Using Robotics to Support the Acquisition of STEM and 21st-Century Competencies: Promising (and Practical) Directions


  • Allison Stokes Memorial University
  • Janice Aurini University of Waterloo
  • Jessica Rizk University of Waterloo
  • Robert Gorbet University of Waterloo
  • John McLevey University of Waterloo



robotics, STEM, 21st century competencies, elementary education


To enhance how educators use robotics to support the development of STEM and 21st century competencies, we report findings from focus groups and interviews with 133 elementary teachers and 46 elementary students, 19 video-recorded classroom observations, and a teacher survey from Ontario, Canada. We find that teachers use robotics in a variety of ways to support the development of cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills. Despite the potential benefits, our participants identified several factors that limit the adoption of robotics teaching and learning on a wider scale, including insufficient curriculum and assessment integration, resources, and professional development and support. We provide practical policy guidelines to support the broader integration of robotics and reflect on how these recommendations may inform teaching and learning in a (post-) COVID-19 classroom.

Author Biographies

Allison Stokes, Memorial University

Dr. Stokes’ is an Assistant Professor of Sociology. Her research specializations include work, culture, inequality, and education. 

Jessica Rizk, University of Waterloo

Dr. Rizk is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on education and technology. 

Robert Gorbet, University of Waterloo

Dr. Robert Gorbet is an Associate Professor. Formally trained as an electrical engineer, Dr. Gorbet is an interdisciplinarian, a mechatronics specialist, an award-winning teacher and a technology artist. 

John McLevey, University of Waterloo

Dr. McLevey is an Associate Professor. His work falls broadly under the umbrella of “computational social science,” with an emphasis on network analysis and applications of natural language processing / computational linguistics in the social sciences. 


Advisory Council on Economic Growth. (2017). Learning nation: Equipping Canada’s workforce with the skills for the future.

Actua. (2020). Canadian teachers’ readiness for STEM education: Results from Actua’s national survey of teachers.

Affouneh, S., Salha, S., Burgos, D., Khlaif, Z. N., Saifi, A. G., Mater, N., & Odeh, A. (2020). Factors that foster and deter STEM professional development. Science Education, 10(5), 857–872.

Aurini, J., & Davies, S. (2021). Covid-19 school closures and educational achievement gaps: Lessons from summer setback research. Canadian Sociological Review, 58(2), 165–185.

Aurini, J., Heath, M., & Howells, S. (2022). The how to of qualitative research (2nd ed.). SAGE.

Aurini, J., McLevey, J., Stokes, A., & Gorbet, R. (2017). Robotics and 21st century learning. Ontario Ministry of Education, Council of Directors of Education.

Becker, K. H., & Park, K. (2011). Integrative approaches among Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects on students’ learning: A meta-analysis. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 12(5-6), 23–37.

Bers, M., Flannery, L., Kazakoff, E., & Sullivan, A. (2014). Computational thinking and tinkering: Exploration of an early childhood robotics curriculum. Computers & Education, 72, 145–157.

Barreto, F., & Benitti, V. (2012). Exploring the educational potential of robotics in schools: A systematic review. Computers & Education, 58(3), 978–988.

Canadian Council of Chief Executives. (2014). Preliminary survey report: The skill needs of major Canadian employers. 2014/01/Preliminary-report-on-skills-survey-Jan-20-2014-2.pdf

Caspi, A., Gorsky, P., Nitzani-Hendal, R., Zacharia, Z., Rosenfeld, S., Berman, S., & Shidhouse, B. (2019). Ninth-grade students’ perception of the factors that led them to major in high school science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Science Education, 103(5), 1176–1205.

Christensen, R., Knezek, G., & Tyler-Wood, T. (2015). Alignment of hands-on STEM engagement activities with positive STEM dispositions in secondary school students. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 24, 898–909.

Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Eguchi, A., & Uribe, L. (2017) Robotics to promote STEM learning: Educational robotics unit for 4th grade science. IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference.

Elkin, M., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. U. (2014). Implementing a robotics curriculum in an early childhood Montessori classroom. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 13, 153–169.

Freeman, J. A., Gottfried, M. A., & Stratte Plasman, J. (2021). STEM-focused career courses and college pipeline for students with learning disabilities. Educational Policy. Advance online publication.

Greenberg, J., McKee, A., & Walsh, K. (2013). Teacher prep review 2013 report. National Council on Teacher Quality.

Ioannou, A., & Makridou, E. (2018). Exploring the potentials of educational robotics in the development of computational thinking: A summary of current research and practical proposal for future work. Education and Information Technologies, 23, 2541–2544.

Kalleberg, A. (2011). Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s-2000s. Russell Sage Foundation.

Karahoca, D., Karahoca, A., & Uzunboylub, H. (2011). Robotics teaching in primary school education by project-based learning for supporting science and technology courses. Procedia Computer Science, 3(1), 1425–1431.

Kazakoff, E. R., Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. U. (2013). The effect of classroom-based intensive robotics and programming workshop on sequencing ability in early childhood. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41, 245–255.

Kezar, A. J., & Holcombe, E. M. (2018). Challenges of implementing integrated programs for underrepresented students in STEM: A study of the CSU collaboratives. Educational Policy, 34, 864–893.

Kim, C., Kim, D., Yan, J., Hill, R. B., Doshi, P., & Thai, C. N. (2015). Robotics to promote elementary education pre-service teachers’ STEM engagement, learning, and teaching. Computers & Education, 91, 14–31.

Kirschner, P. A., & Stoyanov, S. (2018). Education youth for nonexistent/not yet existing professions. Educational Policy, 34(3), 477–517.

Kitchen, J. A., Sonnert, G., & Sadler, P. M. (2018). The impact of college-and university-run high school summer programs on students’ end of high school STEM career aspirations. Science Education, 102(3), 529–547.

Larkins, D. B., Moore, J. C., Rubbo, L. J., & Covington, L. R. (2013) Application of the cognitive apprenticeship framework to a middle school robotics camp. In SIGCSE ’13: Proceeding of the 44th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 89–94). Association for Computing Machinery.

Maltese, A. V., & Tai, R. H. (2011). Pipeline persistence: Examining the association of educational experiences with earned degrees in STEM among US students. Science Education, 95(5), 877–907.

McKinsey Global Institute. (2021). The future of work after Covid-19.

Mills, K., Chandra, V., & Park, J. (2013). The architecture of children’s use of language and tools when problem solving collaboratively with robotics. Australian Educational Research, 40(3), 315–337.

Mousa, A., Ismail, T., & Salam, M. (2017). A robotic cube to preschool children for acquiring the mathematical and colours concepts. Computer Science, 11(7),1809–1812.

Nir, A., Ben-David, A., Bogler, R., Inbar, D., & Zohar, A. (2016). School autonomy and 21st century skills in the Israeli educational system: Discrepancies between the declarative and operational levels. International Journal of Educational Management, 30(7), 1231–1246.

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (2018). The future of education and skills: Education 2030.

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (2020). Job creation and local economic development 2020: Building better.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). Achieving excellence: A renewed vision for education in Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016). Towards defining 21st century competencies for Ontario. Foundation Document for Discussion.

Ontario News Room. (2022). Ontario modernizing school science curriculum.

Onyema, E. M., Eucheria, N. C., Obafemi, F. A., Sen, S., Atonye, F. G., Sharma, A., & Olsayed, A. O. (2020). Impact of Coronavirus pandemic on education. Journal of Education and Practice, 11(13), 108–121.

Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel. (2016). Building the workforce of tomorrow: A shared responsibility.

Rizk, J. (2018). The 21st century classroom: Technology as a transformative tool in educational routines, rules, and rituals [Doctoral dissertation, McMaster University]. MacSphere.

Rizk, J. (2020). Considerations for implementing emerging technologies and innovative pedagogies in twenty-first-century classrooms. In S. Yu, M. Ally, & A. Tsinakos (Eds.), Emerging technologies and pedagogies in the curriculum (pp. 447–460). Springer.

Rizk, J., & Davies, S. (2021). Can digital technology bridge the classroom engagement gap? Findings from a qualitative study of K-8 classrooms in 10 Ontario school boards. Social Sciences, 10(1), 12.

Rizk, J., & C. Hillier (2021). “Everything’s technology now”: The role of technology in home- and school-based summer learning activities. Journal of Children and Media, 15(2), 272–290.

Shaby, N., Staus, N., Dieking, L. D., & Falk, J. H. (2021). Pathways of interest and participation: How STEM-interested youth navigate a learning ecosystem. Science Education, 105(4), 628–652.

Shah, A. M., Wylie, C., Gitomer, D., & Noam, G. (2018). Improving STEM program quality in out-of-school time: Tool development and validation. Science Education, 102(2), 238–259.

Stehle, S. M., & Peters-Burton, E. E. (2019). Developing student 21st century skills in selected exemplary inclusive STEM high schools. International Journal of STEM Education, 6, 39.

Sullivan, A., & Bers, M. U. (2016). Robotics in the early childhood classroom: Learning outcomes from an 8-week robotics curriculum in pre-kindergarten through second grade. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 26, 3–20.

Sullivan, A., Kazakoff, E. R., & Bers, M. U. (2013). The wheels on the bot go round and round: Robotics curriculum in pre-kindergarten. Journal of Information Technology, 12, 203–219.

Taylor, R., Fadel, C., Helyn, K., & Care, E. (2020). Competencies for the 21st century: Jurisdictional progress. Brookings Institute.

Toh, L. P. E., Causo, A., Tzuo, P. W., Chen, I.-M., & Yeo, S. H. (2016). A review on the use of robots in education and young children. Educational Technology & Society, 19(2), 148–163.

Yang, Y., Long, Y., Sun, D., Van Aalst, J., & Cheng, S. (2020). Fostering students’ creativity via educational robotics: An investigation of teachers’ pedagogical practices based on teacher interviews. British Journal of Educational Technology, 51(5), 1826–1842.

World Economic Forum. (2016). What are the 21st century skills every student needs?

World Economic Forum. (2018). The global competitiveness report 2018.

Xie, Y., Fang, M., & Shauman, K. (2015). STEM education. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 331–357.

Zviel-Girshin, R., Adi, L., & Chait, S. (2020). Robotics as a tool to enhance technological thinking in early childhood. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 29(2), 294–302.




How to Cite

Stokes, A., Aurini, J., Rizk, J., Gorbet, R., & McLevey, J. (2023). Using Robotics to Support the Acquisition of STEM and 21st-Century Competencies: Promising (and Practical) Directions. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue Canadienne De l’éducation, 45(4), 1141–1170.