Check out some of the activities from robotics camp:
Making this week
In January, I was intensely focused on behind-the-scenes work, which included strengthening my HTML knowledge and gaining a better understanding of cascading style sheets (CSS). I was also delving much more deeply into my WordPress site and adding to my front-end web development skills. It’s fun work. I enjoy it and I like the creative aspect, however, I was feeling a need to craft something in person.
I don’t know if my subconscious decided to add more creative pursuits to our week, or if it was just time to switch gears and move onto different aspects of work. Either way, our house (and table) has been a flurry of “making” activities. There was a lot of making this week…
A Color-Sensing Mindstorms Robot
My eldest son is my tester for the “Mindstorms Clinic” that I plan to offer this summer. We’ve been working together to find some really cool activities that delve deeply into certain aspects of these lego robots. Personally, I am quite intrigued by the color sensor and love the line-following (or color avoiding) aspects. Since I love to use Ozobots in my camps, I love how programming the EV3 brick lends an insight into how the Ozobots might read their own color language.
Crafting Ancient Egypt
My youngest son has chosen to study Egypt for our co-op’s ongoing project-based learning class. In addition to reading all sorts of books, he’s been making clay models and crafting mummies.
Sewing, Painting and Making
In preparation for another summer camp I am co-leading, I have been making some prototypes for characters and landscapes. Since we’re still in the “testing and trying” stage of camp development, I’m not sure how (or if) these prototypes will be used, but I had a lot of fun making them.
And, for those who would prefer to paint their characters…
In an attempt to create more “boy-friendly” characters, I stumbled across this web site and studied her pictures and painted my own versions. If these are a go, I’m going to have my 10-year-old try and see if he can re-create something similar. I need to make sure it’s an appropriate, and not frustrating, activity. In the meantime, he and I have already brainstormed a way to make “Yoda.”
Since my characters can’t live on newspaper, they need some sort of backdrop. I’ve been reading up on acrylic painting techniques and brushing up on my dusty scrapbooking skills. I see many more iterations of these concepts in my future.
All week my table was filled with painting supplies and I was dreaming of my own artist’s studio. Since that’s not possible, I pulled out my knitting travel bag and put in a few rows for another washcloth. My creative beast is temporarily fed, but I’m already anticipating this week’s creative endeavors.
This is the last 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 previous posts about the game, Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, the game of ‘Be the Robot’ and What’s Inside of a laptop.
Since I am not a classically trained computer scientist (or programmer for that matter), my use of the term ‘computer science’ may differ from others (here’s a really great explanation of the differences). I use the term vaguely – to imply a lot of different computer-centered activities. That might include logical thinking, seeing things from a different perspective, noticing patterns, finding out about computer parts, learning about key programming concepts, such as repeat loops, and of course, using icon-based programming languages to write programs.
So, with that being said, I have gathered a lot of great materials and hands-on tools over the last few years, such as Lego WeDo kits, Ozobots and creative instruction with the icon-based language, Scratch. But, I have had times when I’ve needed activities that didn’t require a computer. I needed to teach computer science without computers. Sometimes these activities were used to fill a break in my coding or Robotics camps. Sometimes, I was asked to teach where there were few resources and only a couple of computers. We needed a way to rotate computer use, but still be working with programming concepts.
Computer Science Without Computers
This need led me to the DK Workbook, Computer Coding. This looks to be a companion to DK’s book, Help Your Child with Computer Programming, except that this slim workbook starts out by introducing the Python programming language, which I do not teach. Although I will be teaching a kids’ web design class this summer, most of my classes do not use text-based programming languages.
I know, we could have a whole other debate about how HTML isn’t a true programming language…but let’s hold off for now, shall we?
If you skip ahead in the Coding workbook, there are some really cool exercises on “thinking like a robot” and writing out simple commands, such as ‘forward(50).’ I drew out some of these on the board and had us work together to complete them. Honestly, it wasn’t as much fun for the 9th graders who were my captive audience. They had a hard time making the connection to why this type of learning was important – and they weren’t intrinsically interested in coding. In that case, I really could have used some computers to set them free with Scratch. Usually, the free expression in Scratch can hook any reluctant teen programmer.
But alas, that wasn’t an option for a cash-strapped camp who wanted to offer some computer science programs. I did find a curriculum that looked interesting, but didn’t come across it until after my “no-computer” camp experience. This free “Computer Science-in-a-Box” curriculum is from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Although this curriculum is geared toward ages 9 – 14, I haven’t used it in my camps. It does seem a bit like “school” work and my campers are not so willing to take up paper and pencil during the summer. But, like most curriculum, I’m sure there will be some great insights that I can find to use with my students.
I’ve also looked over the curriculum from Code.org – “Intro to the Art of Computer Science.” Both of the above items are well-researched, but most of the activities are too tedious or abstract for my younger students to appreciate or enjoy. Don’t get me wrong – I like the guides and learned a lot from them. I also think think they offer a lot of valuable information, but not for my age group (or for uninterested kids). They seem to be written for the computer scientist in mind – those kids who know they want to work with computers, have played with Scratch and maybe Python, and want to know everything about how binary works and how a computer thinks.
Many of the kids I encounter are unsure that they can even tell a computer what to do, so we have to find a way to break down the abstract concepts into something much more concrete. It’s why I love Scratch so much. Regardless, I do recommend the guides – if only as a way to gain more background knowledge and vocabulary for the teacher.
I would also recommend reading more about Seymour Papert and his thoughts on computers in schools and how children use them (or should use them). Palpert was at MIT, helped to develop the Lego Mindstorms concept and has left his lasting influence on the openness of creative learning, which is something that the creators of Scratch have carried forth into their teacher’s guide. I also think their article on computational thinking is well worth reading.
Since we are talking about abstract concepts – I am a huge fan of logic problems and really like the ones put out by the Critical Thinking Co. Last summer, I made some copies for a few kids in my camps because I knew that they would finish up faster than the other kids and might like a good challenge. Some of my other students found these too difficult and had a bit of a fixed mindset about discovering the solutions. Either way, having them look at information in a new way (which is what logic problems do) is a great skill for any kid (or adult) to try.
Finally, this book has been sitting on my shelves for many months now…just waiting for the right opportunity to read it aloud to my six and ten-year-old sons. Of course, we had to get through The Magician’s Nephew, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and now, we need to finish The Odyssey (abridged), but we’ll get to it because I’m really looking forward to reading a fantastical story that has computer science elements.
All told, there are a number of resources to impart logic and computer science concepts – without a computer. As noted above, you can check out my previous posts on Robot Turtles, extensions for Robot Turtles, Be the Robot and Making a Paper Laptop.
Unfortunately for those schools (or camps) that do not have the resources for a computer lab, these non-computer activities will only take you so far with computer programming. As far as other materials that teach “programming,” I am a huge fan of the 1.0 Ozobots since they have their own “color” language and students can use regular markers and a large sheet of paper to write some programs. They don’t require as much space as laptops or desktops, and students could work together as a group, so it would cost less money. To see how I’ve used Ozobots in my camps, check out “Using Ozobots in a Classroom” and “Making Maps with Ozobots.”
We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Lessons Learned and Bridges.
For the last few weeks I’ve been showcasing my younger son’s project on bridges. I haven’t exactly ignored the project my older child has been working on, rather it took a long time to develop into a coherent project and there wasn’t much to share. Initially, my son and his friend were inspired by drawing Ozobot maps and it took some time for the project to develop into one about city planning and structure. Much of the first few weeks were reading, researching and working through some of the projects in this book (which the boys found at the library and chose for themselves).
My son and his friend began with a final project in mind. They wanted to make a model city – out of clay. No problem, I said, however I want you to do the research first. I know they know how to make a model city, but I wanted to make sure they learned about cities in the process. Tricky stuff – being a facilitator. It’s half knowing when to guide, knowing when to keep your mouth shut, and lastly, knowing when to put some limits on the project to lead it in a particular way.
I fully recognize that putting limits on a project doesn’t seem to be “true” project-based learning, but I was a bit disappointed in the catapult project. They built the catapult, but didn’t really go much further than that. Don’t misunderstand me – there was a lot of value in reading plans, executing them, going to the hardware store and interacting with adults. All of this is really important stuff, but I knew they could take it further and I think the “completion” of the project signaled the “end” for that group of boys. So, I wanted to eliminate that. And, I think (oh, dare I say it), I think that it did.
Their project is too lengthy to list the entire process here, but I will touch on a few points. First, they started out by doing research – library research. I think for an elementary-aged student, they need be very, very comfortable inside a library. They need books. I rarely guide them to Internet research – not at this age.
With a large pile of books in hand, one child took notes, while the other read through the rest of the books. They each have their strengths and reading and writing fall between the two of them.
Second, I picked up the Cities book and started to read it aloud to my two 9-year-olds. Yes, aloud. This is such a great book, but it’s in black and white and my two visual-spatial learners are not instantly drawn to it. Then, I asked if they wanted to do one of the projects. I got a “yes” and a “maybe” and so we forged ahead. I think they needed help getting past the research stage – they weren’t quite sure what step they should take next.
Third, I asked them who we might visit and speak to about cities. There were suggestions of city hall or the city welcome center. I think I mentioned a city planner and they both thought that was a great idea. So, I called a local city planner and set up a meeting with him…and it was fabulous. The city planner also had two co-workers come and talk to the two boys about what it takes to plan a city and keep it running. They learned that city planning was a complicated process that involved a lot of different people and departments. I think that this was more powerful than any of the other research they did. It certainly stuck with A, my son’s friend, as he has added “city planner” to his list of possible job prospects.
And since the city planner and his co-workers were so generous with their time and expertise, it was only right that I ask the boys to write thank you notes. They did a first draft and then made corrections and re-wrote their final draft. We discussed writing concepts without having to make a big deal out of it – and it demonstrates that good manners are important.
This week, they will be presenting their final project to the group as this is our last meeting for the Fall. I’m excited for them and I know that they are anxious to share what they have made.
This past summer, I introduced these Ozobots to my young campers (ages 7 – 10). They were excited at the idea that this little robot would follow a hand-drawn line. There’s something about combining “high tech” and “low tech” that they find baffling – and that instantly draws them in. They know markers. They’ve been working with them for years, so the barrier to entry is very low. It’s the perfect way to introduce them to these tiny bots and to enforce (or introduce) the idea of computer languages.
While I think computer programming is a great skill to have (or at least be aware) for this next generation of children, I place a greater value on being creative and persistent. These little bots can encompass both of these skills. As I’ve said before, the paper and marker language is not always consistent and thus, children (and adults) need to have some grit to be able to solve their problems. Sometimes the bots need to be re-calibrated, sometimes the marker line is too thin, etc.
So, how to help them move forward after the initial play period has worn off? Maps.
Once they understand how the Ozobots work and how they read their color-coded computer language, I asked my students to create a map of places for their little bot to visit. The instructions were open-ended, but I ended up asking lots of questions about their favorite places to visit. The task seemed a bit overwhelming at first, but after asking them to draw one place that they would love to visit, they took off.
There was a lot of giggling and hastily-drawn buildings as the Ozobot would randomly choose paths to take. Some of the students had deliberately added lots of fast food restaurants to their map and they were delighted when the Ozobot would “eat out” way too much. It prompted an additional doctor’s office and hospital on the hand-drawn maps. What a fun way to teach the concept of moderation.
Each student’s map was different and they varied based on age, ability and interest level. For some of the younger, “less-art” kids, I sat with them and helped them to stay on task – asking questions and wondering where their Ozobot might want to go next. Did they like to visit the beach? Would they like to find work as a tractor on the farm? Maybe they wanted to visit a friend’s house?
In addition to helping them develop their creative muscles, this activity also helped students to see various paths to creating. Would they choose to create the Ozobot’s path first…with various color codes? Or, would they want to create places to visit first…and then add a path later? The decision-making was sometimes intense and there were lots of opportunities to think about how to plan out (or not) their Ozo-village. None of the children I worked with suggested using a pencil first, but this might be a great concept to introduce to an older crowd. Either way, they had fun, they learned something and hopefully, they feel confident knowing how a line-following robot works.
These tiny line-reading robots have caused quite a stir with my younger students. They love the idea that they can make them “do” something, and they learn a little bit about automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and different program languages in the process. If you missed last week’s post about these little guys, read here before continuing with this article.
Since purchasing these robots, I have been in a constant “test and observe” mode when they are being used by young children. First, my own children and I played with them when they first arrived at our house. Armed with nothing but markers and a large sheet of paper, my boys (ages 6 and 9) and I enthusiastically drew lines and waited for the robots to obey our commands.
Next, I did a little research on how everyone else was using them. The educator community for Ozobots isn’t as extensive as it is with Scratch or Littlebits, but they have a few ideas on their web site. Finally, I came up with a general plan of action for my campers (ages 7-14), but ended up throwing out some of those plans as I watched and observed how they enjoyed using them. As a teacher, I am always changing my lesson plans, but here is my general guideline for using the Ozobots to assist young children with these programming concepts.
1. Have fun. Catch their interest.
My first rule of thumb with any new material is that it should first gain a child’s attention. If you have to explain ten rules on how it works, then that might not be the best way to start. You can add those lessons in later, but begin as simply as you can.
My first lesson demonstrates how they work. Grab a black marker and draw a line (in front of the students) and show how the robot follows it.
Of course, you need to calibrate your Ozobot each time since it compensates based on light and its sensors, but the teacher can do that before the lesson. Or, if space and time are tight, do it for the kids, but don’t make a huge deal about it. Calibrate it and then draw the line. You can point out the thickness of the line (since Ozobot doesn’t read skinny lines), but most likely they will pick that up in the next lesson.
2. Don’t explain. Just give them a large piece of paper and a black marker.
There’s something about using a very large piece of paper that makes an activity extra special. For now, hold onto the Ozobots. As a teacher, you will be delivering small group instructions to each group.
Keep an eye on the small group (3-4 students per table or paper) that you think will finish drawing first. Go over and tell the students about the Ozobots.
3. Keep it Simple. Safety.
These little robots cannot hurt the students, but the student can damage them by accident. And, at $50 a piece, you want to keep your Ozobots as safe as possible. Talk to each group about how the Ozobots read the line (color sensors at the bottom). These sensors are very sensitive. Just like our eyes, we wouldn’t want to poke our fingers into them…same thing goes with the Ozobots.
Before placing the Ozobot down, run your hand over the paper and be sure the marker is dry. Do this lots of times before you place the Ozobot on their paper. This will teach the students that we also want to keep the Ozobots from getting any ink them. Keep the sensors safe.
Place your Ozobot on their paper and gleefully watch as their bots follow the path they made. Take the Ozobot with you and ask the kids to make a connecting line between each child’s drawings. Or give them another sheet of paper. Tell them you will return in a few minutes. Move onto the next group. Repeat the lesson.
There is a lot of research on how humans actually learn and much of it is related to our ability to play. At this point, we’re only introducing the Ozobots as a plaything. We’ve talked about the idea that they are robots and they have sensors, but that’s it. Let the kids draw lines, test out new markers, write their names with connecting lines and see what else you can make them do. Do not move onto the next step until you see kids running their hands over the paper to ensure the marker is dry.
Stand back and enjoy the pictures that they create. Ask the students to explain in detail how and why they drew what they did. Ask questions…what would happen if you added a line here? Would the Ozobot always choose that line?
Stay tuned for Part Two: Introducing the Color Codes.
Earlier this year I came across this new and interesting line-following robot, Ozobot. After looking over some general reviews (here and here), I decided to order four of them for my summer camps. In the past few months, I have used them with a number of children and I have noticed that they have a definite appeal with the younger set — kids who are younger than age ten. I think here’s something about using a marker and making the robot do what you say. It’s very empowering for young children. They all know how to draw with a marker!
Most of the students I’ve worked with have had some experience with the notion of computer programming and sensors. Using these robots is another way to stress the concept of “talking” to a computer through it’s language. Ozobots have their own color-coded language which sometimes works…and sometimes doesn’t. Just like “real” computer programming.
At first, I found this annoying, but eventually realized that this was the best way of learning. Yes, even adults need reminders to have a growth mindset.
While working together, we have to figure out why the coding didn’t work…was it that particular color of marker? Did it have too much white in it? Did we remember to calibrate the Ozobot? All of these questions mimic the questions a computer programmer needs to consider when trying to find the bugs in his or her program. Once the kids understood this concept, they were remarkably understanding. They were very willing to try and figure out the problem…and quite accepting of the fact that they might have to start over.
Next week, I’ll lay out my “plans” of introducing Ozobots to children. Stay tuned!