Use of robotics leads to ‘expert’ recognition

(Last Updated On: December 7, 2014)

Te Aroha College’s Troy Smith is one of 15 New Zealand teachers accepted as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert for 2015. Next year he will be working to implement 21st Century learning with partner schools.  

How do you feel about being made a MIE Expert?

Very excited and humbled. I’m also glad that I have found this support for what I believe in.

Why did you enter?

To develop my own skills but also to formalise my qualifications to administer 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) courses in New Zealand.  21CLD is something I believe in myself and I looked for support for this and found the Microsoft Educator Network (MEN). This is absolutely something that I wanted to aspire to.

How did you get involved with Microsoft’s programmes?

In 2013, Te Aroha College became a ‘Partners in Learning’ school by enrolling our staff in the MEN and completing some basic video tutorials. We also attended the Microsoft-organised ‘21 Steps to 21st Century Learning’ PD sessions. Then we graduated to a Microsoft Innovate school this year.

Why were you chosen to participate?

As a result of the work I have been doing with my students, including the introduction of a robotics project using LEGO Mindstorms kits at Year 7 and 8. They’ve been building and programming the robots by learning their software and hardware development skills. The students are taught using the Microsoft Office 365 system that’s provided through the Ministry of Education and use this system to interact with each other and blog about their journey. They collaborate, initially in pairs and then together in a whole class project to program the robots and to work in unison using similar 21st century skills that are required by industry.

What do ‘Experts’ have to do?

We are able to attend special webinars to share effective teaching practices. There are also opportunities to use the latest beta versions of applications being involved in their development, so that on release we’re experts that can support our learning community. We have the chance to attend PD events, nationally and globally to present and observe best practice. We’re then encouraged to share and communicate effectively through social and professional networks to help teachers realise how great Microsoft technologies are. I truly believe this.

We can gain further Microsoft qualifications and attend professional training sessions, attend scheduled expert-to-expert pair share webinars, report, blog, tweet, and so on. We are having fun, socialising learning and spreading the word to get more teachers involved in the fabulous MEN and 21CLD sessions that will be running next year, so keep an eye out to attend one of these. It’s truly transformative stuff.

What do you hope to get out of it?

I hope to become a better teacher to my students and a better staff trainer, and to help support more teachers than just those in my school with educational technologies. I’m already meeting many, many fantastic and inspiring like-minded 21st century educators that are all as excited as me to be part of the programme. There was a real honest sense of enthusiastic energy at the recent Sydney get-together, and I can still feel this attending the webinars and keeping in contact via Twitter and the Yammer educators’ group.

If teachers want to get involved, what should they do?

They can get involved by signing up to the MEN and by joining the Microsoft in Education New Zealand Yammer group for immediate support from MIE-E and other teachers. This is a highly valuable resource for problem solving, hot tips and inspiration. I’ve made a commitment to myself to be the best teacher I can be, and ensure that my students and those of the teachers I work with are ready for the 21st century employment market.

Thank you and good luck.  

Troy Smith is HOD of Digital Technology and Network Manager at Te Aroha College, Bay of Plenty. Follow his progress as a MIE-Expert at

picaxeRobotics and coding in Troy’s classroom

Find out more about why and how Troy’s using robotics and computer coding to engage students and promote innovative.

Go to

More on Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE)Experts ms-education-expert-screenshot

This is a global community of educators committed to using technology to improve student outcomes. Each year, Microsoft selects teachers to “share ideas, try new approaches and learn from each other”.

Engage and innovate

Microsoft had recognised Troy Smith for his work with robotics in his classroom. Here he explains why he’s introduced robotics and how it’s inspiring and engaging his students 

Maker spaces are a growing trend in education and this excites me a huge amount. As a lifelong tinkerer and technology evangelist, I’m energised by the support for this. There’s a plethora of easily accessible technologies to enable our students from a very low set-up cost. PICAXE, Arduino and Raspberry Pi are such examples, and with the rapid onset of affordable 3D printing creating enclosures and chassis for their designs is now very much a reality.

In our local community, Stanley Avenue School Principal Stuart Armistead is a leader in this area. He has created a maker space from an old computer lab with LEGO Mindstorms, 3D printers and a TV studio. His support for our Year 7 and 8 robotics programme was invaluable, especially in getting movement away from traditional manual role technology classes.

Real world innovation and problem solving


Orion Health – winner of the New Zealand Hi-Tech awards 2014 – is one of the country’s largest software development companies. I was privileged to take a group of students to visit its headquarters earlier this year and learned first-hand of the massive demand for computer programmers and employees with 21st Century skills, like collaboration and self-regulation.

2015 will be the first years of digital technology in Year 7 and 8 for the Te Aroha community and I believe strongly in authentic outcomes. Remember the Pike River Mine disaster where access for human rescuers was considered too dangerous. Or the fire in a Hamilton cool store where firefighters entered a dangerous environment and tragedy followed. Both of these situations could have been aided by autonomous robots. Currently the technology does not exist, so surely educating our students towards this outcome is beneficial.


cockroachThis may not represent any robot form that we currently recognise. It may even be a combination of biological and electronic materials. North Carolina State University researchers have developed cyborg cockroaches or ‘biobots’, a technology known as cybernetics. It doesn’t have to be creepy cockroaches, either. It may be a human with a damaged spinal cord wearing an exoskeleton controlled by brain signals recorded by an ECG headset. Like that worn by Juliano Pinto, the paraplegic who kicked the first ball at this year’s Football World Cup. In fact, it was this scenario that motivated two of my Year 11 students to build a number of prototype robots from Mindstorm kits. You can review their progress on their blog (

With this in mind, from next year Te Aroha College is developing a robotics pathway in digital technology staring with Year 7 and 8. The schedule is as follows:

Stage 0 – Individual learning: Students begin class as individuals and be introduced to the idea that a robot is not just a humanoid figure. We contextualise the course of study as outlined in the previous section and showcase senior students work in inspire and motivate.

Stages 1 and 2 – Working in Pairs: They learn basic commands using the online too Lightbot (, then progress to drawing shapes with Scratch. From here students progress up the Microsoft 21CLD collaboration rubric to working in pairs, building the robot sharing responsibility and establishing a working relationship.

Stage 3 – Sharing Responsibility: Towards the end of the unit we ramp up the collaboration by executing the classic Mexican wave, each pair programs the same forward and backward command with a different delay so that the robots move in the desired fashion.

Stage 4 – Interdependence: The final stage is a whole class project. Building on the prior content knowledge and collaboration skills, students work as a class to choreograph a sequence.

I want people to realise that the students are doing more than just playing with LEGO. They’re modelling robots that could save lives and improve people’s lifestyle, while developing the 21st Century skills that are demanded by industry. Even if they don’t progress to developing robots as a career, they’ll have learnt programming, modelling, collaboration, self-regulation, and knowledge construction skills, and they’ll have been involved in a project with real world value.  

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