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In the age of artificial intelligence (AI), teachers can use educational robotics to teach kids how to design, build and program robots while allowing them to see and interpret the results of their build and program in real time.
More so, building and programming robots can help learners improve vital computer science (CS) and life skills, such as computational thinking, coding, literacy, physical science, mathematics, healthy competitiveness, teamwork and perseverance.
Learning robotics and AI can also provide students needed context to understand the use of robots in more authentic contexts and industries, such as enterprise, space exploration, manufacturing, and military missions. Evolving AI even makes it possible for intelligent robots to interact with humans in their lives and homes by assisting with household chores, providing security, companionship and entertainment.
Unfortunately, in-depth learning of advanced robotics isn't always accessible to all students, and often when it is, the necessary rigor is not always applied to lessons. That means students are getting only part of the learning, not the complete picture of the interdisciplinary and integrative nature of mechatronics — the intersection between electrical and mechanical engineering and CS.
For teachers wishing to make engineering accessible and engaging for novice and experienced high school students, I recommend using the VEX V5 by VEX Robotics. A warning: Learning to use the V5 effectively will take time! But any learner can become an expert through concentrated and consistent practice.
In a previous coaching experience, I used the following four-step framework to teach robotics, and this is how I recommend teachers proceed with students.
Note: My example below uses the VEX V5 robotics system to build a clawbot. However, these steps are universal to robot building and programming. Teachers using other tools can follow along but will need to implement another design activity.
Step 1: Establish learning goals and know your hardware
All advanced robotics kits come with hardware components designed for kids to construct the robot they will program. The hardware may include sensors, motors, electronic components, and other equipment relevant to the robot's physical structure, such as frames, wheels and gears. I suggest coaching students through their first unboxing of the kit and robot assembly.
Before having your learners design and program the clawbot, do it yourself and arrive in class with your own functional working model. This conveys to them that the learning is collaborative and that you are just as committed to the process as they are.
To have them envision their learning goals, pose a guiding question like one of these:
- How can we use our VEX V5 kit to build and program a clawbot robot controlled by a human operator linking the V5 controller and V5 Robot Brain via interface?
- How can we program our V5 Clawbot kit to run anautonomous figure eight?
Once students understand their learning objectives, guide them in unboxing their kit. Due to the V5's intricate systems and numerous components, I recommend someone with prior experience to lead this part.
To simplify the hardware functions, categorize each of the parts, along with explanations, into the following four groups:
Step 2: Build your robot.
Typically, I recommend having students skip a step-by-step tutorial, but I would allow it due to the complexity of an initial VEX build. Depending on your available hardware, either the V5 Clawbot or V5 Clawbot legacy is an excellent introduction to the robot build and for learning the uses of the hardware categorized in Step 1.
Students already familiar with other robotics systems, such asLEGO Mindstorms or VEX IQ, should understand the concepts and functions of motors, sensors, gears and system development. However, the metal/aluminum structures and configuration of theV5 system will likely be new to them. For the others, everything they encounter will be new and most likely overwhelming. So give your learners time to explore and learn through guided practice and gradual release of responsibility.
Note to teachers: Although an experienced and patient builder could carry out this step independently, I recommend pairing your students for the initial build. Uniting the structural and motion components can be a challenging task. By working cooperatively, the students will realize the need for teamwork.
Whenever I encounter learners with significant expertise in building and programming the VEX V5 robotics system, I assign them an open-ended robot build and program that must adhere to specific criteria and constraints. That keeps them engaged, allows them to expand on their creativity and prevents them from doing all the heavy mental lifting in a group that often deprives less experienced learners of the vital toil necessary for deeper learning.
Step 3: Learn the functions of gears, motors, sensors and other components.
Because of movies and cartoons, many kids (and adults) think of droids whenever robots are mentioned. However, they need to understand that most robots are not created for appearance (whether human or machine-like) but more so to carry out repetitive actions, tasks and jobs that are either too dangerous or impossible for humans to do on their own.
Students must also understand that magic doesn't make robots work or move efficiently. Instead, it's an amalgam of systems working in concert, relying on electronic controls (such as sensors and microcontrollers) and programming software for instructions. The VEX V5 uses an advanced microcontroller called the Robot Brain as the central control unit.
Even before programming (Step 4), students should learn that motors, wheels, gears, shafts, and pneumatics (among other accessories) enable motion in robot mechanisms. To help them make some of these connections, offer a couple of the following learning targets (LTs) that I constructed for the Clawbot build:
- I can hear each motor grind when I move the gears behind the wheels on both sides of my robot.
- I can seat the shafts (axles) all the way into each motor.
Try these sample troubleshooting questions whenever students get stuck. Bear in mind that you’ll most likely need to help them make visual connections by using your teacher-created model (see Step 1).
- Does moving one wheel move the entire system? Do they drive one another? Are they interconnected?
- Does your axle turn but your wheel doesn’t? Are you using the correct inserts in the wheels?
- Are your wheels hopping? Are there inserts in the wheels?
Step 4: Learn to program your robot.
Programming robots requires understanding core coding concepts, such as variables, conditional statements, loops and functions. Teachers should ensure their learners understand these concepts in lessons and use simple tutorials before programming robots.
Robotics kits come with software tools for programming that are typically friendly enough for kids and teachers new to robotics to begin learning. The VEX V5 Robot Brain is no different and has preloaded firmware, including default code, thus allowing it to communicate with the VEX V5 Smart Motors and other sensors. This controls basic robot functionality, such as driving, motor speed and direction, and reading sensor inputs.
The preloaded default code is written in VEXcode Pro, a text-based programming language based in C++. The user interface helps students use this code to learn fundamental programming concepts for their projects. With practice at their own pace, they can comfortably learn to modify the code to create their own programs like professionals.
After your students have completed a successful Clawbot build and have successfully paired the controller with the Robot Brain, allow them to run the default program. For many students seeing the robot they built move forward and backward, lift and lower its arm, and open and close the claw will make them feel like superstars! Allow them this moment of celebration and engage them in reflection. Also, advise them that they will need to learn programming skills to make their robots move beyond the default program.
Previously when I coached students through their Clawbot build, I used these five sample programs to get them grounded in the basics. I think it's essential for learners to see how code manipulates basic movements — primarily in autonomous and tank modes. I also had them learn how to program their Clawbot to run an autonomous figure eight.
More Resources for Advanced Robotics
If you’d like to dive deeper into advanced robotics with the VEX V5, these are steps you can use to coach your students and simplify the process:
- Begin coding with VEXcode V5 and follow the steps in this link. The article provides nine steps, from downloading the app to coding your first project.
- Access the VEXcode Pro V5 library for all coding, programming and troubleshooting needs.
- Use the VEX video library for on-demand visual learning.
Want to use other resources instead? Try some of these:
- PBS Kids: Build a bot with Curious George for grades K–5.
- Bee-Bot: Help K–5 students program journeys with robots.
- Sphero: K–12 students can learn to program robots to experiment, draw shapes, learn math and spell, with a variety of tools.
- Ozobot: Provides K–12 coding options with or without computers and ties in content learning.
- Lego and Vex offer solutions for learners of all ages to build and program robots — especially those involved with competitive robotics or out of school programs.
This is an updated version of a post that was originally published on Aug. 7, 2018.
Jorge Valenzuela, author of Rev Up Robotics, is a highly regarded performance and education coach, writer and speaker at Lifelong Learning Defined. He has helped countless educators improve their leadership and instructional innovation skills. Jorge specializes in emphasizing core instruction and is a trusted deliverer of reputable professional training in team building, project-based learning, STEM pathways, and SEL integration across the curriculum. He partners with superintendents and provides professional development for ASCD, Corwin, Instructional Innovation Partners, and Solution Tree. He has authored several books and is the Lifelong Learning Defined podcast host. You can connect with him on Instagram and Twitter.