Learning Elementary Mathematics with Robots

Building number sense and arithmetic through programming robots

Increasingly recognized as an essential skill for modern skilled labour, there is a growing movement around the world to include programming in school curriculum. Robotics and programming present highly adaptable tools to promote deep learning, while also incorporating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into the classroom. Particularly in mathematics, the flexibility of the robots allows students to explore multiple solutions to the questions, promoting creativity and problem-solving through engaging, hands-on activities.

Programming Mathematical Thinking

In a study conducted by Dr. Krista Francis, Dr. Brent Davis, and Michael Poscente, students aged 9 and 10 from a First Nations school in northern Alberta learned to build, program, and complete various mathematics challenges using Lego Mindstorms™ EV3 robots. Over the four, half-day lessons, the students engaged in small group tasks that built from simple to increasingly complex. Making mistakes and troubleshooting difficulties encouraged the students to explore different approaches, refining their understanding of both programming and mathematics.

By scaffolding the tasks, the students learned more sophisticated and efficient methods for solving the problems. The students began by programming the robot to ‘dance’ – to complete certain movements, and repeat the sequence – which the researchers explained through number operations (repeated addition and multiplication). Students were then tasked with programming their robot to trace the shape of a regular polygon.

Beginning by acting out the sequence with their own bodies, students then programmed their robots to outline the shape. The students were challenged to use programming loops, which required thinking using multiplication. This prompted more sophisticated reasoning, and considering how repetitions in the shape could be represented through multiplication and repeated steps. The use of the technology allowed students to engage with representations of multiplication, an essential element of later mathematical development, in ways that could not be facilitated elsewhere.

Building Understanding

The lesson from this study developed students’ understandings of number sense, shape, space, and measurement – helping them work through mathematics concepts which they had previously struggled to articulate and reason about. These problems involved understanding the relationship between movement and distance, applying their knowledge of arithmetic and number sense in a meaningful task which reflects the movement of any wheeled vehicle. Being closely aligned with the concepts and structures of mathematics, programming presents many possibilities for engaging and enhancing mathematics learning.

Connected Citations

Francis, K& Poscente, M. (2016). Building number sense with Lego™ robots. Teaching Children Mathematics, 23(5), 310-312.   

Francis, K. & Davis, B. (2016). Learning arithmetic by programming. Proceedings of the 38th annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona

Francis, K., Khan, S., & Davis, B. (2015). Enactivism, spatial reasoning and coding. Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education 1(2). Available Online.

Francis-Poscente, K. & Davis, B. (2013). Lego Mindstorms™ Professional Development for Elementary Teachers. Proceedings of the 1st Meeting between the National Pedagogical University (Mexico) and the Faculty of Education of the University of Calgary: Design and implementation of teacher professional development programmes focused on promoting mathematical thinking. Mexico City, Mexico. Available online.