Tag Archives: Robotics

Making School Work for Students

7 Oct

In my last post, I mentioned the disappointment I experienced when only three of the nine girls I recruited for the after school FLL program decided to join the club. My disappointment was compounded when, after speaking to the entire middle school, only three boys signed up for the program.

It didn’t make sense. My presentation went well. The kids were actively listening. They were clearly interested. They appeared super curious, so I couldn’t understand why, after such a positive reception, there were only three names on the club sign-up sheet.

Staring down at the empty spaces on the sheet, I felt defeated. Quite honestly… I felt a little embarrassed too. I had been pushing this robotics club for two years; I had not only registered two FLL teams for the season, but I had also agreed to collaborate with the University of Pennsylvania to host an FLL Qualifying Event. What was I going to say to them… “I know we agreed to host the FLL event, but as it turns out I’m completely useless when it comes to recruiting students for after school clubs.” Ugh. My stomach hurt.

I gave myself a few hours to just be disappointed and to get to the point where I could “accept what is so”. I pulled it together and started to think through the situation. I knew there were students who wanted this club on campus. They had been asking for it. So where were they now?

Obviously, I was doing something wrong. There was something about what I was offering that didn’t work for the students.

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The Ugly Side of Progress: Telling the Whole Story

14 Sep

When I started this blog, I wanted to “create an archive of our efforts. A timeline, map and story that tracks our progress from our start at “no STEM program” to an “award winning STEM program”.

I realized recently that I have been sharing a pretty biased version of our school’s story all along. I tend to share when I’m excited and when I’m experiencing success.  I’m less likely to share when I’m upset and butting my head against failure and frustration.

I haven’t blogged about the endless hours I spent trying to put together budgets or researching programs and curriculum to include in our STEM grant proposals. I definitely haven’t written about the overwhelming feelings of inadequacy that I had while trying to piece that information together. I haven’t written about the rough days with the kids or the administrators when I felt like a poser, under-qualified for the tasks I was tackling, just doing my best to stay two steps ahead of the game. You get the picture.

I keep the ugly stuff to myself, but I shouldn’t, and here’s why.

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Two-wheeled Bot. My first attempt at model instructions.

7 Sep

Two-wheeled Bot Instructions

This past August 15th and 16th, educators from around Philadelphia came together for two days of free professional development provided by the GRASP Outreach program at U Penn SEAS. Many of the participants in attendance, myself included, will be rookie coaches for this year’s FLL season and the two-day workshop was designed to be a bit like a boot camp to get us up to speed and to impart the tips and tools we will need to have a successful first season.

The first task our trainers charged us with was to build a simple a simple 2-wheeled robot. One of the challenges the group faced in building the robots was that we did not have a blue print or set of instructions in front of us. (I think they were having a difficult time finding them. I’m not sure.) Instead, our trainer talked us through the assembly one part at a time. This, as you can imagine if you have built an NXT robot before, was challenging. Keeping everyone moving at the same pace was nearly impossible.

As we built our bots piece by piece from oral instructions, I started to wonder how in the world I would be able to recreate the robot once I was back at school. So, I backed up a few steps, opened my laptop and started to capture each step with the webcam. Soon, people around me were asking me to post the pictures or send them to them.

Well… I got back to campus and sat down to build the robot using my pictures and the pieces from an NXT kit, and I quickly realized that there were multiple problems.

Firstly, the angle at which I originally shot many of the steps made it pretty difficult to figure out what was going on.

Secondly, while the model was simple enough for teachers to build and it required few parts in general, it required more parts than are available in a single NXT kit. To build this model, a teacher would either need to pull more pieces from additional kits, or have surplus materials available. This assumes teachers have more than one kit to work with, which is often not the case.

“Well… that’s no good” I thought, and so I started to redesign the bot using only parts from a single kit and documenting the process as I went.

So, for those of you have been waiting for the original photos… I apologize for not posting them sooner. Hopefully, you’ll find the new photos are an improvement and that the photos and steps clearer. The robot is very similar to the one we built with just a few swapped parts to ensure it can be built from a single NXT Mindstorms kit.

Let me know what you think of the model instructions I put together. It was my first attempt and I’m curious to see how easy or difficult they are to follow. Please let me know!

The Wider World of WeDo: Five Must See Models

28 Aug

Despite the LEGO WeDo kit’s simplicity, people all over are finding innovative ways to take WeDo model building to the next level. I thought it would be fun to showcase a few videos that feature the potential of the WeDo kit.

1. The WeDo Cable Car

Stefan Bracher shared his web resource with me in a comment on my home page. His site, which he will hopefully continue to expand, contains videos and instructions for unique WeDo and NXT models.  Detailed instructions on how to build the cable car model featured in the video can be found on his site.


2. The WeDo Drawbridge

This video posted by wedouser on his youtube channel highlights the intersection of imagination, art, and engineering as the child in the video walks a LEGO man up to the edge of the water he has drawn and waits for the drawbridge to lower so he can safely pass. Notice the printer paper he’s used to draw his water… brings back memories. 😉 


3. The WeDo Conveyor Belt

This conveyor belt model posted on youtube by user sanmishr uses few pieces that are not included in the WeDo kit, but none that are hard to come by. I can easily imagine tying this model into a social studies lesson on Ford and the assembly line.



4. The WeDo Windmill

One of the things I love about this video posted by , is that despite the fact I do not speak Chinese (I think it’s Chinese), I am able to appreciate the interaction between the child and adult in the video and understand the child as she describes and demonstrates how the model is working. (One of my favorite moments from teaching the Grade 1 unit last year, was listening as the children easily articulated how models worked during their final assessments.) This terrific windmill model could easily be incorporated into a green energy lesson.


5. The WeDo Shuttle Launcher 

This video posted on youtube by user sakiv features a boy explaining how his creatively designed shuttle launcher works.


Do you have an innovative LEGO WeDo design you’d like featured here or that you’d like to share? Post a comment and tell us about it!

ISTE 2011: LEGO Workshops (Post 2 of 2)

26 Jul

ISTE 2011 Post #2: Notes: Working my way through my conference notes. Trying to get them out of the brain and onto the page. 

LEGO Sponsored Workshop: Revolution through Serious Play and WeDo 

I have only one big gripe as a newbie at ISTE this year; the online program was a pain in the neck to navigate. Searching by keywords brought up a few workshops and presentations, but completely ignored others. “Sponsor Activities” weren’t listed under “Presentations by Time” and… well… I won’t waste your time venting about the schedule. The short of it is that I paid for a half-day NXT workshop, when I could have attended a free sponsored workshop on the same topic by the same presenter, and I almost missed out on the opportunity to attend this LEGO WeDo workshop that I completely lucked into when I happened to walk by and I recognized the familiar kits.

Part 1: Serious Play

I slipped into the room a few minutes late and took an empty seat. We sat in pairs at workstations, each containing a WeDo Kit and a laptop. While I was interested in hearing what the presenter, Kathy Holberg, would share about WeDo, I was also interested in:

1) Connecting with other educators who are using WeDo in the K-6 classroom

2) Learning about “LEGO Serious Play“, something I had read about, but had never seen.

Kathy started by giving us this brief overview of LEGO Serious Play (LSP). LSP is used as a training tool or training methodology in a variety of industries and businesses, as well as in schools, for purposes such as team building, fostering out-of-box thinking, encouraging the expression of feelings, ice-breaking activities, making connections, aiding awareness of others’ feelings, and developing listening skills. It is also used to improve communication skills, logical thinking, and creative thinking. It is a vehicle for exploring metaphoric language and thoughts.

After her overview, Kathy gave each participant a bag of LEGO Serious Play parts and this prompt:

Construct a model that represents a hands-on STEM lesson in your classroom. Try to use all the pieces.

I looked at the meager pile of random pieces lying on the table in front of me, and thought “Really? Do that? With these?” I looked over at my neighbor; she appeared equally hesitant. Regardless, we set to work clicking and snapping pieces together.  What I found interesting, is that due to the limited number of pieces to choose from, I was quickly forced to let go of any desire to create a specific or concrete representation of an object or idea and to instead embrace my creativity and explore which pieces I could use to represent an object or symbolize an idea. It got easier and easier.

After five minutes, Kathy stopped us and asked us to turn to our neighbor to describe our models regardless of where we were in the building stage. This was my model…

…and here is my partner, LeRhonda’s (@lgreats) model.

I love that even with so few pieces to work with, we were both still able to create and share something unique regarding our ideas on STEM lessons in the classroom.

According to Kathy, a teacher’s, or facilitator’s, main role during a Serious Play build, is to ask questions and move around the room without introducing any type of bias into the building effort. For example, a facilitator should not say “Good job, Tom”, because it could create the impression that there is a “good way” or a “bad way” to complete the activity. The goal is to have everyone be comfortable using the LEGO blocks as a vehicle to explore or express an idea, a thought, or a feeling without worrying about the consequences of not doing it well, or right, or as good as the next guy.

Kathy made sure to clarify that the LEGO Serious Play methodology required specific training in regards to how to“properly” write a challenge question, set the stage for using LSP (LEGO Serious Play), work with students when they are telling their stories, and  connect the activities to student learning, but I would venture to say that any teacher with a bunch of LEGO bricks and a good grasp on inquiry-based, constructivist instruction could engage a classroom in some “LEGO Serious Play”. 

That’s not to say that teachers wouldn’t benefit from a formal LSP training or from having access to specific LSP kits. It’s more to say that the use of LEGOs or other manipulatives to explore thoughts, ideas, and feelings is something that could be done with little to no additional cost to a school that already has access to LEGOs, granted a teacher did a little research to understand the core concepts involved in the LSP model.

Part 2: LEGO WeDo

Kathy next introduced us to the new LEGO Education WeDo Robotics Extension Activity Bundle. Basically, LEGO took the same basic 12 builds for the WeDo Kits and then created a new curriculum set to connect the builds with subject matter from PE, language arts, and social studies. I’m not too interested in purchasing this extension pack. I tend to naturally make cross-curricular connections when using the kits. For teachers who prefer to teach from a written curriculum, or for new teachers who may benefit from the structure of a pre-designed curriculum, it will be great. For those of us who nerd out on the creative aspects of unit planning and lesson writing, it may be less appealing.

The rest of the workshop gave teachers time to explore the kits and build a model.

Here are few WeDo tips Kathy shared: 

1.Use “fun foam” to cover the WeDo kit lids.  Kathy likes using fun foam on the lids so that students don’t get distracted by the images on the lids, so they can use the lid as a building mat since the LEGOs don’t bounce off the fun foam, and finally so the lid can be used as a tray to display the students’ builds.

2. Create an “NXT” parts diagram for organization. Kathy creates a system for arranging the kits and then takes a picture for the kids to help them stay organized. (I thought about doing this when I initially started to work with the kits, but decided not to for the sake of time. I think it’s a great idea for teachers who are uber-organizers.) 

My favorite tip… Use “Alt-tab” to quickly see the desktop when working in WeDo. (If you are familiar with the WeDo software interface then you know it defaults to a full-screen view. This tip will come in handy for sure.)

A Fun Fact: Black axels are even. Grey axels are odd. (I never noticed that.)

During the workshop, Kathy was kind enough to give me the opportunity to plug my blog and to invite teachers using the WeDo kits  to send ideas, lessons, or reflections that I could include in a post or put up as a “guest blogger post”.  Although a few people expressed interested in sharing or posting, I haven’t heard from anyone yet. The offer stands! If you want to get something out there about elementary robotics, but don’t want to commit to your own blog… just let me know.

By the way… we got to keep our LSP kits and we got these sweet keychains. Pretty cool, huh? 😉

ISTE 2011 LEGO Workshops (Post 1 of 2)

15 Jul

I’ve been wanting to post my notes from the LEGO workshops I attended at ISTE 2011, but I’ve been procrastinating. I need to post them so that I can make room in my brain for some new ideas. So here goes!

ISTE 2011 Post #1: Notes from Sunday June 26, 2011…

Introduction to Classroom Robotics: Computer Science in Motion!

The workshop room was full of people seated behind workstations. Each workstation had a LEGO NXT kit, a pre-built Domabot with a few sensors attached, and a computer with NXT-G software.

Our presenter was Christopher Michaud, a Music Teacher at  Nebo Elementary School in Dallas, Georgia, and a graduate from Temple University’s Music program. (Woot! Philadelphia in the house.) He taught himself to program, and now in addition to teaching music, he teaches a computer science curriculum for grades 3-5. He focuses mainly on Open Office/ Alice/ Python/ and Robotics and has a terrific website with loads of great resources. (I couldn’t help but secretly love the fact that his background is in music, since my undergrad was a music technology degree. music + math + curiosity = awesome life!)

Chris started the workshop with a Powerpoint presentation in which he provided us with a brief overview of his goals for the workshop: Build, Program, Experiment, Apply, and listed a few of his reasons for teaching robotics at the elementary level, including my favorite, “Robots are cool.”  (He has headier reasons listed in the presentation that will make for stronger plugs when trying to sell a robotics program to your administration, so  I encourage you to check it out.)

The remainder of the Powerpoint presentation was a bit of NXT Robotics 101, which sensors did what and the like, and was a perfect introduction to NXT robotics.

Within just a few minutes of starting the first workshop activity, getting the domabot to drive in a square, I, and the woman next to me, realized that this was perhaps a true beginners workshop. (As in, many people in the room had never even touched an NXT kit before. I guess it’s time for me to bump my status up to advanced beginner.) My partner was open to going off script to explore some of the features of NXT-G that we were curious about and so we started messing about, clicking on buttons and pulling down menus.

Chris came over and asked how we were doing. We confessed and told him we had gone rogue.

Lucky for us, he was not at all offended and was an excellent differentiator of instruction and he immediately found us a task that would both challenge us and highlight a few new features of the software that we were not familiar with. We worked on “Simple Pi Challenge 1” and “Simple Pi Challenge 2”,  two worksheets which not only provided us with an excellent opportunity to practice writing formulas within the NXT-G software, but which also gave us great take-away lesson to use in the classroom. It provides a perfect opportunity for students to see “Pi in action”.

Once we had worked our way through that challenge, we quickly discussed what else we’d like to get out of the remaining time.

We both admitted that we had no idea how to use… DATA WIRES.

Yep. It’s true. I’ve been avoiding them. I don’t why. I think it’s because I learn so many things just by messing around or through trial and error. But when I approached data wires in this manner… there was a whole lot of “error” at the end of every “trial”. Chris was great, and he broke datawires down for us and helped make them seem at least approachable. (I’ll try to post a simple example of the use of datawires at some point for anyone else who is hesitating on getting a handle on them. Or maybe someone has a great intro resource they could suggest…)

Here are few helpful suggestions Chris made for teachers who are about to take on robotics…

1. Start with a robot built. “Kids understand build. Programming is more difficult.” The domabot is great example of a robot you can easily have ready for students to work with.

2 .Organize the room with computers on the perimeter and workspace in the middle. Have a place  in the room where it is possible to have students with empty hands.

Here’s some new vocabulary for neophyte robot programmers:

Swing turn: 1 wheel turns 1 wheel doesn’t. (Think “pivot” on a basketball court.)

Point turn: 1 wheel turns forward, the other goes in reverse. (Think… I don’t know… any ideas?)

To be honest. That’s all I got for you. Those are my notes. I know. Not very impressive. Which might be why I was procrastinating. But at least there out of my head and on the page. 😉

Thanks Chris! I finally learned to use variables, custom blocks, data wires, and the formula review in NXT-G. It’s about time. My students better get ready… next year will be a whole new ball game!

LEGO WeDo Vehicle Challenge: Using WeDo kits with older students

20 Jun

The LEGO WeDo kit is designed and marketed for early elementary children. It’s so basic that even a first grader can use it, but be careful not to write this kit off as a “just-for-the-little-kids” kit too quickly.

This year, one of my favorite mini-lessons with the 7-9th grade students in the after school STEM club was this “WeDo Vehicle Challenge”:

Design a WeDo vehicle that has either 2, 3, or 4 wheels. Use only the pieces in the Wedo kit. The vehicle does not need to have steering, but it must be able to drive forward and in reverse. Innovation is encouraged. You have two class periods (1 hour each). We’ll present at the end of the second.

The kids usually take a look at the WeDo kit and presume the challenge will not be much of a challenge. Once the students get started, it isn’t long at all before they realize what makes it challenging; there is only one motor, the motor is fairly heavy relative to the parts, and that the axle sticks straight out of the center of the motor. Hmmm….

I’m guessing the challenge is probably easier for students that have prior experience working with LEGO kits and robotics; I’m not sure. (Let me know if you try it.) All my students were new to working with the NXT kits when I tried the WeDo lesson. I wanted to see how they worked when asked to think out of the box and to be creative. Following a blueprint is great for developing spatial skills and following instructions, but it doesn’t necessarily foster innovative thinking.  I found that forcing the students to work with the limited parts of the WeDo kit encouraged them to be persistent, to attempt multiple solutions, to redesign and improve, and to work together.

I’m curious if other teachers and after-school educators have tried using the WeDo kits with older students? Let me know!

Here are a few examples of our WeDo vehicle designs if you are curious… (The kids filmed the clips.)

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