schools; distance learning; online learning; special education; strategies

Roberta girls conquer robotics, a project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Sciences (BMBF), was launched by the AIS with the aim to help promote girls interest in sciences, mathematics and technology, and especially to encourage girls curiosity for engineering and computer science (Mllerburg, Petersen, & Theidig,


2004)1. Scientifically escorted by the University of Bremen, Digitale Media in Education (DiMeB) and the Institute for Didactics of Natural Sciences (IDN), Roberta addresses 10- to 16-year-old girls. The projects basic assumption is that robot construction kits offering possibilities to develop more selfconfidence in ones skills provide an attractive access to technology for girls. This article

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Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007 37

presents substantial results from the qualitative evaluation of Roberta courses and suggests a new pedagogical approach towards the use of robotics in education.

Background: Evaluation of the Roberta Project

The robot construction kits (Lego Mindstorm) consist of complementary mechanical, dynamic and electronic parts that allow the construction and programming of different types of robots. Basic models can be equipped with different engines and sensors (contact sensors and optical sensors). The programming can be done in two programming languages (RIS and NQC), the first offering easy-to-combine graphical blocks, the second requiring more teaching and explanation. The programs are transmitted on to the RCX module, a programmable Legobrick with three input sockets for sensors and three for engines. To learn about informatics, the teaching of basic programming skills marks an important aim of the Roberta courses. While informatics is treated in Roberta as a constructivist science, the educational sciences provide the necessary orientation for both shaping and evaluating digital learning environments. Our evaluation, thus, focused on the following questions: How can the interest in technology of girls and women be triggered by the use of robotics? How is curiosity for technology generated? How should learning environments be designed to satisfy both girls and boys? Which didactical concept is appropriate in connection with robotics? Are robotics and didactics suitable to influence the self-concept of the students?

feld & Schecker, 2005). The didactical focus stages as the most positive influence on the experiences of the participants which is why the importance of the course-concept increases with the length of the courses. Although the self-concept of informatics and occupational orientation are only affected in medium-size and longer courses, all Roberta courses help to develop a more positive attitude towards informatics with the participants both concerning the self-estimation of their own competence and their occupational orientation (Hartmann, Schecker, & Rethfeld, 2005). The following qualitative exploration allows for a deeper and more detailed insight into these issues. Methodically, material and video analysis, participative observation, as well as single and group interviews and expert interviews, were combined (Wiesner, 2004).2

Results of the quantitative evaluation show that the course experience in longer Roberta courses are noticeably stronger influenced by the focus of the teacher (didactics, informatics, gender, technology) than in shorter ones (Reth-

Not only does the importance of didactics increase with the length of a Roberta course, the materiality of robotics itself plays an important role. Right from the start the material speaks for itself, because the children handle something they already know. The programmable bricks, engines and sensors, however, provide an unknown means to make experiences, so that children of both sexes are usually confronted with something new, too. The Legomaterial in this sense is evocative; that is, it generates presumptions, experiences and actions by itself. Treated from a gender-sensitive perspective, it even appears to be gendered material. A practical example: The use of a car-like basic model often leads to car-like robots. Triggered by the impulse car-likeliness, boys and often girls too in no time construct vehicles. This phase of construction is often introduced by remarks such as: Now we add real Formula 1 decorations to it. Were no (car-like) models given, girls and boys often construct models with strong analogies to humans and animals. If children

De/Construction of Gendered Materials now we add real Formula 1 decorations to it

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38 Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007

are left to choose the models themselves, their constructions are observed to be less gender specific. Gender-specific behavior becomes more obvious if given materials, models and tasks that already contain and enforce genderspecific orientations. Although the (Lego) material evokes gender-specific behavior3, didactical interventions and gender-conscious tasks allow to successfully deconstruct the gendered material. This point is made very clear by robotics expert Deirdre Butler: a teacher noticed the fact that the boys ideas were dominating and they all centered around wheels. They all had to be vehicles that moved fast. Rather than separate the groups - for the next project, they simply should not [have] made a wheeled robot. They could use wheels to make conveyor belts or create other moving parts And that began to change things in her classroom, because they began to make other types of things. As a consequence, the task not to construct a wheeled vehicle can transform both internalized gender-specific behavior and the use of gendered materials. Combined with a gender-sensitive view on team interaction and help, this can lead to new learning effects.

The Staging of Gender in Robotics just stick to the construction manual

Our observations could not support the assumption that girls tend to work in a more team-oriented fashion than boys. In small groups, both sexes were able to develop social skills and preferred to work in groups. Though in some boys and girls teams, alternations between team work and a hierarchical task division can be observed, to us, these differences also had strongly to do with the learning arrangement: The more intense a gender-sensitive approach, the more the boys and girls can work as teams. This aspect became evident in the practice of themes, like moving the robot through a maze, a highly self-designable task where problem-solving strategies often got

developed as a team. Gender-neutral themes thus helped to prevent particular mixed teams from falling into two gendered groups. Gender differences and gender-specific behavior brought into the learning environment as a precondition have been, in our view, actively transformed and thus co-produced by both the gendered material and the didactical design of Roberta courses. The consequential staging of gender (Wiesner, 2002) thereby takes place, where material and discoursive worlds interact in specific ways. Due to that, technical materiality and didactical intervention constitute a switching relation, co-producing each others effects in learning environments. In that process, a gender-conscious didactical approach to both the technology and the students becomes essential. This is important to avoid girls being robbed of their fame on a crucial social point, when they present their robot in front of all participants; and to avoid boys from failing if they are driven by a selfconcept of the winner (Buschmann, 1994). Noticeably often, the boys disturbed the girls presentations by letting their own robots drive into their presentations. This was amplified by a rather reserved behavior of the girls that displayed gender stereotypes (e.g., You go ahead starting, we can present our robot at the end). Nonetheless, the boys were also put under stronger pressure by the amount of teacher attention, as a row of unhappy presentations showed. In both cases, LegoMindstorms can work as an exclusive or inclusive technology. As we know today, bringing technology into schools can be beneficial, but much depends on how the teachers mediate the new tools. No wonder, the necessity of a gender-sensitive training concept for teachers4 is an important conclusion from the results of the qualitative evaluation. In Roberta courses, such an approach particularly amplifies positive experiences with technology design by ensuring that girls and boys have equal access and starting points. What we think robotics in education offers new here is that technological interest, creativity and the discovery of new skills, as well as the gaining of knowledge perceived

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Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007 39

as a reflexive mixing of didactics and technology can make kids ready for an increasing sociality with technical objects and processes, which will accompany and transform their life constantly. It is through this very concrete relation and interaction between both the materiality and virtuality of building and programming robots and their didactical mediation that, for us, the specific potential of robotics can get to the kids. The following sections will illustrate how robotics can create diverse potentials to initiate new forms of learning that deal with both the concrete and the abstract world.

interest in technologies messiness, but enables them for a technological-mediated life instead of just feeling overwhelmed. It is, however, also an appropriate medium for general education in the more comprehensive sense of developing personality and agency.

The Didactical Agency of Robotics

Robotic Material and Constructivist Learning

Merging abstract programming and concrete construction worlds, robotics bear a character of challenge. Instead of following instructions, there is not just one way to make a robot. Many possibilities are found to tie to ones imagination. According to Papert, they ought to be things one can think with and that open specific and appropriate possibilities for the individual way of learning (Papert, 1994; Ackermann, 1996). Through concrete handling, the Lego material supports access to abstract concepts and vice-versa: the transfer of abstract programming concepts into concrete motion. Meanwhile, it gives feedback on how successful a construction or programming process is. Such proceedings offer appropriate conditions to promote girls and boys technical curiosity. Girls usually feel inferior with regard to technical constructions, and often fear embarrassment. Robotics technology combined with a gender-sensitive constructivist learning approach instead allows for a less biased access.

In this respect, the experience with robotics to promote girls interest in technology allows conclusions towards general educational concepts for digital media. Robotics as a relational actor not only suits boys and girls


This study addresses the question how information and communications technology (ICT) affects and transforms identity (Turkle, 1995), resembling one of the major discourses in science and technology studies, where technology is not understood as separate from the behavior and identity of human users, but as a productive (f)actor in hybrid socio-technical settings (Latour, 1998; Rammert, 2002), where it works as an agent and a translator of human practice and experience. The Lego-Mindstorms technology both in its virtual and material appearance offers exactly that regarding the design and the use of its inscribed, activity-engaging potential for new learning strategies. During the Roberta courses, students constantly receive system feedbacks (either from the screen or from the robot) that structure their actions together with the teachers didactical approach. Even if the technology does not act intentionally, different forms of the attribution of agency can be observed here, as Rammert and Schulz-Schaeffer (2002) put it. The system reports, or the robot does not work, if incorrect programming commands were entered or technical malfunctions appear. The system suggests new action without pointing to the right direction. From the kids view, the technology at hand acts on two levels: They experience an immediate physical, material processing executed through semiotic processes (programming). For this reason alone, students experience a process of the merging of abstraction and experimental interaction, of their own and of technological actions. System feedbacks, thus, are fundamental, simultaneously didactically constructed and mediatable agency-pattern, simply because they initiate reactions. They are also gender-neutral, since they occur independent from whomever oper-

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40 Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007

ates the computer and do not assess changes due to gender differences but on grounds of the given tasks. Many teachers agree that the system feedback particularly activated selflearning effects. According to our case for gendered materials, however, gender-sensitive didactics is not realized automatically via system feedbacks. If you want to promote girls interest in technology, LegoMindstorms only becomes a didactical actor through a sensitively designed learning environment. Learning effects, creativity and new actions, thus, not only evolve through successful mastering of technology but by the translation of human agency through technological agency. In other words, learning emerges from the collaboration of technological and didactical worlds, the allocation of their different forms of agency and their active transformation by students. The potential of robotics as a didactical actor then lies in this possibility to frame the gradual development, allocation and attribution of both human and technological agency within learning processes (see Wiesner-Steiner, Wiesner, & Schelhowe, 2005). While sociologists of technology often point to an increasing mangling of technology and sociality (see Latour, 1998), our perspective on robotics as a didactical actor for learning processes is particularly driven by the idea to discover potentials that lie in a gradual development and allocation of different forms of agency: Question: I have noticed that the robots did not always drive through the maze independently with their light and motion sensors. How come? Answer 1: What I learned the robots dont like you. You cant always master the technology. (boy) Answer 2: The robot is a technical product and then it is our fault that we didnt understand this. (girl) Answer 3: I think its got to do with both. Sometimes the robot didnt do something it was programmed to, but there were also program errors. (girl)

Answer 4: We have not seen that the robot didnt do what we told him to at all. Sometimes he did something we thought to be wrong, but that was in fact somehow right. (girl) Answer 5: I think the most mistakes occurred because we didnt really know the programming language and so the robot did what he was programmed to do but not what we wanted him to. (girl) Particularly in NQC-related programming and presentation phases of Roberta courses, different forms of the allocation of agency and creatorship by the students and teachers (what does the technology, what should students do to make the robots do something ) can be observed that create a specific form of experimental interactivity with the Lego material: Acting emerges both from an impression of the relatedness of technical and human agency and a clear feeling of their distinctiveness. The allocation of human and/or technological agency by the students based on this ambivalence thus shows relatedness as well as expresses boundaries (see Gieryn, 1995). Learning experiences are categorized and processed within a highly differentiating cognitive framework. The allocation and distribution of different forms of agency not only display where insecurities regarding causalities and connections in the learning process exist but what students think is special with digital media in comparison to other learning experiences. Based on their former experiences, boys and girls were most convinced of their own agency in the phase of construction, while in the programming phase they attribute the strongest form of technological agency. Nevertheless, the programming phase marks the time when they are most active in confronting the technology. This becomes evident if a group is observed throughout a long course. A robot programmed by a boy and a girl via NQC in same shares would do something slightly different, often together with what they programmed him to. Altogether responsible for more than 60 tries in their programming phase (2 days), the group would not have stayed on track without

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Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007 41

the attachment of their programming interest to the concrete object robot, nor without any didactical intervention. In opposition to the programming, in the presentation phase students are particularly interested not only to connect but to perform their own and technical activities. Amplified by the test situation, this is why the allocations the students make in this phase are more goal- and control-oriented than in more experimental course phases. Here, the agency of the technology is perceived as failure or success in relation to the given task, while mastering tasks is seen as both a success of the team and the robot. But is this not the place where research points to gender-specific differences? Where boys rather allocate success to themselves, while girls tend to allocate failure to the circumstances? This clearness vanishes in the case of Roberta courses, because particularly in long courses it can be observed that boys, like girls, use both allocations. The importance of these allocations regarding the technology and themselves is thereby influenced likewise by the genderspecific orientations and didactical conception of the course. In consequence, an important didactical task is to help the students find their own initiative. It is not only important to tackle the given task by means of successful control of the technology, but also to provide insights into the connection of human means of action and learning processes with technological agency. A corresponding remark by a Roberta teacher:

have a special, technically delegated potential to destructure and restructure established learning routines. Both assist or prolong not only learned behavior and application routines, but also enforce, through their inscribed agency, new and creative forms of appropriation, without the paths being outlined in detail. A gendersensitive approach can amplify this process (or even initiate it for girls), by ensuring that students have equal opportunities to develop and design. Following this, examples for possible changes of the self concept are presented next. Here we are less interested in whether the students develop sustainable profession-oriented interests in engineering and computer sciences but whether constructing and programming robots can emulate transferable knowledge that gives them a more active understanding of technology, which goes beyond surface-level familiarity. To be productive with highly interactive, multi-modal, adaptive and autonomous future applications, students need to apply their knowledge in a wide range of situations.

Whether ones own activity in dealing with LegoMindstorms is perceived as strong or weak gives hints to the possibilities for changing the self concept. For this reason, we not only asked students what they learned, but In the first 2 days, the students already asked for let them reflect on their learning processes. more help. If this is interpreted, they only made While the students referred to a special form limited use of their means of action. (teacher) of experimental interaction (Rammert, 1999) with the robotics material, in courses of different Knowledge of the allocation and gradual lengths, it is mainly the programming technique development of technical and human agency in that interacts in specific ways with the social learning processes that aim at both the shaping environment: and use of technology can be very instructive I do think that this has something to do for handling situations like this. Recommenda- with learning. I wouldnt program just tions of activity for different learning phases for fun at home. (boy) can be given and the technology itself can be I think that it is important to connect continually improved as a didactical actor. this to something game-like. Looking Hardware and software used in Roberta courses


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42 Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007

at this programming language, I would absolutely not want to have this written on the blackboard. I think it is important to try it playing. (girl) There werent really disciplinary problems, because the students were challenged by the computers. (short course, teacher 1) After 4 days, social problems are of greater importance than in short courses. In short course, the robot as a medium is such a challenge, that there is hardly a chance for social problems to occur in a team. (Long course, teacher 2)

Question: Would you wish to learn more in this way? I wouldnt only refer to it in Physics and Informatics, but to Natural Sciences in general. Chemistry is usually a subject that I really like, but we dont have such good experiments. And this is important: that I dont just get a formula, but that I can also see: it really is like this. To get this confirmation. (girl) What I learned? To start small and proceed in small steps.. (boy)

This self-confidence that they gain in both technology and themselves cannot be taken away from them so easy again. This will keep them for a while and then in the higher grades, when a colleague takes this up in Natural Sciences in an appropriate way, it will stay like that. ... those are very subtle mechanisms. That they bear that in mind and may consider it in future decisions in the higher grades, for their hobbies and in leisure time. That they believe in their capability to handle technical questions. In that respect, some technology distance may have been taken away. (teacher 2)

Besides sequencing the tasks, two wishes are formulated here: the wish for more playful, experimental learning and the wish for transferable knowledge. The question of change of the self concept was finally addressed by the teachers themselves: We actually learned to enter a few commands in NQC. That is what can be tested. Can you program a loop? But we should also make clear that school education is more than the pure transfer of knowledge. That one can learn from mistakes. The students dont even realize that it is also an aim of the course to help them to help themselves. Not experiencing the learning at junctions and parting of ways is what is valuable. (teacher 1)

Knowledge of the allocation and gradual evolvement of technological and human agency in design-oriented learning processes can be instructive for pedagogical concepts dealing with digital media. Recommendations for action can be specified for different courses, settings and learning phases, and the technology as a didactical actor can be improved permanently. The material and virtual aspects of LegoMindstorms thus bear the potential to deconstruct and reconstruct learning routines. They do not only assist or prolong routines of action but, through their inscribed agency, enforce new creative ways of learning that are not determined. A gender-sensitive didactical approach (implemented in a corresponding learning environment) can start and amplify this process by ensuring that the students have equal experimental opportunities. According to the Roberta aim of promoting girls interest in technology, the following recommendations for the creation of learning environments are given: Assist dynamic processes of team formation Promote open working environments Promote gender-neutral project themes and work Reflect help and attendance in a genderconscious way


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Intl J. of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(1), 36-44, January-March 2007 43

Provide a flexible mix of open and structured learning Give opportunities for teamwork and promote teamwork Schedule for gender-sensitive interventions during the project and presentation phases Consider the materiality, resistance and agency of technology in didactical approaches De/construct gendered material Observe allocation and distribution of technical and human agency gender sensitively.

With such an environment, the techniques of programming and constructing robots with LegoMindstorms not only offer the potential to enhance the room for activity. Purposefully used as a didactical actor, the interaction with the social machines of the Roberta technology even offers possibilities for the change of self concepts before (female) students make educational choices and withdraw from computer science, engineering or math courses.

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search, Zentrum fr Historische Sozialforschung, 29, 120-154. Wiesner-Steiner, A., Wiesner, H., & Schelhowe, H. (2005). Technik als didaktischer akteur: Robotik zur frderung von technikinteresse. In C. Gransee (Ed.), Hochschulinnovation. gender-initiativen in der technik. Reihe: Gender studies in den angewandten wissenschaften (to be published). Hamburg: LIT-Verlag.

As of summer 2005, 153 courses have been conducted (1,880 students, of which 1,605 were girls. For more information about Roberta, visit nal=16413&rootid=15465 The database contains qualitative interviews with a total of 11 tutors, six group discussions with students, two expert


interviews and minutes, and photo and video analysis from six courses. All types of courses (short, medium, long) were analyzed. The offered combinations of wheels and engines often leads to the exclusion of other functional lego bricks. Gender sensitve didactics consist of: Performance-related praise (particularly girls) Gender-conscious reflection on the given attention and help Gender-sensitive intervention during the project phases Gender-neutral tasks (e.g., circus instead of soccer scenarios) Open learning scenarios De-/construction of the gendered material Use of designable technology.

Dr. Andreas Wiesner-Steiner ( is a sociologist of science and technology and has conducted work within the field of human genome research, climate change and digital media in education. Prof. Dr. Heike Wiesner ( has conducted research in interdisciplinary technology and gender studies, digital media, robotics and e-learning. Since April 2006 she has been working at the Harriet Tayler Mill Institute at the Berlin School of Economics in the fields of knowledge management, e-leaning, economy and gender. Prof. Dr. Heidi Schelhowe ( is head of the working group DiMeB (Digital Media in Education) at University of Bremen. DiMeB contributes both to education as a field of application for computing science and digital media, as well as to media education based on computing science in a context of educational science and didactics.

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