Tag Archives: Technology Integration

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.)

Taking Damien Kee’s NXT “Mexican Wave Activity” for a Test Drive

16 Jun

In my last post about the Tufts LEGO Engineering Symposium, I mentioned Damien Kee‘s  presentation and included an embedded  video of his NXT “Mexican Wave” activity.

Yesterday morning, I tried the activity with a group of 21 fifth graders that had never worked with robotics before and it was a blast! It was the perfect activity for introducing the kids to the NXT robots and the NXT-G software.

We met from 9:30-12:15 and took a 15 minute snack break, so all told, we had about 2.5 hours to try to meet the following three objectives:

1) Work collaboratively in small groups to program the NXT Domabot to move from one specified location to another. Time permitting, write a program to turn the robot around and have it return to it’s starting position.

2) Gain a basic understanding of what sensors and thresholds are and find out how they apply to today’s activity.

3)Work collaboratively as a class to program all five NXT Domabots to do a wave and at least one additional choreographed movement.

Students collaborated well and worked hard and met all three objectives by lunch!

After reviewing the objectives, we warmed up with a five minute activity called “Computer Says”. (The activity is similar to Simon Says. I am the computer; students are the robots. Robots should only follow programs that start with “Computer says”) Students made three lines and faced me.

For Round 1, I said, “First we’ll learn use a motor block to run simple programs. Let’s try a few.” I then led them through a few simple commands,  “Computer says take one step forward.”  “Computer says take one step back”.

In Round 2, I said, “Next we’ll learn to use a “wait-for-sensor block and write slightly more complex programs.” I then gave a few commands like these: “Computer says wait until you hear me clap, then take one step forward. Computer says, wait until I shout loudly and then jump”

And finally for Round 3, I said, “For our third objective, we will have to collaborate to write a series of programs to get our robots to work together to create a movement wave. Let’s try to run three programs at once and see what happens. Computer says, Line 1 robots, wait until I clap then put both hands in the air and back down again. Line 2 robots, wait until I clap, then wait one second, then put both hands in the air and back down again.  Line 3 robots, wait until I clap, then wait two seconds, then then put both hands in the air and back down again.” I clapped my hands and watched as the students did a perfect mini-Mexican-wave!

The whole activity took less than 5-minutes, but it helped to build a context for what came next. Being able to refer back to the warm-up came in especially handy when we started thinking about how to program the robots to do a wave.

After our warm-up, students then learned to move their robots using a single motor block. As recommended by Damien in his presentation, I placed two lines of tape on the floor at a random distance from each other and then students worked to program their robots to start with wheels on the first line and stop with wheels on the second line. They set to work trying different motor on durations and very quickly developed an appreciation for the decimal point! If 5 rotations were too many, they tried 4, then 4.5, 4.6, 4.7…

They began to see that trial and error and persistence were important for solving this problem, and they experienced the intrinsic joy that came along with finding an exact solution to a problem.

Soon all groups had mastered the line-to-line challenge and were on to trying to figure out how to turn the robot around and bring it home. Despite my having mentioned that changing the “degree” parameter of the motor block to 180° would not turn their robot around, all the groups tried that strategy first, which led to a series of great teachable moments surrounding what “rotation” meant in the motor block. After some experimentation with the remaining parameters in the motor block, groups soon started to catch on that the steering parameter in combination with the duration setting was the ticket to that 180° turn. At least two of the five groups got the turn close to an exact 180° turn, and the remaining groups were well on their way before I cut them off and moved on to objective 2.

Once the kids had a general sense of how to move their robots and turn them, we regrouped and I introduced them to the sound sensor and to the threshold parameter.

As I usually do when explaining threshold to kids, I said, “I bet you already know what threshold means. Let me show you. Listen to my voice and when I reach your threshold between soft and loud, clap.”

I then talk very quietly and get progressively louder until they clap. I repeat and set the threshold for “really loud”. I do a few more examples of simple thresholds they understand. For example, their threshold for drinking hot liquids. I quickly made the correlation to the threshold parameter on the  sensor block. Students seemed confident they understood the wait-for-sound block and so we moved directly on to discuss how to create a wave.

To plan the wave, we created a chart on the wall that sketched what each group needed to do and then parted. We met back up about five minutes later.

On the kids’ first try, the robots took off and executed a perfect little wave. Wow! We had thirty minutes left to add a choreographed movement of our choice. We lined up 5 students to represent the five robots and planned our dance move. Groups ran off in all directions to program. Shortly after we met back up, pushed run, waited for the signal and yelled “Go” What came next was…

Terrible. Our little robots were all over the place. And so we began to learn about collaborative trouble-shooting. We came back to the line over and over again, each time it got better, but something wouldn’t be quite right.

With one minute left and groups scrambling to download their last attempts, I called them back to the line. The room was quiet. Thumbs went up to signal all programs were running. Their classroom teacher quietly counted “1-2-3” and then the kids yelled “Go!” one last time. You can see for yourself the fruits of their efforts in our video. The simple sequence of movements won’t blow your mind… but the kids’ cheers and screams of enthusiasm may brighten your day. 

Thoughts on the LEGO Engineering Symposium

27 May

I’m sitting here on the floor at Boston’s Logan Airport, waiting to fly back to Philadelphia after spending 2.5 days at the LEGO Engineering Symposium at Tufts University in Boston, MA. It feels like a perfect time to get back to blogging. (I took a little break from blogging to focus on my wedding this past Saturday.) 

We covered so much and discussed so many topics over the course of the past two days, it’s hard to where to start or what to share so I’ll focus on the topics that were most relevant to the work I’ve been doing at the elementary level.

ELEMENTARY ROBOTICS AND STEM: The symposium provided a perfect venue for educators and researchers who are developing and implementing K-6 STEM lessons and curriculum to connect to share, and to gather and exchange ideas. Below is a quick review of a few of the topics we explored.

  • Listen Attentively: David Hammer and Kristin Wendell led a terrific workshop titled “Seeing the Science and Engineering in Children’s Thinking” during which they encouraged us as educators to be mindful and attentive when listening to children who are expressing ideas and communicating  thoughts about science and engineering. Instead of getting lost listening for the “right answers” or for content buzzwords, we need to listen for expressions of  authentic ideas and for evidence of scientific or engineering-oriented thinking, and then, in those moments, we need to validate and acknowledge the expression of the idea. David Hammer and Emily van Zee have published on the topic in their book “Seeing the Science in Children’s Thinking”. 
  • Connect to Literature: In the workshop, “Engineering & Literacy”, we were introduced the idea that the books that teachers and students are currently reading in their classroom can drive the exploration of engineering problems. As characters encounter problems in the literature, students can be encouraged to engineer solutions to the problems. During the workshop, we worked together to construct a device to keep Peter’s turtle safe from Fudge (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing), and another to get Ralf S. Mouseand his motorcycle out of the garbage can.

    I love the  idea of having students track character problems as they read and later decide which problems to solve. By engineering solutions to character problems students are given an additional entry point for exploring and re-contextualizing what is happening in the books they are reading. Once a solution is engineered, the options for tying back to literacy are numerous. Students can design a poster to advertise their solution using persuasive and descriptive language; they can re-write the ending of the chapter or story based on the solution they designed; they can create a how-to guide for the character or for their peers explaining how to construct their solution..

  • Design Challenges: John Heffernan gave a presentation on some of the cool work he’s been doing with his students in K-6 using the LEGO WeDo kits. I especially like that he develops robotics curriculum around specific “design challenges” and themes. (i.e. each student pair creates a carnival ride to build an amusement park.)
  • Allow for Diverse Representations of Ideas: There was significant discussion regarding the importance of providing elementary students multiple opportunities and a variety of means to represent their ideas and knowledge which stemmed from a presentation by Brian Gravel titled “Diverse Trajectories: Students’ Multiple Representations and Varying Ways of Developing Understandings”. A student who struggles to articulate a scientific or engineering-based thought with words, may be able to use gestures, drawings, models, demonstrations, images or video to represent his or her idea.  One of the development labs at the symposium taught teachers how to use a simple Stop-action movie software developed at Tufts CEEO called SAM (Stop Action Movies) to provide students opportunities to represent their ideas using stop motion films. The SAM software is extremely user-friendly and affordable. More information on SAM and a free trial is available on their site.
  • Get All Kids Involved: The topic of whether or not robotics curriculum and LEGO kits needed to be designed to appeal specifically to girls came up during a few different presentations. Opinions were mixed. A few seemed insistent that making LEGO robotics kits and STEM activities more “girly” or “more appealing to girls” was the best way to increase female interest in STEM curriculum and robotics. Others, myself included, felt it was less important what the kits and materials looked like, and more important that students are exposed to female role models who are knowledgeable and excited about technology, engineering and science. In a side conversation, a few of us later discussed the fact that girls might be more inclined to get involves in STEM activities if they grow up with a family member who works in a STEM field.
    Liz Gundersen & Sandy Jones presented some of the work they have been doing with girls in an after school “Girl-Tech” program”. As a woman who was never much of a “girly girl” as a kid, I did not necessarily appreciate a few of their blanket statements regarding what is and is not appealing to girls when it comes to STEM. I did, however, absolutely appreciate the way they combined creative arts and literature with robotics and technology. One of the projects they shared featured representations of mythological characters automated by electronic and robotic components. As far as I could tell, all of the projects I saw them present would be great for boys and girls alike! Very cool stuff.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Jump In: In his presentation titled “It’s not Rocket Science”, Damien Kee  demonstrated a variety of activities teachers can do in their classrooms using only the “move” block in NXT-G along with a few assembled NXT driving bases. One of the videos he shared showed a series of NXT bases all programmed by the kids to do a synchronized wave.
    Vodpod videos no longer available.<br>

    He made the point that even with minimal experience and long before developing any type of serious expertise, teachers can begin using and experiencing the benefits of LEGO robotics in their classroom. His  message reminded me a little of one I’ve been sharing in posts like “Let go…you don’t need to know everything” and “Just do it.” We can’t expect to know it all before we give it a shot. I mean, I’m sure we’d all love to go back to school to get those mechanical engineering degrees we forgot to get, but who has the time or money? 😉 I guess we’ll just have to do our best and count on each other to get to where we’re going.
Overall, an amazing experience! I’m already excited for next year.

We aren’t likely to forget our first competition…

28 Apr

We climbed the steps of the Drexel Daskalakis Recreation Center buzzing over the ease with which we had just passed through our first vehicle compliance checkpoint. It was our first time participating in a competition like this and none of us truly knew what to expect. As we made our way to the pool, students pulled their new SeaPerch T-shirts over their heads and high-fived and thumbs-upped with optimism. 

Once we found the pool and settled into a section of the bleachers, it was time for compliance checkpoint 2; the pool test. Two of the sixth graders gathered up  our SeaPerch (Steve), our control box, and our battery and we headed down to the pool deck to find a judge.  The kids placed the ROV in the water, and the judge asked them to demonstrate a right turn, left turn, forward movement, and backward movement. They did. Then he asked them to demonstrate whether the ROV could dive and resurface… it did, but then, almost immediately, it didn’t. We watched as our top propeller and shaft floated to the surface of the pool.

Checkpoint 2… the pool test… first attempt… FAIL.

Within 10 minutes, the kids had cleaned and sanded the motor shaft and re-epoxied the propeller shaft. Next… the waiting game. Although epoxy sets fairly quickly, directions recommend that it set for at least an hour before getting wet. We had twenty-five minutes. It would have to do.

Meanwhile, opening ceremonies were about to begin. We filed up to the auditorium and found our seats. Since our first pool slot was scheduled at 10 AM, three of us snuck out a few minutes before the ceremony was over to retest and pass compliance. We found the judge and told him we were ready to try again. Our SeaPerch dove. It resurfaced. It went forward and backward. It turned left. It, it, it… it suddenly had a dead left motor.

Checkpoint 2… the pool test… second attempt… FAIL.

I’m not going to lie… for a moment my heart completely sank. The day before everything worked fine; now we were due to compete in less than 10 minutes and we had failed compliance twice. Weeks of work,  help from volunteers, time coordinating schedules, trouble organizing buses, permission slips and contacting parents, finding lifeguards… all this excitement and effort, and now? What would I tell the kids? Or the parents who had shown up to support the team? Or the administrators who were counting on me to get students hooked on STEM activities?

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Using Prezi in the Early Elementary Classroom

8 Mar

Prezi StoryI have fallen in love with using Prezi with the Interactive White Board (IWB) when working with students in early elementary. I thought I’d share a few of my ideas and see if  I could get your help to generate a few more.

In first and second grade, I’ve been using…

1. Prezi for telling stories

Students love to watch the movement of the Prezi and they can’t wait to turn the digital pages by taking turns clicking the next button. Because the text and pictures are so big, it’s the ultimate “big book”. Every student can see every word and every illustration or image on every page.

Prezi stories allow for unique possibilities too. I wrote a story for the kids called “Jerome’s Dirty Floors”. It’s about a mechanical engineer named Jerome who wants to create a robot to clean his floors since he doesn’t have any time. He looks for inspiration in objects all around him. He imagines a robot vacuum that is remote control operated like his son’s toy. He imagines one that runs on tracks like the train on which he commutes. Eventually he observes the bumper cars at a park and decides they are the perfect inspiration for a robot vacuum. The story ends there, but the Prezi continues. The next screen has a few questions to check for comprehension. We discuss and share answers. Then, a question for fun, “Do you think a robot vacuum cleaner could really exist?” Consistently, students mostly vote “no” with their down-turned thumbs. You can imagine the smiles and “oohs” and “ahs” when we hit next on the Prezi and an iRobot Roomba video starts to play.

2. Prezi for watching YouTube videos.

Prezi is a great way to share YouTube videos with young students. Once the video is embedded in the Prezi, there is no side screen chatter, advertising, or user content to distract them. It completely removes the potential for anything inappropriate or unexpected to pop up on the screen.

If I plan on using any videos with the first or second grade I just stick the URL in a private Prezi and Ta-da! I have a clean white screen with a video in the middle. (It’s handy that I can find them to use again easily as well!)

3. Prezi for simple assessments.

A fun way to review a concept or check for comprehension is to create a simple assessment in Prezi. Insert a question, then have the students use thumbs up or down to vote, or do a quick pair-share. Then, let a student push the next arrow to zoom across the screen and check if their responses are correct.

To see if my younger students were starting to understand the function of a motor, I created a quick Prezi called “Does it have a motor?” I embedded five or six YouTube videos featuring quick clips of everyday objects in motion: a drill, a bowling ball, a fan, a kitchen mixer, a bicycle… Underneath each video it said, “Does this ____  have a motor?”

We played each video and observed the object in motion. Then students voted yes or no with thumbs. Then, we clicked the next button to reveal the answer. After the first two videos, the answer screen would also include a follow-up question or two. “What does the motor do on this object? How does using a motor in this object help people?” It was a fun review for the kids and an easy way for me to gauge whether or not the lessons we’d been working on were sticking or not.

I’d love to hear how you are using Prezi with your younger students! Please share in the form of a comment or send me a quick tweet!

A journey of 1,000 miles…

1 Mar

“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” ~Confucius

Friday afternoon, as I hung out the third floor window of the elementary school looking down at the anticipating faces of the fifth grade students below, as I carefully dangled an egg encased in a plastic cup, protected by bubble wrap, shaving cream and marshmallows, all tethered to a plastic bag parachute, as I poised to let it drop, I looked over my shoulder at our guest for the day, a computer engineer named Alfie, and  I thought…

“This is so freaking cool.  We’re doing it. Something is really starting to happen around here and the kids down there are engaged!”

When I started this blog, I promised I would document our story and share the details of our efforts as we work to plan and implement a school-wide STEM initiative. So far, I have been pretty good about posting lessons and reflecting on what I am learning with students in the classroom, but I have been negligent in documenting some of the most crucial lessons I have learned and continue to learn out of the classroom regarding this process. So here we go… I’ll start now!

My top three four tips for anyone about to take on a school-wide STEM initiative.  

(The following tips are based solely on my personal experience and not supported by any substantial studies or fancy research statistics. So you can take ’em or leave ’em. :))

1. Find partners. Don’t go it alone.

Early on in the year, I met with students and outreach coordinators at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I shared our school goals. I shared some personal goals. I was vulnerable and totally honest about my skill set or lack of one in many areas. I listened to their suggestions and took notes on any programs we could take part in.

The folks at U Penn SEAS have been my secret strength. Just knowing I have someone I can go to with questions or ideas, gives me the confidence to take steps and move forward. If they see a professional development opportunity or if a program pops up they think might be helpful to us, or if they have students available to work as mentors with us, they pass the information along. Almost every conference or PD opportunity I have taken advantage of this year, was a recommendation from one of my contacts at U Penn SEAS.

2. Follow up.

I mean this in the most general of ways. Once people know you are looking to network and find opportunities, they will start sharing ideas and information.

When your friend says, “Oh, I know a guy who works as a mechanical engineer at Boeing.” Don’t let that opportunity go. Ask for contact information. Introduce yourself via e-mail. Invite the person to visit you and your students.

When you see something that says, “Free resources to the first 1o0 people!” Don’t hesitate too long. Find out if you can use those resources and follow-up. The worst that can happen is you don’t get them, the best is that you do!

Follow-up when you are contacted by non-profit organizations that can connect you and your students with Scientists and enrichment programs in the area. Those opportunities are priceless. Sometimes literally. As in free. Free scientists and mentors to help you!

Follow-up on invitations to collaborate with teachers. The minute they say, “I was thinking I might like to…” e-mail with a suggested meeting time and make it happen.

People are excited to share their expertise and to help students and teachers, but they won’t chase you down… you need to follow-up.

3. Once you get started, know that it’s okay to idle in neutral for a bit.

Once things begin to happen, it has been my experience that they start to happen quickly. When others see the level of engagement of the students, or when they hear about enrichment opportunities, they want to be involved and they want to get the students involved. This is great, but make sure you are allowing enough time to reflect, connect, and plan.  As a recent guest on campus recommended when talking to staff about 21st Century Learning…“Take small bites and chew.”

(Oh! I almost forgot to include the most important lesson I’ve learned to date, the one that inspired this post, and prompted me to kick it off with a quote by Confucius…)

4. Take a step. Any step. It’s how the journey starts.

Happy travels!


If you have any tips, please share them in the form of a comment! And as always, I welcome feedback regarding content.

Crime fighting robots?

18 Feb

Today, we left the LEGO WeDo kits in the closet and turned to a few new tools to help us think about two of the essential questions we are exploring in our first grade pilot robotics unit.

“How can robots help solve problems?”

“What robot could you invent to help solve a problem?”

To kick off the lesson, we read “If I Were an Engineer”, a compact, colorful rhyming book that introduces engineering to kids aged 5-8. It was my first time using the book in the classroom. The students loved guessing the end rhyme words as in… “I’d help sick people young and old- I’d even cure the common?” “COLD!” It was a great introduction to the day’s lesson.

After reading the book, I reminded students that we were a group of “problem-solving engineers” and informed them that today we would be “imagining solutions” just like engineers.

Next, we watched two YouTube videos on ReWalk technology and students identified the “problem” in the video. “The woman can’t walk.” They also answered the question, “How do her robotic legs make her life better or solve the problem?”

We reviewed… Engineers solve problems. Sometimes they create robots to solve problems. We just watched a video. The video showed us an example of a woman who had a problem and an example of how engineers designed a “robot” to help solve her problem. We are engineers. Let’s think of some problems to solve.

We brainstormed and charted  “Problems in the World”.  Here’s a tip. Don’t be fooled by the pint-sized stature of a first grader. If you ask one a question, he or she will give you an honest answer. Just take a look at a few of the “Problems in the World” my group identified.

“Guns and cursing on my street.” “Hair all over the house.” “Smoking in the elevator.””Fighting and Arguing.””Baby sister crying at 12 midnight when I’m trying to go to sleep.””Traffic.””Car accidents.”

And the problem that really caused me to reflect and still hurts my heart to think about…

“My father plays video games all the time and doesn’t pay attention to me.”

“Yep, that’s a problem.” I said.

Now that we had identified some of the world’s problems, we were ready to create some robots. Students used ABCya! Make a Robot to design their very own problem-solving robot! Would you like to meet one?

Meet Ken…

**If you are looking for a fun activity to do with your first or second grade class for National Robotics Week in April, you may enjoy this one.


Materials Needed: EGFI “If I Were an Engineer Book”, a video that shows a problem, a place to record a brainstorm session, and computers with an Internet connection.

On a 1-10 tech difficulty scale… I’d give this a 3 because you have to load a video to play and help students navigate to a website and print. (You could also save the images digitally and go-paper free. I printed due to time constraints caused by our unplanned fire-drill.) If you’d like a Lesson Plan copy, just let me know!

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