Robots & The Maker Movement

One very popular movement in education right now is that of the maker movement. We spent our second week of the MAET program in Galway, Ireland exploring all that the maker movement had to offer. One of the most complex, interesting, and fun things we got to do was to experiment with various robots that have been created for classroom use.

The first robot I got to play around with was Bee-bot. As I had never used any sort of educational robots before, Bee-bot was probably a good one to start with. Bee-bot is designed for lower elementary aged students, so his functionalities are simple and easy to use. Bee-bot has the capability to go forward and backwards, and well as turn left or right, and even pause in the middle of a sequence – but that is all. Bee-bot is a simple machine, but was still entertaining.

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Photo Credit: Liz Owens Boltz

After working with Bee-bot’s functionality, my partner and I began to brainstorm practical classroom applications for this robot. We know he is designed for very young children, but we both teach high school, so that was quite a challenge. Ultimately, we found applications for Bee-bot in a high school math classroom, but that was about all we could come up with. We decided that students could create mazes and program Bee-bot to get through them; students could use Bee-bot to estimate measurements; or Bee-bot can be programed to move along the patterns of various shapes.

IMG_0737TieBot, on the other hand, was significantly more complex than the Bee-bot. To experience TieBots, we headed over to the physics lab of NUIG to meet with Sean – one of their post graduate researchers. Sean’s mission is to make TieBot’s more affordable for schools, so that more students have the opportunity to work with these machines.

When we arrived, Sean broke us into groups and gave each one of us our own TieBot – the frame for our TieBot’s were all 3D printed by the University – Sean said it costs about 3 cents to do so. Sean then explained that he put together our TieBots in a hurry and made some mistakes on them, so none of our robots are functional. Our goal was to find and fix Sean’s mistakes so that our robot would function as it was designed to.

After naming our robot Glen (it made the experience feel more personal) we set to work trying to fix the mistakes and get him functioning. The first thing we did was look at a functioning prototype and make sure all of Glen’s wires were set up in the correct order – once that was complete we turned on the power source and gave it a go. Fortunately, one of Glen’s wheels began to spin! Unfortunately, the other did not – Glen was not designed to go in circles, so we went back to the drawing board.

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After a bit more tinkering, we were able to get Glen’s other wheel moving sporadically. What we noticed, however, is that the two wheels were spinning in opposite directions. Sean showed us how to move the wires connecting the wheels to the motherboard around so that both wheels would spin in the same direction. After a bit more tinkering, Glen took his first steps – they were short, and labor intensive, but he moved. I don’t know who was more excited to see Glen move, those of us that fixed them, or Sean who was watching us all experience this process.

While we couldn’t get Glen to move any more than he had (we think there was a dead battery issue), this experience was so fascinating, rewarding and fun. One thing I still struggle with, however, is what does this have to do with my ELA classroom? I can see the benefit of working with robots in math or science, but I’m still struggling with practical application for English. I am hoping that as we continue diving deeper into the maker movement I will have an epiphany, but for now I am content with experimenting.

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