Robotics, Coding, & Student-Centered Learning: A Student’s Perspective

By students at the center hub team
December 2, 2015


Computer Science Education Week begins next week (December 7-13). Tens of millions of students will participate in the Hour of Code, a campaign to introduce young people to coding and to stress the importance of computer science skills in the 21st century. Less than 2.4 percent of students graduate college with a computer science degree, and more than 1 million jobs are expected to be unfilled by 2020 if computer science continues to be undervalued in schools. In Massachusetts, for example, computer science is only offered in 1 of 4 schools, and is often taken as an elective.

To celebrate the Hour of Code, The Students at the Center Hub is featuring Winchester High School sophomore, Justin Yu, who will talk about his interest in coding and computer science. Justin has been a part of his school’s robotics team since last year, and won a national robotics championship over the summer. Afterwards, be sure to read our “Applying the Framework” summary that connects Justin’s interview to the Students at the Center Framework.


Tell us a little bit about your involvement with your robotics class.

It’s very student driven—the teacher is there if we need help, but we decide what kind of robot we want to build, how we’re going to code it…and if it works, then you’re proud of it, because you made it from the beginning.

Is this a part of a class, or an extracurricular?

It started off as extracurricular, but two years ago they made it a class to encourage more people to come.

What does an assignment look like in a robotics class? How do you get graded?

At the end of the quarter you do a presentation, and it measures how much you’ve done. It is graded fairly loosely, though.

What is most appealing to you about robotics?

Having the freedom to be creative is very important. We have competitions, so of course there’s tasks the robot is supposed to do—but the way we do that, the way the tasks are completed, how we solve the problem…you come up with an idea and you test it—if it doesn’t work, you just come up with another idea. You can do what you want. And because it’s your idea, you’re more motivated to spend more time on it. That’s what I like about it. It’s also good because robotics has shown me real-world applications of coding. And it’s very visual. You do the coding, and then you see the robot move around based on your code.

Robotics involves a lot of programming. How much programming did you know before getting started?

I didn’t know much. Before I did robotics I was interested in coding, so, I looked into some stuff online to learn more—but I learned from experience. In my robotics class, you don’t do a workshop on coding, it’s more like we just get into it. I followed an upperclassman that was building one of their robots and watched him code, then I practiced and quickly picked it up. I like the problem-solving aspect. It is basically like a logic puzzle. There’s no right answer, as long as it works. You can do it your way and still get the right answer.

Do you find coding to be creative?

I think coding is very creative. There are so many ways you can solve the same problem. It takes creativity to know options. One problem can take five lines to code, then someone else can address the same problem in 90 lines of code. It all depends on how you code it. Creativity definitely plays into how you decide to structure your code.

Have you used coding in other ways besides robotics?

Yes. I took Introduction to Computer Science last year, and this year I’m taking AP Computer Science. So I’ve been doing some other types of projects. I’ve used Python and Java for those.

What is one of the coolest things you’ve been able to code?

I programmed an app to help little kids understand Type 1 diabetes. It is supposed to help educate kids about diabetes and build good habits in a gamified way. I started this project by doing some programs at the Boston organization, Youth Cities, which focuses on entrepreneurship. The challenge was specifically on creating entrepreneurship solutions to solve problems in pediatrics or medical technologies.

Through this project, a couple of friends and I are now working with Children’s Hospital in Boston. When a child is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, they have to stay in the hospital for three days. The kids are not old enough to completely manage their diabetes but should begin to learn about it so that they can eventually manage themselves. So, they participate in multiple lessons, which includes textbooks and worksheets, but the kids don’t really enjoy them—it’s a very old school way of learning.

With this app, it’s educational and it helps track their blood glucose levels and reminds them to take their medications and stuff.

Do you think your peers are excited or intimidated by coding?

In general, I wouldn’t say they are intimidated, but they’re not necessarily interested… The learning process can be tedious so they might just stop there. Before people can create anything cool, they have to learn how to build it which takes a lot of work..

Have you ever had to teach someone to code?

I’ve taught Scratch at my elementary school for Hour of Code, and done workshops at the Clubhouse. We used a program that had Frozen characters in it, and kids got really excited about making Olaf move.

How would you describe coding to a six-year-old?

Writing instructions for a computer to do.

What would you say to someone who thinks code is boring?

Try it. Usually people that have said coding is boring haven’t tried it.

Has coding influenced your long-term goals?

Coding is everywhere, and technology is getting more and more important in our lives. Coding has become an important skill to know. Robotics got me interested in coding and computer science, so now I’m considering it as a major or minor in college.


Applying the Framework:
Looking at 
Student-owned Learning


  • Justin’s robotics class encourages active learning. Research shows that project-based, hands-on learning experiences better support learning than a more passive, traditional approach.
  • The instructional strategies employed (peer-as-instructor; facilitated learning) required students to be responsible for their own learning. It was expected that Justin observe more experienced peers in order to succeed in the class, with the teacher as a facilitator but not as the only expert in the room. When teachers step back and let young people explore independently, the learning environment can transform into a safe and inviting space for deeper learning, while fostering autonomy and other real-world skills.

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