Motivated to Succeed by Learning Robotics

Eddie carefully placed his robot at the starting point of the wooden maze which was located on the floor of the school’s auditorium. Parents and visitors joined the crowd that was patiently waiting for the Napa Street Elementary robotics show. Prior to this show,students’robots and written reports were displayed on a big table at the center of the auditorium for all to see. The students were standing next to six laptops,making last minute changes to the programs they designed to drive their robot through a big maze. The students’ goal was to have their robots traverse the maze from start to finish using either a light sensor,a bumper,or no sensor at all.

The show was the culmination of a sixteen week advanced robotics program in which 4th and 5th grade students were expected to design,build,and program a robot from scratch and drive it through a wooden maze. The entire process was broken down to three phases:design,construction,and programming. The robot building experience was supported by benchmark lessons and web-based building resources. As they progressed through the entire project,students applied investigation methods to solve problems they encountered in each phase. In doing so,they were tapping into their previous experiences,their peers’ experiences,external resources,or if need be,asking for help.

In the design phase,the goal was to build the sturdiest robotic frame which can withstand a fall. A few failed building attempts led students to the conclusion that bracing protects robots against falling apart in the middle of the race. The task required solidifying the robot with vertical beams that could be attached with pins to the robots’frame. The beams’holes had to exactly fit the holes in the robots frame and students realized that they had to apply their knowledge of Lego measurements to accomplish the task. Many times,bracing difficulties forced students to redesign and rebuild the robot to allow the beams to fall into place.

Students Collaborate on Robot

I assumed a mentoring role and helped only when students asked for it. I enjoyed following their attempts to come up with the best robot based on their understanding of the assignment. Participation in a beginners’course and a few introductory benchmark lessons taught them that building goals dictate the proper gearing arrangement. I was listening-in to team partners as they discussed whether the robot should be fast or slow,the impact of wheel size on performance,and which type of sensor to use,if any.

When they finally built the robot,they could not wait to test it. Testing immediately turned into a reality check,shattering many of their building assumptions. Estimated time for each turn in the maze turned out to be unreliable. They learned that friction,manufacturing differences in engine power,and a dwindling supply of energy from batteries could cause fluctuations in time and speed. It soon became clear that time estimates were a poor predictor of a successful traversal of the maze.

A new plan was needed and it had to rely on the light sensor. This alternative was not pursued before because programming the light sensor was much more difficult but more reliable. This change in plans sent them back to the drawing board. They had to design the light sensor and attach it in a way that would allow an accurate reading of the light and securing it to prevent it from falling in the middle of the race.

They asked for my help in programming the light sensor. Some students were able to understand the programming right away and went immediately to implement it in their robots. Others asked for more help. This solution did not turn out to be smooth sailing either. As soon as they started testing,they discovered that light sensors are affected by ambient light in the room. The readings they got while testing in the room next to the computer turned out to be different than the readings they got in the auditorium,where the maze was located. Students had to make repeated programming adjustments to light sensor readings to make sure that the robot will not veer off the black path it was designed to follow. They also had to reduce the speed to make sure the robots could keep track of the black path. Sometimes,fulfilling this requirement meant that students had to change gearing arrangements.

However,in the end,it all started to pay off. More and more students started seeing their robots complete the maze. They were thrilled with the results. They kept repeating the process and became experts in adjusting the programming as conditions changed in the auditorium. Relatives and friends gathered to witness the results of the students’hard work. The show was a huge success and the students were running around with their robots showing them off to everyone.

Changing the Robot

Throughout this entire process,students also learned to handle a robotics project management database,which they used to report problems,solutions and investigations. Students would fill investigation notes for each problem they encountered and the solution they came up with. The goal was to create a repository of student problem solving expertise that other students can rely on when facing similar situations. The database was designed and created by me using the FileMaker Pro database engine.

I still look back at the experience as one of my most fulfilling and uplifting experiences I ever had in education. Classes ended after four years for lack of budget. The school is located in an underserved community in the San Fernando Valley part of Los Angeles. The students that were picked to attend these classes were not necessarily the best and brightest,although there was a high percentage of those. Any student who expressed a keen interest in the subject could also attend. In fact,due to a disproportionately large male enrollment,the school made an effort to convince girls to attend the classes. They managed to convince a few to enroll. After concluding both the beginner and advanced classes,those girls were so enamored with the subject,they told me that they were looking into pursuing a career in engineering.

These students’enthusiasm became such a source of inspiration for me for years to come. On one ocassion,I called into the school and told them that I will be a few minutes late due to traffic. When I finally arrived,students were standing next to the school gate waiting for me to arrive. As I approached the gate,they all shouted:“Mrs. Bogler,You are here!”I have never been greeted with so much enthusiasm before;I was overwhelmed and touched by their reaction. On another occasion,a struggling student became so attached to robotics that he felt obligated to call the school and express his regrets for not being able to attend due to sickness. He promised to be present for the next lesson. This is the first time he ever did such a thing. I witnessed situations in which students were so determined to have their robot traverse the entire maze,that they just refused to quit and go home when class ended. I could not disappoint these students and always volunteered to stay as long as it took for them to accomplish the goal. I had students telling me that they are so grateful for participating in this class because this is the first class that challenged them.

The Robotics Lab

When I first started teaching at Napa,the principal told me that the students were unable to envision themselves graduating from high school,let alone plan for a career. I think that the robotics experience transformed these students’views about their ability to achieve and for the first time helped them envision themselves as engineers among other professions. It is also a testament to the powerful impact that technology can have on student motivation,on their desire to learn,and to dream about the future. Had this course been part of the curriculum and not just an after-school class,it would have been an invaluable experience in which students could make connections between the material they learn and the practical application of building and driving a robot through a maze. As the department of education tries to focus on STEM education in the classroom,it is worth looking at examples like this