Robot Garage

by Vicky on January 2, 2012

Our final Winter Extravaganza program deserves a post all to itself.

Tony Gondola, a Museum of Flight educator, led an incredible program designed for fourth to eighth graders.  I was glad to see that a respectable number of girls had signed up for this program.

He started with an introduction and overview on robots and robotics, and got the kids to think about the differences between machines and robots.  They had to think about the uses of robotics in different industries, and why they were more useful in some fields than in others.

Then he divided the group into teams of three or four kids and passed out small plastic boxes of parts.  He gave the kids only three pieces of information: 1. their robotic rovers should be able to move forward, backward, to the left, and to the right; 2. he identified one type of motor, which could go fast; and 3. he identified another type of motor, which was slow but could lift a lot of weight.  Then he turned them loose to explore, brainstorm, experiment, problem solve, and work cooperatively.

He walked around and offered occasional comments and suggestions as needed, but mostly in the form of questions.  He also told them that it was OK to get ideas from other teams.

After about 45 minutes, he called the teams to gather around a ring he had taped off on the floor.  He had dumped a pile of spare parts in the ring, and the object was to remove as many pieces as possible in 10 minutes.  At this point their rovers looked quite individual.  It was surprising how different they all looked, given the fact that they had started with the same set of parts.

Then they had 15 minutes to make modifications on their designs.  When they came back for the final round of competition, their rovers looked very much alike.  Quite a few had figured out that the elegant pincers on their robotic arm might not be the most efficient tool for removing parts from the ring, and they had fashioned large scoops to push or pull the pieces out of the ring with their faster motor.  The winning team managed to remove 22 pieces from the ring!

I had been concerned that some teams might be dominated by one kid, but that really didn’t happen.  For the most part, they shared the work and even took turns at controlling their rover even during the intense competition.  The parents were pretty good at letting the kids work on their own, although I did notice some parents offering suggestions as the competition ratcheted up!

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