Dr. Lance Gibbon's doctoral dissertation on problem-solving and LEGO Mindstorms robotics has been cited in at least 21 research studies and articles and various papers. The abstract and conclusion are provided below and the full dissertation is viewable here.
Effects of LEGO Mindstorms on Convergent and Divergent Problem-Solving and Spatial Abilities in 5th and 6th Grade Students
In this quasi-experimental study, 142 fifth and sixth grade students at a suburban elementary school in Northwest Washington State participated in a week-long, 10-hour project using the LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention System (RIS). Partners constructed and programmed one robot from visually-based LEGO instructions and a second of their own creation and then shared them at a culminating event. The study is built upon on the constructionist philosophy of Seymour Papert (1980; 1990; 1993; 1999) and an investigation of problem-solving and LEGO robotics by Debra and David Palumbo (1993).
A modified switching-replications design provided 3 complete replications within the study and allowed all participants to receive the treatment. Pre and posttests were given. Convergent problem-solving and spatial ability were measured by the Ravens Progressive Matrices (RPM) and divergent problem-solving ability was measured by the Fluency and Flexibility Measure (FFM). The FFM was constructed by the researcher. The development process, piloting, and implementation of this instrument are reported.
Overall, Mindstorms did not have a significant effect on convergent problem-solving and spatial reasoning as measured by the RPM. However, infrequent LEGO’s users made greater gains on the RPM during the treatment than frequent users, but frequent LEGO users made notable gains during the comparison condition. The multiplicative interaction effect of Testing, Group, and LEGO Use across replications on the RPM is significant, p<.001 (p=.264 x p=.620 x p=.001).
The FFM provides two scores: Fluency, or the number of responses, and Flexibility, or the number of categories into which those responses fit. The findings for Fluency were strong in two replications, p<.005, and frequent LEGO users scored higher than the comparison group on Fluency for all three replications (p=.384, p=.035, p=.090). There was no clear pattern of gender differences on the RPM or FFM.
This study provides tentative signs that using LEGO Mindstorms has a positive effect on divergent problem-solving. Frequent LEGO users also appear advantaged on both convergent and divergent measures. There are indications that fifth graders benefited more from Mindstorms than sixth graders. Additionally, the study uncovered the prospect that other constructionist projects may also have a positive effect on problem-solving.
Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Study
This research study investigated the effects of the LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention System on convergent and divergent problem-solving and spatial abilities of fifth and sixth grade students. There are promising signs that Mindstorms can have a positive effect on the development of divergent problem-solving skills. However, this study has significant limitations. The observed gains should be considered in the context of a one-week intervention and consequentially be considered primarily exploratory. Nonetheless, this investigation uncovered several patterns of interest upon which future investigations could be built.
Regarding instrumentation, there are many valid reasons to consider the Ravens Progressive Matrices for future research. In hindsight, the RPM Plus may be a better choice in reducing the ceiling effect. Future researchers must also be aware of the possible effects of prior LEGO use on testing. A stratified random sample with LEGO use as an independent variable might help control for the differences observed for LEGO use in both the comparison and treatment conditions. It would be interesting to explore the relationship between LEGO use and the ability to solve non-verbal problem-solving items. There are tentative signs that frequent LEGO users are advantaged on these measures, but the underlying causes are unknown. A possible connection between LEGO building instructions and the RPM would be worth further examination.
A longer treatment is recommended for future exploration. However, the extended, uninterrupted instructional blocks for the project proved valuable in solving the logistic concerns of former studies. A model that blends extended project blocks over a period of weeks or month may be an improvement. The developmental sequencing of LEGO experiences may also enhance the effectiveness of the Mindstorms experience for students. A series of non-robotic LEGO activities leading up to the robotics might provide a better foundation upon which students can more effectively construct new learning in the context of Mindstorms. The effect of grade level also emerged as an area of interest. There is tentative evidence that fifth grade students may have benefited more from the treatment than sixth grade students. Developmentally, this may be an ideal age to introduce LEGO robotics. It would be worthwhile to examine this variable further and to replicate the research at the fourth or other grade levels for comparison.
Some chance findings of interest in this study have raised thought-provoking questions for further examination. It is possible that the scarcity of pieces in the first replication promoted the development of divergent problem-solving skills. It would be interesting to compare problem-solving in students with ample building blocks and those with a more limited supply when each are presented with a similar design task. Farquhar (1995) wrote the often-repeated statement, “Necessity, the mother of invention.” A study along this line could help test this notion empirically in the context of Mindstorms. This present study also uncovered the possibility that other constructionist projects may have a similar or greater effect on problem-solving than Mindstorms. Further research is needed to compare Mindstorms with other hands-on problem-solving projects.
Constructivism is receiving increased interest and focus in national and state math and science standards (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000; Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2006). Yet, studies continue to report a lag in American students’ science and math performance when compared on an international scale (Gonzales et al., 2004). As a result, the demand for hands-on, inquiry-based science and math instruction is growing. Considering these trends, Mindstorms holds great promise as a constructionist tool to assist students in developing better problem-solving skills along with providing practical contexts in which to apply evolving abilities in mathematics, science, and technology. With the recent release of the next generation of Mindstorms, Mindstorms NXT, new possibilities exist for both research and education. In true constructionist fashion, the potential for Mindstorms in schools is only limited by the creativity, ingenuity, and imagination of teachers and students.
Certainly, many challenges remain. While Mindstorms has promise, it has had difficulty finding its place in an already oversaturated curriculum. Cost of the system and the time required for implementation are significant barriers. Perhaps current and future demand for integrated educational solutions in mathematics and science will help overcome these obstacles. Regardless, clear and practical examples and instructional models must be devised by educational practitioners at all levels to help others in realizing the promise of this system. This structure must also be balanced with the creation of an educational environment supporting open-ended, hands-on, student-centered projects.
This study offered only a glimpse into the educational possibilities for Mindstorms, but it also stimulated new questions for future exploration. The nature, quality, and availability of future research will be keys to wider implementation and appeal of Mindstorms in educational contexts. As with any new curricular tool or resource, the costs associated with such an investment must be justified with verifiable results. Even so, current research and practice provides solid signs that this system can offer numerous benefits to students and play a powerful role within the curriculum for those willing to embrace Papert’s constructionist vision for education.
About Lance Gibbon
Dr. Lance Gibbon is a dynamic leader in the field of education in the Puget Sound area who excels at providing student opportunities, cultivating connections, and promoting positive, inclusive learning and work environments. He is a passionate community supporter, volunteer, and board member, as well as a former superintendent and adjunct professor who was twice recognized as Community Leader of the Year.