Assistive devices curriculum article

This article was originally published 21 October 2008.

Select Boston Public School middle-school teachers have been teaching the “Robotics: Assistive devices for the future“ curriculum for the past three years. For each of the last three years approximately 20 new teachers learn to use the LEGO robotics platform to engage their students in engineering challenges and a culminating final project to build an assistive device. This story reports on a few of these teachers’ experiences teaching the curriculum.

The teachers enter the professional development workshops in various states:

“LEGO robots what did I get myself into!”

“Awesome! I want to play.”

“Where’s the free food?”

No matter where they start, each teacher has the opportunity to get their hands on LEGO motors, the LEGO RCX, and ROBOLAB. As if learning to build robots with LEGO wasn’t exciting enough, these teachers then took on the challenge of teaching the engineering and robotics curriculum to their middle-school students. This story reports on a few of these teachers’ experiences teaching the curriculum.

As a member of the curriculum design team and the lead instructor for the teacher professional development workshop, I had the privilege of witnessing many teachers and students learn engineering by creating innovative LEGO assistive devices. The curriculum team included partners from the Tufts University Center for Engineering Educational Outreach (CEEO), TechBoston (a division of the Boston Public Schools) and the Northeastern University School of Engineering.

engineering_design_process4The curriculum was designed to address Massachusetts’ science and technology curriculum standards with a focus on the engineering design process. The engineering design process (pictured to the right) highlights some key steps in solving real-world problems. It is also a cyclical process, meaning that as you develop a solution you may redesign that solution over and over again until you have a satisfactory final product.

The two-week teacher professional development workshop (redesigned over the three years) helped teachers learn how to apply the engineering design process in their middle-school classrooms. In the first week, each teacher actively participated in the curriculum as a learner, providing them the opportunity to experience the challenges their students may face, and as one teacher described:

“The whole process gives me the confidence now that if I get stuck again I am much better prepared to find the solutions” (Hynes & dos Santos, 2007, p. 27).

In the second week of the workshop, students from local summer programs participated in a summer-camp-style practicum. The teachers team-taught the curriculum with a group of 4-8 of these students. Having the teachers team-teach in a large, open area had the unexpected benefit of allowing teachers to observe how other teachers were teaching the unit. A number of teachers commented on this experience:

“I was looking at different people and their teaching styles and saying, ‘I like the way he did that,’ or ‘I hope I didn’t do that,’ teachers never get a chance to do that.”

“[I was] recognizing there are other ways to do things and there is no wrong or right way and there are just different paths as long as you get to the same destination.”
(Hynes & dos Santos, 2007, p. 27)

It’s one thing to teach in a controlled setting with another teacher to 4-8 students. It’s a completely different story when you take this on by yourself in a class of 20+ students. Here we’ll hear from a few teachers who took on the challenge.

Brian Vitarisi (Mr. V) 5th grade teacher, Sarah Greenwood School, Dorchester, Massachusetts

Mr. V, as his students call him, taught the assistive devices curriculum for the first time this past spring. He did not have any formal engineering education or experience and was quick to admit he was a little unsure of how this would go.

His apprehension did not show. Mr. V experienced success early on. One memorable moment came as the students built geared vehicles. Mr. V. recollects, “a student who struggles with comprehension in all subject areas was able to understand and successfully explain the gear ratio to the entire class as well as myself.” He further explained, “[this student] traditionally does not do well academically; however, with a few early successes in the robotics curriculum, she really took off. She was soon explaining things I didn’t understand to the rest of the class.”

Mr. V pointed out that “the curriculum allowed the students to explore, design, and program their own creations to meet the needs of people who need assistance.” As a classroom observer, I witnessed the students being excited about their projects and taking ownership of what they had created. Mr. V also expressed that “the students gained confidence in their own abilities. Students learned that there isn’t only one solution to a problem or a need.”

When asked what he disliked most about teaching the curriculum, Mr. V responded, “not knowing all of the answers to student-directed questions.” On this note, he also recommends to other teachers who plan on teaching such a curriculum that they “actually build the devices that are in the curriculum prior to teaching the lesson so [they] may be able to answer questions students may have.”

Sarah Chang 6th grade math teacher, Josiah Quincy Lower, Boston, Massachusetts

Mrs. Chang has been teaching the curriculum in her after-school program for the past two years. Mrs. Chang is a math teacher who took on the role of running the after-school program after a mentor of hers at the Josiah Quincy retired and handed over the reins of her well-oiled after-school program.

“I enjoy having the space for students to spend time problem solving–that is, having the setting to test ideas and learn from mistakes. Often in the classroom, there is no time to go back and improve experiments or ideas,” Mrs. Chang describes the unique experience of the curriculum in her after-school program. She believes her students learn about “problem-solving, applying math and science to hands-on activities, learning to think about others’ needs through the curriculum, how to invent something, and the engineering design process.”

While the program has many positive aspects, teaching such a curriculum is not without its headaches. Mrs. Chang has had many a headache keeping track of her “millions” of LEGOs, and also with the lack of tech support in the school. “Being just one teacher in the class makes it difficult to manage technology and LEGO materials at the same time,” said Mrs. Chang. All this and the bonus of managing a group of students excited to be “out of school!”

Mrs. Chang recommends co-teaching the curriculum if possible. This can help alleviate some of the LEGO and technology management issues, and provides more time to spend with students.

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Phil Reitz 6th-8th grade technology teacher, Fuller Middle School, Framingham, MA

Mr. Reitz participated in the first workshop where the assistive device curriculum was rolled out in the summer of 2005. He brought the curriculum back to his school where he has taught it numerous times (more than 5 that he can remember) in both after-school and in-school settings

“There are a lot of ‘wows’, ‘this is cool’, ‘how’d you do that?’ exclamations,” touts Mr. Reitz, who is excited that the students get “a real and hands-on introduction to engineering.” However, he warns, “As with any curriculum, it won’t necessarily work perfectly right out of the box. One must know the student and be able to make some adjustments, often on the fly.” However, he ensures, “once one overcomes the fear of the millions of little parts all over the place, many of which may or may not find their way back to the rightful place, there is great joy in watching the students’ glow.”

Mr. Reitz also noted, “the extreme diversity in abilities found in our middle school’s student population demands greater effort on the instructor’s part to adequately address the goals and objectives.” The curriculum is, on one hand, great at appealing to different abilities that often do not get addressed, but it also, as Mr. Reitz recognizes, can expose new weaknesses that a teacher may not have seen before.

Myra Sussman K-5th grade computer teacher, Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School, East Boston, MA

Ms. Sussman taught the curriculum for the first time in Spring 2008 to her fifth grade class that she meets with three times per week. The 48-minute class with 25 students proved to be difficult for Ms. Sussman, but with a college student as an assistant was able to effectively implement the curriculum. With a smaller class size, Ms. Sussman thought it would have been much more manageable for someone doing this for the first time.

Describing what her students learned, Ms. Sussman highlighted “collaborative/team engineering skills, patience and resolve with a difficult challenge and confidence in engineering and programming skills.” Beyond this, Ms. Sussman saw significant shifts in student motivation and shared the following story:
He (student’s name removed) was an underachiever rarely completing his homework, but proved to have a natural aptitude for LEGO Mindstorms. He immediately came up with a very challenging and cool project “a wheelchair that could climb stairs” and in between classes drew detailed prototype drawings. He built the prototype, got help when needed, and did extensive testing to see where the design flaws were. I hope this experience will stick with him and boost his confidence as he enters the middle school.

Challenging yet exciting

The teachers all had many positive things to say about using a LEGO robotics engineering unit and were clear that their students not only learned engineering but gained confidence in their abilities, learned to work as teams, and, maybe most importantly, became excited, engaged learners. However, this is not to say that it will be easy. These teachers are well aware of the hardships that arise when LEGO bricks and students alike are chaotically strewn across the room and the bell will be ringing in 30 seconds. My best advice for taking on the challenge of teaching engineering with LEGO robotics is to take it slow and ramp up as you feel comfortable. Test an activity out on your own until you are confident that it works and then test it out in the classroom. Oh yeah, and use as your lifeline to provide activities, curriculum, ideas, and tips!


  • Hynes, M., & dos Santos, A. (2007). Effective Teacher Professional Development: Middle School Engineering Content. International Journal of Engineering Education, 23(1), 24-29.

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The Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) in Boston, Massachusetts, is dedicated to improving engineering education in the classroom, from Kindergarten to college. The Center houses faculty, staff, and graduate students from engineering disciplines and the education department.

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