Review :: The Game of Robot Turtles

This is the first in a series of activities that are designed to impart logic and computer science concepts – without the use of expensive technology or one-on-one devices.

Robot_Turtle_GameSince I am a trained Montessori teacher, I try to incorporate a Montessori approach for all of my lessons. The Montessori Method focuses on hands-on learning – starting with concrete concepts and then moving on to more abstract concepts. Each child has a chance to work with the materials individually to gain mastery. Repetition is a desired goal. Group work is encouraged, but only with certain materials and only once the key concept is gained. Watching another child do the work is considered learning and is often encouraged.

Educational organizations do not always have the resources to provide hands-on materials for each child.  So, how do I apply this way of learning – concrete to the abstract – without expensive tools and materials? How have I taught computer programming without a computer on which to program?

Thankfully, there are a lot of inventive people out there working on this problem.  The game of Robot Turtles is one of the solutions.

Round one of Robot Turtles - everyone starts at this very easy level - even if you are 9-years-old!

Round one of Robot Turtles – everyone starts at this very easy level – even if you are 9-years-old!

A few years ago, I was introduced to Robot Turtles and my first impression was not that great.
I felt like it left out a lot of information and didn’t make the transition to the type of programming I was teaching. But, then again, I probably should have actually played the game instead of just glancing over while my kids played it. At that time, I was only using WeDo Robotics and the programming language, Scratch. I thought it was too simple for my students.

Then, I realized that some of my WeDo campers weren’t always able to transfer some of that learning to the Scratch programming environment. So, I began to wonder if Robot Turtles might address that problem. I was also looking for something that would allow my campers to work individually with the WeDo software, but still allow the other campers to learn about programming. Buying more Lego® sets and adding more computers wasn’t really an option. Also, I taught a few classes for a non-profit summer camp and we only had two computers to use for an entire class of 15 kids. I needed something else to teach these core concepts.

Last summer, I had a group of four students (ages 7 – 10) play the game and I acted as the robot computer. I read the rules out loud and they all laughed because it required the “computer” to make computer noises. They snickered as I tried to make goofy sounds. I loved reading the rules out loud because it diffuses the tension with the kids.  Immediately, they realize they aren’t going to move their own turtles – at least not in the beginning. And since the rules said it, there’s less chance of a power struggle.

There are multiple levels to the game and even my older students have to start at the beginning. They will often grasp the concepts quicker than the younger ones, but it puts them all on a level playing field.

Since I work with older students, I introduce the ice towers and the laser cards at the same time.

Since I work with older students, I introduce the ice towers and the laser cards at the same time.

The first three rounds typically take 20-30 minutes and the more comfortable they get with the game and the concepts, the more I let them take the lead. After running through the board with ice blocks, lasers and solid walls, I ask them to set up the board however they like and then “write” their own program to retrieve their jewel. I act as the computer and use their turtle to “run” the program – with the students calling out the commands. I was surprised at how many made an error or two in this stage, but it’s quickly remedied by slapping the “bug” card and fixing their program.

Set up your own path and "write" your own program.

Set up your own path and “write” your own program.

At this point, the game loses the interest of most of the kids, though, you still have a few who want to try different set-ups. All told, they’ve understood some basic concepts and it’s easy to bring it back again to reinforce the concept that a computer doesn’t know what you are thinking – you have to be specific when you tell it what to do. A programmer also needs to be aware of limitations (rocks, ice walls) and be aware of bugs in their programming.

This is a fun game that works really well for ages 6 – 11. It’s actually designed for 4-year-olds, but since I don’t have any of them in my camp, I’ve never tried it with kids that young. With my students, they don’t always go back to it, but they’ve gained a new way of internalizing programming concepts.

To find out new ways of using Robot Turtles– using pencil, paper, markers and colored pencils – check out my post on Extensions for Robot Turtles.

Robot Turtles - command cards.

Robot Turtles – command cards.