What robots can teach about inclusive education

A technology course for underserved youth in Amsterdam shows them they can achieve what they set their minds to

By Domiziana Francescon - July 22, 2020
IMC Weekendschool robots main
Students at the IMC Weekendschool in Amsterdam lay out tracks for a robot.

About 40 children crouch on the floor intently building tracks with colored wooden blocks. When they position a little blue robot with two wheels on the track, they’re amazed to see that it’s able follow the lines and find its way to the other side of the room. That’s because it can distinguish light and dark, explains their teacher, a volunteer from the Dutch educational startup Robotwise. He is spending his Sunday teaching kids at the IMC Weekendschool what a robot is and how it works.

This was one of four Sundays of the technology course the IMC Weekendschoool organized for January, supported by the Elsevier Foundation. It welcomed underserved children age 10 to 14 from the Amsterdam West neighborhood.

Designing the technology course

Working with IBM and VhTo (the Dutch national expert organization on girls and women in science and technology), the staff at IMC Weekendschool designed modules around different aspects of technology with the aim of giving students a broad perspective of this vast field. Students explored AI, data analytics, machine learning, computational thinking, coding, apps development and robotics – with a special attention to the relationship between humans and technology.

“Technology is integrated into every professional field: we added this course for our students to explore how technology is present in their daily lives, as well as in society at large,” said Course Coordinator Stasja van Droffelaar.

To design the classes, she explained,  they worked with professionals in the field “to identify initial building blocks for an introductory lesson – and then we dived deeper and made sure that the students would be able to work on an assignment of their own, with plenty of hands-on, practical exercises.”

It was important for the team that students became aware and critical both as technology users and as possible future creators, exploring ways that technology is developed and understanding its potential as well as dangers.

Programming and debugging

Students “program” their teacher to eat a sandwich.On the first day, students were introduced to computational thinking and a first exploration of artificial intelligence. But how do you really engage a young audience? Make sure there’s space to play! In the first hand-on exercise, the guest teacher pretended to be a robot who knew nothing of life on Earth. The students wrote codes to successfully “program” her to prepare and eat a sandwich. Every time a team read their code out loud, the teacher followed their code literally, step by step – which initially caused funny and exciting moments in the classroom, with the teacher ending up taking a bite out of a box of chocolate sprinkles. The other teams were challenged to understand what instructions were left out of the code and tried to debug it.

Students were also challenged to think about different AI and data applications in relation to ethical questions and societal phenomena. They watched short videos and analyzed statements, and in a debate-style exercise were asked to take a side based on agree/disagree. This is an important step in any IMC Weekendschool course: teachers focus on helping students develop essential life skills like presenting, asking questions, debating and being aware of themselves and others.

Developing an app

Guided by IBM volunteers, students conceptualize their own apps for the upcoming school year.

The second and third day, IBM joined in. Guided by IBM volunteers who took up the role of coach or guest teacher, the students tried a number of programming assignments using MicroBits and Scratch, and then conceptualized their own app for the upcoming first year of secondary school.

Building on years of expertise in education, the IMC weekend School staff knew that the best way to engage students is by anchoring the assignments to their daily lives. With the help of the teachers, students were asked to conceptualize their own app for school: ideas focused on school lunch, homework, extracurricular activities and tuition.

“At the IMC Weekendschool we strive to contribute to the development of our students into socially engaged citizens,” van Droffelaar said. “We want them to know the value of having an impact over your environment, and the importace of contributing to progress in society in a way that benefits themselves as well as others.”

Feeling a connection with the society they inhabit is one of the main goals the IMC Weekendschool has for the students: it’s key that underprivileged children meet and identify with professionals they normally wouldn’t interact with, stimulating their imagination and helping them realize that all fields of work have realistic opportunities for them.

Building on the principle of experiential learning, in the next school year, students will be divided into groups based on existing technology skills, making sure that assignment are targeted to individual learning goals. The IMC Weekend School team is also planning to take students to actual IT Labs in Amsterdam, letting them explore what their future workplace could look like.

The IMC Weekendschool and the Elsevier Foundation: five years of parternship

The Elsevier Foundation’s support for the IMC Weekendschool started in 2015. Along with the technology course, the foundation supports courses on science and health.

The Health module focuses on showing students that healthcare is not just about doctors and nurses but requires different professions with a wide range of educational levels. It also emphasizes the importance of taking good care of both body and mind, and will incorporate mindfulness in 2020. In 2019, the IMC Weekendschool took almost 50 students to their local hospital, where they talked to a wide range of professionals. They also learned how to take blood samples and make a cast for a broken arm, and toured an operating theater and MRI rooms. Students were also taught by a special guest teacher, a doctor focusing on homeless and undocumented people in Amsterdam.

In the Science module, students learned that science is not just about knowledge but curiosity, creativity and logical reasoning. They were able to diagnose and conduct experiments, understanding the basic principles of scientific research they’ll be able to apply in their daily lives: observe, explain, analyze and predict.

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Domiziana Francescon
Written by

Domiziana Francescon

Written by

Domiziana Francescon

Domiziana Francescon serves as the Elsevier Foundation’s Program Officer and is a strong supporter of the company’s Corporate Responsibility program. Domiziana obtained a master’s degree in Book and Digital Media Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, with a specialization in Publishing Studies. She grew up in Italy.

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