Monday, December 2, 2013

Teaching and Learning with Mindstorm Robots

Sir Ken Robinson once said, "Students should be free to make mistakes and pursue creative interests."

As a middle school design teacher, I strive to incorporate this notion into all my units of inquiry.  One of my favorite units to facilitate the pursuit of creativity and learning from mistakes is our Lego Mindstorm Units.

Lego Mindstorm kits are amazing tools to enable students to discover, innovate and learn through trial and error.  However, just like any technology they are simply just that, a tool.  Putting Lego Mindstorms into the hands of students does not guarantee inquiry, problem solving, creativity and innovation.

Here are some suggestions to make the most of your units of inquiry when using Lego Mindstorm kits:

1. Before tackling a challenging problem ensure the students have been given sufficient time to upskill and learn the basics of Mindstorm programming.  Protip:  I have students spend one class building the 5-minute bot and then I usually spend 7-10 lessons scaffolding various challenges to ensure students who are new to Mindstorm programming have enough time to familiarize themselves with the basics like movement, sensors, and looping.  Here is a great book that offers progressively more difficult challenges, Mindstorms Made Easy, by Karl Peterson.

2. Anchor your Lego Mindstorm unit around real-life, open-ended challenges.  Students will learn to be more creative and innovative if you design Robotic challenges around real world problems.  Here is a sample video from a unit I do with my grade 8 students called "Fire-Fighting Robots":

You can access all my files for this unit here:

Another unit I do in a higher grade, which is an even more open-ended challenge, requires the students to design a Robot that would fullfill a need for the United Nations.  Pro-tip:  As your Lego Mindstorm program is experienced by students again in later grades, the challenges become more and more open-ended and therefore require more sophisticated problem solving. For example, Sumo Wrestling Robots (grade 7), Firefight Robots (Grade 8) and United Nations Robots (Grade 9).

3.  Over time, create a Mindstorm "Graveyard" of parts and pieces.  This may include spare sensors, motors, batteries and other parts that may get lost or broken from your original kits.   One way to start creating a graveyard is to put an article in the school newsletter as well as in the local paper asking people if they have Lego Mindstorm kits around the house that they might be willing to donate to the school.

4.  Have lots of foam board and packing tape available for students to use to enable students to create walls, mazes, and external parts (buckets, wagons, etc.) for their robot creations. Pro-tip: Foam board is usually sold at most dollar stores for $1.25/board.

5.  Have one class at a time work with the kits.  I usually cycle my design units so that one group is only working with the Mindstorm kits for their entire unit (approximately 20 lessons) before another group or class begins to use the kits.  Mindstorm creations tend to take on the personality of the group so to have them take apart a robot after each class is not feasible.

Sir Ken Robinson challenges educators to promote greater creativity and innovation in the minds of our students.  Using Lego Mindstorms in our classrooms can be one tool to meet this goal.  Are you using Mindstorms in your classroom?  What sorts of tips and tricks do you suggest to others?

Some Useful  Resources

1.  A great website with free lessons and mini-projects.

2. A Course for Beginners new to Lego Mindstorm Robots-

3.  An article about how one school is using Robots to engage students in problem solving,

4.  A video about how Robots are evolving and taking over our world (great for introducing the unit),  The Future of Robots,