Tag Archives: robots

Elementary Electronics – Chibitronics LED Stickers

It’s my turn to teach (again) with our small homeschool co-op, and this semester I offered to teach elementary electronics. Everyone (parents and students) seemed interested and I finally had a chance to use my electronic art skills. My circuit knowledge has been growing a little rusty since last year’s Space Camp.

R’s modified Chibitronics robot.

Upper Elementary Electronics Class

Since I designed the curriculum, I chose to focus on circuits and how to use them (as much as possible) with art. Don’t worry – we still called the class “elementary electronics.” Each session was roughly an hour. The following is a general schedule of the course:

  • Week 1: Electricity vs. electronics
    • Intro video from Popular Mechanics for Kids (about 15 minutes worth).
    • Homework sheet to fill out using these two web sites (NAS and Explain That Stuff).
    • I wanted them to know that electricity = energy = secondary source
  • Week 2:B is for Battery” video from AdaFruit.
  • Week 3: Electricity is lazy.
    • Insulators vs. conductors experiment using circuit blocks to demonstrate;
    • The kids stripped some wire – just for fun
  • Week 4:D is for Diode” video from AdaFruit.
  • Week 5: Parallel vs. series circuits, video
  • Week 6: LED Chibitronics sticker art (see pictures below).
  • Week 7: Reviewed parallel vs. series circuits.
    • I asked the kids to build a series and a parallel circuit from the circuit blocks.
    • They also took apart an old toy.
  • Week 8: Sewn Circuits: LED bracelet
  • Week 9: Field trip to ThemeWorks, Inc., a local business

Circuit Sticker Art

Throughout the course, the kids were willing to try new things and they only complained a little bit about the sewing (and not all of them, just a few). They played around with the circuit blocks, made some cool things and hopefully, learned the difference between an open and closed circuit.

When it came time to actually put together some circuits, I found they needed some simple, guided activities before moving on to freely creative exploits. Since we were using the Chibitronics circuit stickers to create parallel circuits, I wanted a little more direct instruction. (Those stickers aren’t cheap)! I printed out this Chibitronics template, and my oldest son and I both made a sample. He modified his a little – he traced the robot, but designed it himself – and I made a starry sky (see the photos above). We both used the provided guidelines for the parallel circuits (photo below).

The robot on the left used copper tape to connect the circuit stickers to the battery while the night sky used conductive ink.

Conductive Ink vs. Copper Tape

If you had asked me last year, I would have said copper tape was too difficult for elementary students. I would have argued that conductive ink pens are far superior for solder-free projects. Sadly, my son and I found that our ink pen wasn’t nearly as effective as the copper tape with adhesive glue. I wonder if Circuit Scribe changed their formula in the past six months? (We bought ours from Amazon). I’ve had great luck with them in the past, but my eleven-year-old could not get his Chibitronics stickers to light up. We ended up covering the ink with copper tape (and covering the stickers as well) – and voila! It worked! This is the tape we used.

Students used the lines provided in the template to lay out their copper tape.

Age Group Suggestions

Since we had guided lesson plans, this project was pretty easy for all of the members of our group. My younger son (age 7) needed some help from me, but was able to do most of the copper tape by himself. In addition to marking the positive and negative current flow, I also flattened the corners for him, however, he got a great kick out of decorating his robot and placing the circuit stickers.

a picture of a 2D robot that has a light up heart

C’s light-up robot

This project was a perfect capstone project for the upper age limits of our group (ten-and- eleven-year-olds). They could do it on their own and a couple of them modified their outer designs. If I were to do this class again, I would still do this project first. However, for the next class, I would challenge them to create paper prototypes using these stickers. They could apply their knowledge of parallel circuits in a whole new way.

After the students had made their projects and were proud of their own accomplishments, I showed them Jie Qi’s electrified Dandelion Painting. The kids (and adults) were appropriately impressed with her copper tape skills. Plus, they actually understood how it worked – and asked some very interesting questions.



Diary of a First Year FLL Coach

First Year FLL Coach – Me?

August 22, 2016
Today, I asked the 4-H robotics leaders if our club was going to participate in First Lego League this year. “Sure,” they said, “and would you mind being one of our first year FLL coaches?”

August 30, 2016
The FLL challenge comes out today. It’s called Animal Allies. I can’t wait to find out more about it.

September 5, 2016
Today, I gave a brief presentation to our club about First Lego League. I think I scared some parents, but gained the interests of the more experienced student members. We now have a team of seven students.

The coaches and mentors navigated the FLL computer system and got our team registered and the kit ordered. I had an easier time since I had gone through a Jr. FLL season with my older son two years ago.

September 18, 2016
One of our mentors (and 4-H robotics leader) built the game board. The kit and game mat arrived and the kids spent the meeting building pieces.

A picture of two 4x8 robot game boards

This was from our practice competition.

September 25, 2016
The game board is fascinating and the students finally finished putting together all of the pieces. We did a team building exercise and ran out of time.

October 2, 2016
We now have nine team members. The team has decided to split up into three groups and begin building a base robot. The team will then vote for the best design.

October 16, 2016
It took another meeting to finish and decide on the robot design. Now, the other teams are copying the robot design so that each team can work on the robot game. There has been little discussion about the animal project; everyone is more interested in the robot game.


The Robot Game, The Robot Presentation & The Project

October 23, 2016
Teams are finally working on programs to complete the robot game challenge. There have been some problems with such a big team. Everyone wants to work on the robot. Our initial talks about animal projects are centered on reducing ocean pollution. We are also registered for a practice tournament November 12. I have spoken to my sister-in-law twice in the last few weeks to clarify FLL rules. (She’s a FLL veteran coach and is immensely helpful).

October 30, 2016
More work on the robot game. My co-coach is amazing at finding team building challenges so the kids can develop their “core values.”

November 2, 2016
Our animal project is looking too much like a pollution/trash problem (which was last year’s FLL challenge). We have a mid-week meeting to focus on one animal and to flush out a general presentation idea for the practice tournament. The kids chose to study manatees.

November 6, 2016
I am out of town. More robot game. More team building.


November 12, 2016
Practice Tournament. Everyone did very well and it gave the students (and coaches) a better idea of what FLL is all about. Our team did better than we thought they would.

November 19, 2016
The robot design has been modified so that there is now only one robot to compete in the robot game. That means two to three kids work on the programming while the coaches help the other kids flush out the robot and manatee presentations. Team building happens at the end of every meeting.

December 4, 11, 18
The holiday season is in full swing and we are only getting three to four kids at each Sunday meeting. This has made it difficult to move forward with our presentation since no one wants to make a group decision with only part of the team present.

December 25 & January 1
Since we meet on Sunday, we have cancelled these meetings to enjoy the holiday season (and because a lot of people are out of town).


Getting Ready for the Qualifying Tournament

January 5, 2017
We have an afternoon meeting at the library/park to refine the manatee and robot presentations. The students decide what they want to talk about and we (the coaches) help them by writing down main points on an index card. They are to take them home, write down what they want to say and try to memorize it for Saturday’s qualifying tournament.

January 7, 2017
The tournament is an hour away and the day is very cold and very wet. It’s a bit of a shock for our central Florida area. Thankfully, the gym is warm and the 24-team double tournament is buzzing with activity. I sent our schedule out yesterday and made a couple of copies to leave on our table. Everyone arrived on time and we were busy all day long. Our team table was close to the robot game area and the students took advantage of the location. They watched how the other team’s competed and enjoyed hanging out with one another.

This was one long day. We had to be there by 8:15 and the award ceremony finished at 4:00. Our team won the mechanical design/programming award and received an alternate bid to the regional tournament. My co-coach and I were thrilled. This is such a fabulous run for a first year team – and 7 out of 9 members can return next year! They will have a better idea of what to expect. I definitely see some areas for improvement. For example, we left more than 30-seconds on the clock for the robot game and they could do a better job at learning to share speaking roles during the presentations. But more importantly, everyone was well-supported, courteous and focused on building a good team (and good people).

January 2017
My co-coach contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in our area and our team will visit their office to learn more about manatee rescue and how to write a regulation. Although our FLL season is over, we are still helping our team to go out into the community and hopefully, make a difference.


Reflections on Being a First Year FLL Coach

My co-coach and I were often coaching “from behind,” as he likes to say. We were trying to guide and ask questions (and sometimes direct) so that the students owned most of the decisions. That was really hard – especially as we tried to figure out the FLL rules. It took a lot of time to give everyone an equal voice, but I think it made for a stronger team. I also returned to being an adjunct instructor this past August and was trying to balance teaching on top of coaching. I felt like I didn’t prepare as much as I could (or should) have, but the students led the way and asked questions when they needed information.

I can’t say enough about First Lego League. This tournament is amazing and the purpose is not to win, or to get better at robotics. It’s to work as a team and to become familiar with the design thinking process. The purpose is to solve the world’s problems and to help kids (and their coaches) to know they have a voice and some power. They have power to work cooperatively. They have power to talk to government officials and business owners. This is project-based learning in action – with a little bit of legos and robotics thrown in for fun.

Book Review :: Making Simple Robots

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

Making Simple Robots by Kathy Ceceri.

Making Simple Robots by Kathy Ceceri.

Ages: teens – adults
Ceceri, Kathy. Make: Making Simple Robots: Explore Cutting-Edge Robotics with Everyday Stuff. MakerMedia: Sebastpol, CA, 2015.

A few weeks ago, I picked up this book at the library. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much, but the author caught my interest when she mentioned that many robot books can be a let down. They are often too advanced or so simple that they don’t teach much. Those are my thoughts exactly! I was happily surprised when I started the first chapter and couldn’t put it down.

I became engrossed with the description of shape-changing robots and found myself eager to try out her simple, yet advanced project on how to demonstrate the concept. This is especially relevant for me because I am in the process of working on a ‘electronic paper’ course for this summer. Suffice it to say, I ended up reading the entire book in one day!

Table of Contents from the book, Making Simple Robots.

Table of Contents from the book, Making Simple Robots.

Ceceri’s book is well-organized and perfect for the beginner robot scientist. She clearly makes the distinction between a robot (which uses sensors and must be programmed) and a machine (which much be operated by someone else).

I especially loved her simple designs, real-world uses and accompanying explanations. This book is written for individuals who are interested in a variety of ‘robots.’ She covers topics on automated paper, BEAM robots and introduces the concept of e-textiles, which can include sewn electronics – a favorite topic of mine.  With each new piece of technology, she includes a real-life connection. Many of these research projects take place at universities and are still in the design phase, but it helps for students to make real-world connections that are so often lacking in school.

A sample robot project. Picture from Kathy Ceceri's book, Making Simple Robots.

A sample robot project using LittleBits. Picture from Kathy Ceceri’s book, Making Simple Robots. See it in action.

Since the purpose of this book is to whet your appetite for robotics, some of the projects use material short-cuts. Some of these shortcuts include using LittleBits to overcome the hurdles of having to hard-wire or hard code advanced technology such as Arduino. This can make some of the projects quite pricey, but it’s a guide for you to explore the variety of options in robotics. As for those naysayers who complain that they don’t want to purchase a 3-D printer, check out your local library or college. We are fortunate to live close to the University of Florida and the science and education libraries allow you to upload a 3-D printing file and pay to print it out – no need to purchase an entire 3-D printer.

Overall, this book is a great place to begin if you and your child aren’t sure where to start with your robotics adventure. Although the book is geared toward teens and young adults, there is no reason an adult couldn’t help a younger student with some of the projects.

In conclusion, I loved the book. It showed me a wide variety of robots – many of which I didn’t know about and would never have discovered on my own. I already have plans to incorporate some of the accentuated paper robots into my summer classes and I can’t wait to get my hands on her new book about Paper Circuits.

Accentuated Paper project.

Accentuated Paper project from Kathy Ceceri’s book, Making Simple Robots.




Extensions for Robot Turtles

This is the second post, 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. Check out the first post about Robot Turtles.
After my older students have played through most of the rounds of Robot Turtles, we make our own game of Robot Turtles.

After my older students have played through most of the rounds of Robot Turtles, we make our own game.

During my Montessori training, we encountered a lot of extension material. For example, there were extensions for the pink tower which would reinforce the original concepts (biggest to smallest and visual discrimination). These extensions would also allow the students to use the pink tower in a slightly different way. A prime example is of pink cards that mimic a tiny tower. The square shapes are the exact same size as the cubes – on one side. It’s another way for the students to grasp the concepts that the pink tower means to impart.

In that same vein, I try to find extensions for the materials I use during camp. This week, we’re talking about extensions for Robot Turtles. Last week, I talked about how I use the board game, Robot Turtles, in my summer camps. I like it because it reinforces programming concepts in a new way. I also like that you don’t have to use a computer. Does that make sense? Yes, because much of computer programming is using logic to solve design problems (or how to make your characters appear, etc.)

Since many of my students lost interest after a few rounds of Robot Turtles, I wanted to find a way to reinforce the concept of giving specific instructions. (To be fair – it is designed for 4-year-olds). I decided that my seven to ten-year-old students should make their own version of Robot Turtles.

A half-finished, multi-day game that involves elephants and lava.

An in-progress photo of a game that involved elephants and lava – made by Rebecca, age 10.

This lesson plan evolved over the summer and toward the end, there were a few more guidelines than I initially thought I needed. My students had a hard time replicating the game,  but once I helped them get started, they seemed to take off.

I walked the students through making a grid (eye-balled for accuracy). This set the game board in a semi-consistent manner. Then, they had to think about the purpose of their game. Together, we talked about the different aspects of the Robot Turtles game – how does the turtle win, how does it move, etc. After we broke down the game, I asked the students to think about a game where they had some characters that moved, but who would also have to complete a task.

In the final version, I drew a large square on the paper to help the kids get started. Next time, I will have yardsticks on hand.

In the final version, I drew a large square on the paper to help the kids get started. Next time, I will have yardsticks on hand.

I provided pre-printed “movement” cards, but they could add additional “moves” if needed (see picture below). I checked on them as they were working – making sure the final game would make as much sense as possible (it didn’t always – and that was okay). We would play the game as a way of “testing” and they found the errors in their game design – and fixed them.

Hand-drawn set of command cards to mimic those found in Robot Turtles and other "instruction" games. I make a copy for each student. They have extra spaces to make their own commands.

Hand-drawn set of command cards to mimic those found in Robot Turtles and other “instruction” games. I make a copy for each student. They have extra spaces to make their own commands.

When they were finished with their games, I sat and played each one and encouraged them to play with their fellow campers. Now, they all had something to take home from “robotics” camp and when the novelty wore off – their parents could easily recycle it. This is really important to me as I hate to deal with the cheap, plastic crafts that come home with my own children. I don’t want to have to store (or throw something away) that they made in camp. And, since the kids can’t take home any of the robotics (due to the expense), I want to make sure that the stuff they do bring home can be recycled or reused.

Harry Potter game, made by Wes, age 10. Wes had just finished reading the Harry Potter series and he made a cool game with wands, muggle obstacles and a cast of Harry Potter characters.

Harry Potter game, made by Wes, age 9. Wes had just finished reading the Harry Potter series and he made a cool game with wands, muggle obstacles and a cast of Harry Potter characters.

I will admit, this project found more favor with my girl campers than my boy campers. My boy campers were just as creative, but they seemed to dislike the idea of adding color to their board games, whereas the girls would spend extra time making their games look complete.  My sample is self-selected (they choose to sign up for my camp), so perhaps the boys I attract are more interested in the Lego WeDos that are part of camp and thus dislike the use of paper and pencil?

Either way, it offered another way for my students to think about the concept of giving specific instructions. It wasn’t always easy, but it did offer a chance to be creative. The only requirements were that the board had to be a grid and the characters had to move by arrow commands – just like in Robot Turtles.

Wes made muggle obstacles - similar to the ice blocks and wood towers from Robot Turtles.

Wes made muggle obstacles – similar to the ice blocks and wood towers from Robot Turtles.



Marker Bots

After working with the more “traditional” circuits, the good folks at The Exploratorium gave us our next assignment – make your own scribble bot.

Prepared table, a short video of other kids' bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

A prepared table, a short video of other kids’ bots and a brief stop to make sure everyone figured out how to run the motor (they did) and they were off.

The kids and I ended up christening them “marker bots” as we felt that described our own creations a bit better. There’s some truth to that as many of the examples we saw used markers (since they scribble more easily), but as they tinkered, the kids began breaking out of the traditional “sample” bot and into new and uncharted territory.

My six-year-old had the most physical limitations as his dexterity isn’t nearly as well-developed as the two nine-year-olds. He had trouble getting the markers to stay and needed more help with setting up the battery. If I were to do this with lots of young students, I would do what many others have suggested and try soldering small washers onto the ends of the battery wires to make it easier to connect and disconnect in the broccoli band.

Six-year-old's beginnings

Six-year-old’s beginnings…yes, that’s a partial hot glue stick sticking out of the motor…used to propel the bot.

My sons’ friend was at our house and participated in our “maker” afternoon. I think he enjoyed himself and really learned to apply some growth mindset to his creation. Initially, he had a tough time deciding how to design his bot, but he eventually modified his design and took away the markers and created a moving robot. Success!

My nine-year-old jumped right in and loved that he could make a bot almost exactly like the same one we saw in the course video (strawberry baskets). After figuring that out, he went on to modify his creation and created a ledge for his bot to hold the marker caps.

All told, we spent a good hour and a half tinkering with our creations. A few days later, we revisited the single battery and motor combination and I tried to make a Lego car move (unsuccessfully) and my six-year-old, inspired by his friend’s creation, decided to make an airplane. Although his plane didn’t move he made multiple modifications and we did all sorts of battery and motor tests. Funny enough, everyone single boy who has come over has glanced at it with a “whoa…cool, dude” sort of look.  Needless to say, he is quite happy with it.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

Yes, those are wheels from a rolling cabinet. It took the biggest stapler in the world to keep my mouth from suggesting smaller wheels.

This assignment was one of the easiest to attempt and to complete. The entry materials are low — a 3V motor, a single AA battery and whatever craft supplies you have in the house. And, if you need more assistance, check out the Exploratorium’s online guide.

The end of our first work session.

The end of our first work session.


The Brick Chronicles :: Lego WeDo® Playground Challenge

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

In my camps, I want the students to get comfortable with the WeDo software before asking them to respond to a particular challenge. I’ve noticed that coming up with their own structures comes quite naturally to them, but brainstorming an answer to a particular problem can present some difficulty. From the beginning, they are encouraged to adapt, modify and experiment with the “formal” structures that they build…playing with the software as they go.

After they’ve gotten a good hold on how it works (usually in the last couple of days), I ask them to think about how they can create a particular type of structure. One of the first challenges is always the “playground equipment” challenge. I ask the students to think about, and possibly sketch their favorite piece of playground equipment. Then, I give them some parameters to work with (i.e. it must use one mechanized part). The rest is up to them.

The videos I have featured below showcase only two of my past students’ projects. While all of the projects were quite worthy, these two students faced many challenges with these projects and had to revise them many, many times to get it to work just right.

For those of you who don’t know about gaga ball, the players hit a rubber ball with their hands and try to touch the other players and get them out. I just learned about it myself this past summer and I would liken it to a gentler version of dodge ball, yet still fiercely competitive.