Real Robots of Robot High: Bringing Social and Emotional Learning into Technology Class

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During my first week as a violence prevention educator in Providence, Rhode Island, I was the guest speaker in a 6th grade health class. The topic was Teen Dating Violence: How to see it. How to stop it. A newly minted public health graduate and armed with the latest evidence-based curriculum, I walked through the classroom doors feeling prepared. But, with the first mention of the word “dating” the tenuous order in the class came undone. Earphones went in, cell phones and mp3 players came out. I wondered if it even mattered to talk about relationships with 11 year olds, many of whom were years away from their first serious boyfriend or girlfriend.

But research shows that when it comes to stopping dating violence, middle school does matter. In the United States, a quarter of all teens who are in relationships report being called names, harassed or put down by their partner. Teens who are involved in abusive relationships are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be victims or perpetrators of domestic violence as adults. The middle school years are when young people develop attitudes about what’s healthy and what’s when it comes to dating. This is the time when education and prevention can most effectively shape healthy attitudes. But how can educators get middle school students to listen and engage?

I got a chance to explore that question when Sojourner House of Rhode Island, where I was working at the time, received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop youth-driven approaches to preventing dating violence at the middle school level. We knew that young people love to play and make video games. So, we teamed up with E-Line Media, the makers of Gamestar Mechanic—where kids can play, create and publish their own video games. Could we use that interest in game design to help educators talk to kids about healthy relationships?

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E-Line Media and Sojourner House created The Real Robots of Robot Higha game that helps kids explore social systems—like friendships, groups and communities—through game play and design. We worked closely with a team of middle school students from Providence’s Highlander Charter School who provided daily feedback on character development, narrative and game design. In Fall 2012, E-Line and Sojourner House released The Real Robots in beta, and within three months, over 1,000 students and teachers in 27 schools tried out the game and generously offered feedback.

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As we poured over the results of the beta and got to know the teachers who used Real Robots in their classrooms, two things became clear:

1. Game design can be a powerful way for young people to talk about healthy relationships. Over the course of the beta, students created and published over 150 original video games to the Real Robots Game Alley. These student designers used game mechanics and dialog to explore issues like bullying, dating violence and rumors in original games that were played by hundreds of their peers from around the world.

2. In order to unlock this power, students need to learn the basics of digital designand that takes a lot of time and teacher support. In technology classes where game design is often part of the curriculum, students had the time and support to create games in Real Robots. But, students and teachers in other settings found that there simply was not enough time to master the design principles required to explore relationship systems through game design and this meant they couldn’t get the most out of The Real Robots experience.

We learned that Real Robots can create rich discussion about healthy relationships between educators and middle school students. This was especially true in learning environments that focus on technology as much as they do on social and emotional learning. We met a lot of medial specialists, health teachers and community educators who are bringing together the disciplines of technology and social and emotional learning in new and exciting ways.  We want to learn more about how schools are combining technology and social and emotional learning and how Real Robots could support this work.

So, E-Line Media and Sojourner House are pleased to announce that we will reopen the Real Robots beta. We encourage all interested teachers and community educators to sign up at realrobothigh.com. All beta testers will receive unlimited free licenses. We’ll be sharing what we learn with you here at E-Line Labs.

We appreciate your support, we believe deeply in this mission and we look forward to continuing on this journey with you.