Classroom Best Practice  |  

5 Reasons to Get Students Coding with Robots

Feb 26, 2018

Photo credit: Esther Vargas

It seems these days that everywhere we turn, there’s another story about the important role robots will play in our future. I’m already BFFs with my Alexa, and Nest keeps me warm at night, so I know what they mean. These stories reinforce just how important it will be for the current young generation to feel comfortable using technology to be efficient, creative, productive, and in control.

Here at Wonder Workshop, we believe that all students should be exposed to computational thinking at an early age. Our co-founder, Vikas Gupta, has written about the importance of starting very young as a way to balance the gender divide that exists in computer science. Why else do we feel so strongly about introducing young students to robotics and computer science?

Here are five reasons.

1. Coding is the new literacy.

What does literacy mean? The definition of literacy is “the ability to read and write,” but more broadly, it means the ability to communicate using a symbolic system. If code is one of the important symbolic systems of the near future, then indeed, being literate in computer languages and computational thinking will be essential competencies. In many ways, we are already there. Want to express yourself with a website? It helps to know a little HTML and CSS to spruce up the available templates. Want to simplify a repetitive task in Excel? It helps to know how to write a short script to do it for you. These activities aren’t necessarily a part of what we would think of as STEM. Artists and writers create websites. Marketing professionals analyze consumer data in Excel spreadsheets. (OK, it’s math, but still.) The idea is clear: Knowing how to master our many digital environments and tools is key. As Apple executive Craig Federighi told the BBC in 2015, “These devices are so much a part of our lives — we have a computer in some form wherever we go — that the ability to create in that medium is as fundamental as the ability to write.”

Many people credit Marina Umaschi Bers, professor of child development and also of computer science at Tufts University and director of the DevTech research group, as the first person to frame computer literacy as the “new literacy.” She has performed extensive research on how young people can interact with digital tools to foster creativity and solve problems. As a student of Seymour Papert at MIT in the 1960s, Professor Umaschi Bers observed young children who were learning LOGO, the first computer language created for kids. In 2014, Umaschi Bers and the DevTech research group created the programming language ScratchJr in collaboration with Mitch Resnick at the MIT Media Lab. If you haven’t watched Professor Resnick’s TED Talk about ScratchJr and how kids can use it to unleash their creativity, here’s the video.

Professor Umaschi Bers points out that “those who can’t read and write are left out of power structures.” That’s what this comes down to. Who will hold the reins in the future when so much of our work becomes digitized? The role of education is to prepare the next generation for handling the challenges they will face. It’s not enough just to be able to use technology; to solve the problems of the future, we will need more and more people who can create technologies. As Umaschi Bers writes, “In a coding playground, children become producers, not only consumers[…]”

Like ScratchJr, Wonder Workshop’s Blockly for Dash & Dot robots uses drag-and-drop block-based programming to help kids code with puzzles.

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2. Coding with robotics makes the digital tangible.

Studies have shown that children learn better if they have something in front of them that they can feel and physically touch, and even better if they made it themselves. When students are faced with solving a problem that is right in front of them and is tangible, they are very motivated to succeed and interested in experimenting with their ideas until those ideas help them achieve their goals.

Thousands of students have shared videos with us showing their Dash & Dot robots successfully completing a task — tossing a ball through a hoop, clearing an area of debris, or navigating a complex maze without hitting the walls.

What’s so striking about these videos isn’t so much that the children succeeded, it’s the wild and explosive excitement they display when it works. The payoff is huge. Few students jump up and down and cheer when they simply solve a geometry problem. However, when they’ve solved a geometry problem using coding and robotics, the cheers are often deafening.

Now, consider coding without using a screen, but rather by manipulating physical tiles that represent command lines of code. That’s Puzzlets for Dash, and it’s perfect for the youngest learners.

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3. Coding with robots spans all disciplines.

As Professor Resnick has often said, once students learn to code, they can code to learn. Using the Wonder Workshop robots, for example, students could learn to put together a narrative so that Dash & Dot tell a story. Or they could learn about the movements of the planets by using Dash & Dot to create a model of the moon going around the Earth. There are tons of possibilities. And when students experience the wonder of creating digital instructions to realize a creative vision, it’s incredibly empowering.

Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy, the hierarchical model for educational learning objectives. At the top of the hierarchy are Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. These higher-order thinking skills are required of students who are tasked with writing accurate instructions (code) for a robot to complete a specific task. Teachers can ensure that students have the knowledge and understanding of a given concept and then test how well students can apply that understanding to a real-world challenge that has a technological answer. Students who become comfortable taking what they’re learning in the classroom and extending it to problem-solving with technology will enter adulthood equipped with the tools they need to realize their ambitions.

Wonder Workshop’s Code to Learn Lesson Library offers lesson plans that span ELA, science, math, the arts, and beyond. Check it out.

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4. Coding with robotics teaches kids how to fail forward and reinforces design thinking principles.

There’s a lot of talk these days in parenting and education circles about the importance of grit in fostering student success. Can a student persist in the face of failure? Do they have the tenacity to see the problem through? Computer science and robotics provide a playground for honing this skill called grit, which can become a desirable quality.

Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College in North Carolina

Where did “design thinking” originate? According to designer Jo Szczepanska, design science was spearheaded by all-around inventor Buckminster Fuller at MIT in the mid-1950s. Fuller was known for looking across disciplines for solutions to complex problems. We’re used to that concept now, but in the 1950s, that was revolutionary. He sought to create systematic approaches to design and hoped that design would raise the standard of living for all people. As design thinking has become more and more codified, businesses have caught on to its potential for delivering innovation. The Stanford Design School has articulated the design thinking methodology as follows:

Built right into the design thinking process is the concept of failure. Notice that the final step doesn’t end with “Success!” but rather ends with evolution and loops back to the beginning of the process. When problems are framed in this way, students learn to attack them from several different angles and learn not to give up when the going gets tough. This methodology also lends itself well to teamwork. For example, ideation is well-suited for collaborative brainstorming sessions that generate lots of ideas. Then these ideas become seeds for experimentation, and so on.

This methodology is alive and well at Wonder Workshop, as we use it to create software, hardware, and our content, such as curriculum. You can bring this methodology to your classrooms with coding and robotics. Challenges that are complex enough will engage students on all of these axes.

Julia L. Dweck, M.Ed., writes on the Edutopia website about how the Wonder League Robotics Competition serves as a source of design thinking challenges for her students. Since the competition is asynchronous (students submit videos of challenges being solved by the robot), there is plenty of time for failure and experimentation. Having an asynchronous competition is quite different from robotics competitions that take place within a single day, when failure can happen rapidly and without recourse. There is a place for both kinds of competitions, just as real life presents both kinds of challenges as well — researching and writing a book is quite different from presenting a TED Talk, for example. We like that students can take time to try different approaches, and part of the competition also includes documenting their thought processes and outcomes in their journals.

Find out more about the Wonder League Robotics Competition and how your students can get involved.

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5. The future is robotic.

Just the other evening at a dinner party, a friend pulled out his cell phone to show guests at the dinner a video of the coffee shop where he’d gotten a beverage that morning. It was CafeX in San Francisco. CafeX serves coffee to its customers without human intervention. The baristas are robots, and the cashiers are iPads. Using the touch screen, you pick out your latte, swipe your credit card, and the robot receives the instruction to make the beverage. Then the robot delivers the beverage to you through a little window. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.

By the time our children are grown, they’ll be traveling in self-driving cars and interacting with robots as often as with humans.

Google Self-Driving Car

Remember bank tellers? That ATM machine you use is a robot.

We need to provide students, at an early age, access to robots that are fun, engaging, and friendly, and robots that they can learn how to control. Once students learn how to control robots and make them perform tasks they’ve set out for them, their creativity can lead them to programming robots to perform increasingly complex and challenging tasks.

The future is already here: Humans have written code that makes a robot see things we can’t see (deep mine exploration), touch things we can’t touch (defusing a bomb), and process things more quickly than we could ever hope to (sorting thousands of peas a minute in a harvest pea sorting machine).

News reports have highlighted how some jobs could be at risk of being lost to automation. We’ve seen that technology has the ability to create more jobs than it replaces, but these jobs have always required new skills, so we need to make sure that students have different and agile skill sets to keep them prepared for the evolving job market. Think of the hand weaver facing a loom. (The Luddite story is a good one.) Don’t quit weaving, just learn how to use the loom.

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Wonder League Robotics Competition FAQ | Year 8

Hello, robotics enthusiasts! If you’re here, you’re probably as excited as we are about the 8th Annual Wonder League Robotics Competition! To help you and your teams have the best possible experience competing this year, we wanted to share answers to some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).

Who Can Compete:

Any kid, anywhere in the world, ages 6-8 (Innovator Cup) and 9-12 (Pioneer Cup). There are two age brackets: 6-8 and 9-12 and team members have to fall within the age category at some point during the competition. Participants must be the qualifying age for their bracket on the last day of the competition, but if they gain a year during the competition, that’s OK. They won’t age out! 

Competition Brackets:

  • Innovator Cup (Age 6-8)
  • Pioneer Cup (Age 9-12)

What Makes a Team:

A team is made up of a supervising adult coach, and one or more children (up to 5). That’s right, kids can compete solo, but a coach who is 18+ is needed to help with the submission process. For multi-kid teams, each member must be in the same age bracket. Coaches may have multiple teams and can register all their teams after registering as a coach. Please keep in mind that each team will need a separate Class Connect registration.

Note: Younger students may participate in the 9-12 age category, but please be aware that the missions have been designed with older students and advanced coding skills in mind.

What a Team Needs to Compete:

Class Connect subscription

The team is made up of a supervising adult coach and one to five members

  1. Compatible device
  2. 5′ x 8′ mat of 30cm squares and basic prototyping materials
  3. Teams in 6-8 & 9-12 age brackets will need a Dash robot
  4. Internet access to download and upload materials

Teams will need one Dash robot:

Check Device Compatibility here:

We will be offering a mat image that you are welcome to use and print with your local printer, but teams are absolutely encouraged to make their own if they prefer. For more on how to make your own mat, check out this blog post.

Coaches will, of course, need internet access to download the apps and keep up with the competition as it progresses, and may want to print out some kid-facing materials that we will provide at each stage.

Class Connect Subscription:

To register for the 8th Wonder League Robotics Competition requires a subscription to Class Connect, providing additional resources like standards-aligned content assignable right inside a student’s Blockly app. Learn more about Class Connect here.

If you already have a Class Connect subscription, you have access to register a team, based on your student license amount. If you have more than one team of 5 students, you will need to purchase another Coach Success Pack or consider a larger subscription to accommodate more teams and students.

  1. A Coach Success Pack provides:
    Participation in the WLRC for up to 5 students
    Access to all Missions
    Full access to Class Connect, (including Math Activities and Dash’s Neighborhood), for 5 students and 1 teacher for 7 months
    A discount code for a Dash robot from our online store at

Please note: Teams will need a physical Dash robot to complete the Missions.
The Coaches’ Dashboard in Class Connect will help our coaches register and manage their team(s). The dashboard will be your one-stop shop for all Wonder League Robotics Competition management. You will be able to access the Coaches’ Corner–where all competition-related content and resources will be hosted–the Heartbeat community forum, and all the submission forms right there on the Dashboard.

Accessing Missions for the Innovator Cup and Pioneer Cup:

Once your purchase is completed for Class Connect, you will receive an email to activate your Class Connect license.

Once this license is activated, you will be able to register yourself as a coach and register your teams. This is done on your portal page under the Robotics Competition tab.

Once your team/teams are registered, you will get an additional email from CoAssemble, our partner hosting the missions this year. This email will state you have been registered for the “2022-2023 Coaches Corner Course”.

Click on the link to be redirected to the CoAssemble website, and you will see the course and can access the Coaches’ Corner Guide as well as the Missions (available November 3, 2022).

Still having trouble accessing all the resources in the Coaches’ Corner? If you have previously had a license to Class Connect and registered as a coach, and have not seen Coaches’ Corner added to your CoAssemble list of courses, please email us at, and we will provide assistance.

Last Year’s Missions:

Taking a peek at last year’s missions might help you get a sense of what the competition is like. Just sign in with your Class Connect subscription and register as a coach to take a peek at the previous years by going to the Coaches’ Corner and selecting the desired year.

2022-23 Wonder League Robotics Competition Milestone Dates:

Here are important milestone dates to keep in mind as coaches develop timelines for teams competing in the 2022-23 Wonder League Robotics Competition.


  1. October 21, 2022: Student Team Registration Opens
  2. November 3, 2022: Round One Opens + Five Mission Released
  3. January 13, 2023: Student Team Registration Closes
  4. January 27, 2023: Mission Evidence Submission Closes 
  5. January 28-March 5, 2023: Invitational Round Notification 
  6. February 6, 2023: Invitational Round Opens + Final Mission Released
  7. March 24, 2023: Invitational Round Submission Due 
  8. April 10, 2023: People’s Choice Voting Opens 
  9. April 21, 2023: People’s Choice Voting Closes 
  10. May 4, 2023: 2022-23 Wonder League Robotics Competition Winner Announcement

NEW Award Category: WLRC People’s Choice Award

Teams may opt in to participate in the WLRC People’s Choice Award category by creating a :30 second video explaining the Team’s Invitational Round Final Mission solution that will be shared with the community at in an “online crowd vote” competition. The WLRC People’s Choice Award allows teams to share and celebrate their work in the WLRC and encourage community support in voting for their team. This is an optional category for teams to enter and will not impact scoring of the Invitational Round submission as they will be judged by STEM and Coding experts using a published rubric.

Children’s Privacy:

We take our participants’ privacy very seriously and comply with COPPA when collecting any information. In the invitational round we ask only for the students’ first names, and request parents’ permission. For those that make it into the Invitational Round, we ask for full names, again with permission. We are never marketing, selling to, or corresponding with children. All contact is through the proxy of the coach.