By Irina Mach
For the second year in a row, grade 8 students at Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) have engaged in an interdisciplinary unit (IDU) that integrates maths and design through robotics.
Using geometry as a starting point, students explore how their understanding of circumference and angles is applied in a very real way to the programming of robots. Students work in teams to apply their mathematical knowledge and programme their robot to navigate a maze successfully.
The culmination of the unit is a competition called the ‘Amazeing Dancer’ where student teams strive to navigate the maze and pass as many checkpoints as possible. All teams compete to reach the finals where their whole grade gathers to cheer them on.
Photo: Western Academy of Beijing
How has this unit supported better student learning?
WAB is always striving to make learning as relevant to the real world as possible. This unit allowed students to see that geometry is not an abstract concept, but rather something that has a real and exciting application. It also gave students an applied understanding of the significance of accurate calculations and provided immediate feedback when a calculation was incorrect.
Straight away, students could see the consequence of a mistake, then take the time to check their calculations, correct the issue and try again. They could also see no one got the calculations right the first time, and everyone learned through testing and trying again. This unit really embodied our definition of learning as a transformative experience that is challenging and joyful, intentional and iterative, and driven by authentic contexts.
Collaborative and challenge-based interdisciplinary projects like this also promote student leadership and inclusivity. Within teams, students assume different roles based on their strengths, fostering collective problem-solving and leadership. The unit aims to ensure inclusivity and success for all students, regardless of their perceived maths level.
Success takes various forms, from programming and building the robot to applying geometry concepts and working collaboratively. The focus is on fostering confidence, collaboration, communication skills and a feeling of achievement in each student.
How do we know it is working?
One of the highlights is the excitement and ownership displayed by students during the IDU. They actively enjoyed working with robots and shared how much they appreciated the collaborative aspect of working in teams and what they learnt about perseverance.
This unit also affords all students the opportunity to participate and be successful. For example, robotics and coding are areas in which multilingual and emergent English learners can thrive and students who do not see themselves as technologically or mathematically gifted can achieve personal success and improve their confidence.
This IDU has helped students make connections between maths, design and science. Students experience firsthand the relevance of mathematics in real-world applications, and this fostered a tangible sense of enthusiasm and interest in learning more.
Photo: Western Academy of Beijing
How did leadership support the IDU?
WAB’s educational leadership teams actively encourages subject teams to collaborate and develop interdisciplinary units. There is a strong focus across the school to create conditions in which projects like this can thrive. This includes permission to try new things without fear of failure, advocacy of the programmes and the unit to colleagues and families, and ensuring adequate time and resources are available to make it successful.
Over the past several years, there has also been a schoolwide focus to adjust teacher schedules to allow more time for collaboration and planning. The positive impact of this focus has been seen in both teacher feedback in WAB’s annual staff climate survey, as well as in the development of units like this one.
Coordination between the learning leaders of design and mathematics ensured that the curriculum objectives of both disciplines were met in a way that enhanced the learning of both subjects.
Communication of the project through workshops, media and articles ensures the unit is well understood and supported by the community, in terms of its purpose and impacts on student learning. ‘WAB champions its staff’ as a core value includes providing the support and platform to share exciting innovations that are challenging and joyful.
What is next?
Students who are coming up through the school are having more exposure to robotics and coding. To continue to challenge the students, additional complexities, like the use of different sensors, will be included in the coming year. Another iteration will be to add time for students to also take a science-based approach and explore different variables, like exact positioning of the robot in the maze, and how they may impact the code and the performance of their machines.
Maths/robotics collaboration tips
- Keep the maths concept simple (eg, circumference/diameter) – the focus is more on the application and robotics/problem-solving skills
- Have all teachers working on this collaboration available for all classes/students
- Let students struggle and be frustrated – resist the urge to help – a major component of this project was to encourage persistence and promote problem-solving skills
- Do the maths planning first (before the LEGO building) – students cannot progress to the fun part of building the robot until they have made a mathematical plan that has been checked by a teacher
- Allow more time than you had planned – there is benefit in letting students succeed even it replaces other/following lessons
More information on robotics at WAB can be found at https://learn.wab.edu/innovation/robotics
Irina Mach is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Admissions in conjunction with the middle school maths and design teams of Western Academy of Beijing. You can connect with Irina directly on LinkedIn.