Starting with Robots: Linking Spatial Ability and Learning to Program
Stuart Wray has a remarkable blog that I recommend to CS teachers. He shares his innovations in teaching, and grounds them in his exploration of the literature into the psychology of programming. The quote and link below is an excellent example, where his explanation led to me a paper I’m eager to dive into. Stuart has built an interesting warm-up activity for his class that involves robots. What I’m most intrigued by is his explanation for why it works as it does. The paper that he cites by Jones and Burnett is not one that I’d seen before, but it explores an idea that I’ve been interested in for awhile, ever since I discovered the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center: Is spatial ability a pre-requisite for learning in computer science? And if so, can we teach it explicitly to improve CS learning?
The game is quite fun and doesn’t take very long to play — usually around a quarter of an hour or less. It’s almost always quite close at the end, because of course it’s a race between the last robot in each team. There’s plenty of opportunity for delaying tactics and clever blocking moves near the exit by the team which is behind, provided they don’t just individually run for the exit as fast as possible.
But turning back to the idea from James Randi, how does this game work? It seems from my experience to be doing something useful, but how does it really work as an opening routine for a programming class? Perhaps first of all, I think it lets me give the impression to the students that the rest of the class might be fun. Lots of students don’t seem to like the idea of programming, so perhaps playing a team game like this at the start of the class surprises them into giving it a second chance.
I think also that there is an element of “sizing the audience up” — it’s a way to see how the students interact with one another, to see who is retiring and who is bold, who is methodical and who is careless. The people who like clever tricks in the game seem often to be the people who like clever tricks in programming. There is also some evidence that facility with mental rotation is correlated with programming ability. (See Spatial ability and learning to program by Sue Jones and Gary Burnett in Human Technology, vol.4(1), May 2008, pp.47-61.) To the extent that this is true, I might be getting a hint about who will have trouble with programming from seeing who has trouble making their robot turn the correct direction.