Skip to main content

Using Robotics and Game Design to Enhance Children’s Self-Efficacy, STEM Attitudes, and Computational Thinking Skills


This paper describes the findings of a pilot study that used robotics and game design to develop middle school students’ computational thinking strategies. One hundred and twenty-four students engaged in LEGO® EV3 robotics and created games using Scalable Game Design software. The results of the study revealed students’ pre–post self-efficacy scores on the construct of computer use declined significantly, while the constructs of videogaming and computer gaming remained unchanged. When these constructs were analyzed by type of learning environment, self-efficacy on videogaming increased significantly in the combined robotics/gaming environment compared with the gaming-only context. Student attitudes toward STEM, however, did not change significantly as a result of the study. Finally, children’s computational thinking (CT) strategies varied by method of instruction as students who participated in holistic game development (i.e., Project First) had higher CT ratings. This study contributes to the STEM education literature on the use of robotics and game design to influence self-efficacy in technology and CT, while informing the research team about the adaptations needed to ensure project fidelity during the remaining years of the study.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10


  • Bandura A (1977) Self-efficay: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychol Rev 84:191–215

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barr D, Harrison J, Conery L (2011) Computational thinking: a digital age. Learn Lead Technol 38(6):20–23

    Google Scholar 

  • Bracey J (2013) The culture of learning environments: black student engagement and cognition in math. In: Leonard J, Martin DB (eds) The brilliance of black children in mathematics: beyond the numbers and toward new discourse. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, pp 171–194

    Google Scholar 

  • Brand B, Collver M, Kasarda M (2008) Motivating students with robotics. Sci Teach Wash 75(4):44–49

    Google Scholar 

  • Bremner A (2013) Singing and gaming to math literacy. Teach Child Math 19(9):582–584

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brenner ME (1998) Adding cognition to the formula for culturally relevant instruction in mathematics. Anthropol Educ Q 29:214–244

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor (2014) Occupational outlook handbook. Retrieved on March 14, 2014 from

  • Caron D (2010) Competitive robotics brings out the best in students. Tech Dir 69(6):21–23

    Google Scholar 

  • Chang K, Wu L, Weng S, Sung Y (2012) Embedding game-based problem-solving phase into problem-posing system for mathematics learning. Comput Educ 58(2):775–786

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Creswell JW (1998) Qualitative inquiry and research design choosing among five traditions. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks

    Google Scholar 

  • Dede C (2008) Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. In: Voogt J, Knezek G (eds) International handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education. Springer, New York, pp 43–62

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • DeVellis RF (1991) Scale development. Sage Publications, Newbury Park

    Google Scholar 

  • Dierking LD, Falk JH, Rennie LJ, Anderson D, Ellenbogen K (2003) Policy statement of the ‘‘Informal Science Education’’ ad hoc committee. J Res Sci Teach 40(2):108–111

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Edelson DC (2001) Learning-for-use: a framework for the design of technology-supported inquiry activities. J Res Sci Teach 38(3):335–385

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Friday Institute for Educational Innovation (2012) Upper elementary school student attitudes toward STEM survey. Author, Raleigh

    Google Scholar 

  • Grubbs M (2013) Robotics intrigue middle school students and build STEM skills. Technol Eng Teach 72(6):12–16

    Google Scholar 

  • Gruenewald DA (2003) Foundations of place: a multidisciplinary framework for place-conscious education. Am Educ Res J 40(3):619–654

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hirsch LS, Carpinelli JD, Kimmel H, Rockland R, Bloom J (2007, October) The differential effects of pre-engineering curricula on middle school students’ attitudes to and knowledge of engineering careers. In: 37th ASEE/IEEE frontiers in education conference, Milwaukee, WI

  • Ioannidou A, Bennett V, Repenning A, Koh KH, Basawapatna A (2011) Computational thinking patterns. In: Paper presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the american educational research association (AERA), Division C, New Orleans, LA.

  • Ivey D, Quam G (2009) 4-H and tech ed partnership gets students geeked about STEM. Tech Dir 69(3):19–21

    Google Scholar 

  • Karp T, Maloney P (2013) Exciting young students in grades K-8 about STEM through an afterschool robotics challenge. Am J Eng Educ 4(1):39–54

    Google Scholar 

  • Ke F (2008) A case study of computer gaming for math: engaged learning from gameplay? Comput Educ 51(4):1609–1620

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kebritchi M, Hirumi A, Bai H (2010) The effects of modern mathematics computer games on mathematics achievement and class motivation. Comput Educ 55(2):427–443

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ketelhut DJ (2010) Assessing gaming, computer and scientific inquiry self-efficacy in a virtual environment. In: Annetta LA, Bronack S (eds) Serious educational game assessment: practical methods and models for educational games, simulations and virtual worlds. Sense Publishers, Amsterdam, pp 1–8

    Google Scholar 

  • Koutromanos G, Avraamidou L (2014) The use of mobile games in formal and informal learning environments: a review of the literature. Educ Media Int 51(1):49–65

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kroeber AL (1900) Symbolism of the Arapaho Indian. Bull Am Mus Nat Hist 13:69–84

    Google Scholar 

  • Ladson-Billings G (1995) Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. Am Educ Res J 32(3):465

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leonard J (2008) Culturally specific pedagogy in the mathematics classroom: strategies for teachers and students. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Leonard J, Davis JE, Sidler JL (2005) Cultural relevance and computer-assisted instruction. J Res Technol Educ 37(3):259–280

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Li Q (2010) Digital game building: learning in a participatory culture. Educ Res 52(4):427–443

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Linn MC, Hsi S (2000) Computers, teachers, peers: science learning partners. LEA, Mahwah

    Google Scholar 

  • Matson E, DeLoach S, Pauly R (2004) Building interest in math and science for rural and underserved elementary school children using robotics. J STEM Educ 5(3&4):35–46

    Google Scholar 

  • Nasir NS (2005) Individual cognitive structuring and the sociocultural context: strategy shifts in the game of dominoes. J Learn Sci 14(1):5–34

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • National Research Council (2011) Successful K-12 STEM education: identifying effective approaches in science technology, engineering and mathematics. National Academy Press, Washington

    Google Scholar 

  • Nieto S (2002) Language, culture, and teaching: critical perspectives for a new century Mahwah. Lawrence Erlbaum, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  • Paraskeva F, Mysirlaki S, Papagianni A (2010) Multiplayer online games as educational tools: facing new challenges in learning. Comput Educ 54(2):498–505

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Presmeg NG (2007) The role of culture in teaching and learning mathematics. In: Lester FK (ed) Second handbook of research in mathematics teaching and learning. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Reston, pp 435–460

    Google Scholar 

  • Repenning A, Webb D, Ioannidou A (2010) Scalable game design and the development of a checklist for getting computational thinking into public schools. In: Proceedings of the 41st ACM technical symposium on computer science education. Milwaukee, WI, pp 265–269

  • Robertson J, Howells C (2008) Computer game design: opportunities for successful learning. Comput Educ 50(2):559–578

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sheridan KM, Clark K, Williams A (2013) Designing games, designing roles: a study of youth agency in an urban informal education program. Urban Educ 48(5):734–758. doi:10.1177/0042085913491220

    Google Scholar 

  • Webb D, Repenning A, Koh K (2012) Toward an emergent theory of broadening participation in computer science education. In: Proceedings of the ACM special interest group on computer science education conference. Raleigh, North Carolina, pp 173-178

  • Wing J (2006) Computational thinking. Commun ACM 49(3):33–35

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wyoming Department of Education (2004) Computer and mathematical occupations.

  • Yuen TT, Boecking M, Stone J, Tiger EP, Gomez A, Guillen A et al (2014) Group tasks, activities, dynamics, and interactions in collaborative robotics projects with elementary and middle school children. J STEM Educ Innov Res 15(1):39–45

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (DRL #1311810). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors thank the teachers and students throughout Wyoming for their participation in the study.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jacqueline Leonard.


Appendix 1: Robotics worksheet

figure a

Appendix 2: Computational thinking rubric

CT components

Emerging (1)

Moderate (2)

Substantive (3)

Formulating problems

If–then statements unclear in terms of problem goals (e.g., “Can pigs fly?”)

If–then statements create conditions allow agent to move through program using a single condition (e.g., if you see a ghost move left)

If–then statements more complex and agent moves to more than one set of criteria (e.g., if you see a ghost and a scarecrow move to the left and/or up)


Agent and background resemble tutorial in Frogger game

Agent or background is non-traditional and created by the student

Agent and background are non-traditional and created by the student

Logical thinking

If–then statements do not follow logical path (e.g., agent is stuck and cannot move through the program)

If–then statements follow logical path with some complexity (e.g., agent moves through the program but no real challenges)

If–then statements follow logical path with more complexity (e.g., agent moves through program but can run into danger)

Using algorithms

No evidence of algorithmic use (i.e., game cannot keep score)

Some evidence of algorithm use (i.e., the game can keep score)

Evidence of algorithm use and final score (i.e., the games keeps score and says “you won”)

Analyzing and implementing solutions

No evidence of the ability to debug the program

Some evidence of debugging

Strong evidence of debugging

Generalizing and problem transfer

Game resembles Frogger example

Game has some evidence of Frogger but some differences

Game is not similar to Frogger at all and shows creative use of knowledge transfer

Use of pop gaming culture

No evidence of including elements from other off-shelf games

Some similarities to current off-shelf games

Substantial modeling or similarities to current off-shelf games with improvements and/or significant modifications

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Leonard, J., Buss, A., Gamboa, R. et al. Using Robotics and Game Design to Enhance Children’s Self-Efficacy, STEM Attitudes, and Computational Thinking Skills. J Sci Educ Technol 25, 860–876 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: