International Journal of Social Robotics

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 309–324 | Cite as

Between the Social and the Technical: Negotiation of Human-Centered Robotics Design in a Middle School Classroom

  • Andrea Gomoll
  • Selma Šabanović
  • Erin Tolar
  • Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver
  • Matthew Francisco
  • Orion Lawlor


This paper presents a middle school human-centered robotics (HCR) learning experience and the ways in which it supported students’ orientation to technical and social aspects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The interdisciplinary project associated with this analysis aims to engage diverse students in authentic STEM practices by creating robotic technologies that can assist people in their school, and connect with remote peers. The goal of this project is to increase student interest in and knowledge of STEM topics, and to help students recognize STEM as relevant to their daily lives and broader societal issues. The human-centered focus of the curriculum encouraged thinking from multiple perspectives (e.g. design, social science, programming) and allowed for diverse STEM exploration. We present samples from student work and classroom interactions. These samples show challenges and successes in engaging students with STEM as a combination of social and technical questions and skills. We trace the trajectory of one group’s work to highlight moments in which students navigated an engineering design cycle, analyzed and designed social environments, and crossed disciplinary domains through HCR design—using a phenomena, mechanisms, components framework (PMC) to explore systems thinking. Phenomena refers to attention to the function of the robotic technology in the classroom environment. Components included a focus on single parts of the robot, while mechanism addressed how parts of the robot worked together. This qualitative case study demonstrates the capacity social robotics and inquiry-based learning experiences hold for broadening notions of STEM as a social and multidisciplinary learning domain.


Human-centered robotics STEM education Problem-based learning Sociotechnical systems Engineering design cycle Qualitative case study 



We acknowledge the contributions of Haley Molchan, Stella Huang, Charlie Mahoney, AnnaRose Girvin, Miranda Meade, and Ben Oistad who played a key role in the implementation of our curriculum.


This research was funded by National Science Foundation awards DRL-1433414 and DRL-1433841.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare no other conflicts of interest.

Informed Consent

All participants and their parents/guardians agreed to participate in this study and submitted informed consent forms.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Informatics and ComputingIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.School of EducationIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.College of Engineering and MinesUniversity of Alaska FairbanksFairbanksUSA

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