In the past, I have shared how hands-on learning empowers students to learn actively in ways that challenge them to solve real problems rather than with contrived word problems or worksheets that lack rigor and incentive. It is effective in early childhood learning and at the elite levels of MIT’s Media Lab. It is particularly useful in computer science where concepts can seem abstract. Engaging in robotics and other hands-on cs education was clear Seymour Papert and has had a storied and worthwhile history in education. I’m going to share a few methods and tools modern teachers can use to bring 21st-century learning to their classes through hands-on computer science. I have broken them down by robotics, circuit boards, and modular electronics.
Kibo is all about block-based coding, and I mean actual physical wooden blocks. You stick together wooden blocks with instructions to move or use one of Kibo’s sensors and scan them with the bar-code reader on Kibo. The durability and lack of requirement for other devices make Kibo a great robot for the early childhood set. The sensors resemble their purposes like an ear for a sound sensor and a telescope for distance while the clear bottom removes the mystery. It engages students in tactile and fine motor skills while teaching CS.
There are several extensions and larger kits available to facilitate art, narrative, and more complex programming activities. They also offer large scannable cards for visually impaired students. Their curriculum incorporates programming, building, and subject-matter components with Kibo.
The tiny Ozobots are simple and entertaining. They can be ‘programmed’ just by drawing with some markers on paper. The way you draw, the colors you use, and the patterns you make all determine how the bot reacts. There are more advanced skills that students can master by programming in Ozoblockly, their block-based coding software. It allows students to take full advantage of the Ovobot Evo’s proximity sensors. They sell premade color-code stickers if drawing is too much of a challenge. I print them on shipping labels for my students with dexterity issues.
The Evo is their latest bot recommended for educational activities. The price is a little high for its capabilities, but it does offer a low barrier for student entry into robotics. You can purchase a number of skins to engage in storytelling or just try some Ozobot soccer as an example. Check out Ozobot’s full lesson library for more information on how to integrate it into instruction.
Dash and Dot are really cute bots for the elementary set, and while I find them endearing and easy to use, occasionally their voices and demeanor sometimes enter the creepy robot zone. That’s because they recognize each and will communicate even if you’re not nearby. One time while I was charging them were chatting and I went to turn them off. I got shocked for my efforts. Now that may speak more to the poor electrical wiring in old NYC buildings than some plan for robotic takeover, but I swear I heard one laugh. Maybe it was in my mind but, either way, they are much more humanoid than the previous bots on this list, so they are meant to interact more with students on a personal level and easy to anthropomorphize.
The accessories for the robots are meant to engage young learners through music, ball games, and brick connectors. Their educational resources include a coding curriculum, professional development, and a robotics competition with major prizes. The software for Dash and Dot are simple block based options for beginning coders. I recommend the Dash Challenge Cards as a quick way to spark creativity and critical thinking
APPS: Wonder, Go, Blockly, Path, Xylo
Sphero makes some of my favorite classroom robots that I would happily just play with for hours, but their educational resources are what really set them apart. They have full lessons, example programs, a thriving community of contributing educators, and professional learning. The programs and lessons turn your Sphero into more than just a roving robot. You can use the Sphero to tell an interactive story, to study the planets, or solve Pythagorean problems. Their app gives you all the sensor data from the Sphero that you could use for science or math-related lessons and I’ve used them for skills as basic as early childhood stories and color/animal identification.
The Sphero Edu site (along with the app) allows you to set up classes, assign student projects, create programs, and join in Thursday Learn Day. That’s the day Sphero shares a new program and way you can integrate their bots in the classroom covering everything from turning it into a magic 8-ball, mastering Olympic curling, or leading a rousing game of hot potato. You can also program Sphero with other software like Apple’s Swift Playgrounds as well.
The Bolt is their newest robot and it adds an 8×8 LED matrix, infrared, compass, and light sensors over previous models. That means it can tell more elaborate stories and interact with other Sphero’s in more complex ways along with longer battery life to keep the learning going. They also still offer the Sprk+ with the same clear shell to see what’s inside. Other bots include the consumer model Sphero 2.0, the less-expensive Sphero Mini, and the fast and durable Ollie meant more for racing and tricks. Their series of Star Wars inspired bots will thrill your inner geek as we love having R2D2 and BB8 interact. All of these work with the Sphero Edu app
Years of research from the Carnegie Mellon University’s famous Robotics Institute eventually became Birdbrain which currently offers the Hummingbird Robotics kit and the Finch robot. The Hummingbird kit offers students an opportunity to use the circuit board (similar to those described in the section below) to built their own robots from cardboard, wood, or anything they can imagine. The Hummingbird Bit and the Hummingbird Duo both offer options. The bit is powered by Micro:bit with built-in bluetooth, more sensors, more LEDs, and a cheaper price tag. The Duo is powered by Arduino, has vibration motors and works with more software languages.
The Finch is a a two-wheeled robot with bird-like features, can be programmed fairly easily across a number of programming platforms. It’s deceptively simple but has a number of sensors (light, temperature, and obstacle) and features that make it an impressive bot that is cheaper than many others listed here. It has buzzers, LED, and pen mounts. It’s also incredibly rugged, and I’ve seen a number of them take a fall and continue on without a scratch. One minor annoyance is how it is tethered via a USB cable rather than Bluetooth, but the cord is quite long.
I almost don’t want to include LEGOs on this list since they are so much more versatile for teaching than just robotics, but you can see my 5 ways to use LEGOs to see how with them everything is awesome. The best reason to use LEGOs in learning is that they are familiar tools for nearly every student. That means there is an automatic personal connection in addition to the fact that LEGOs represent an infinitely modifiable tool. That malleability is important in that it allows for open creativity amongst students to design and create solutions for any world problem or challenge they desire to address.
Three important facets to know about LEGO Education, apart from them amazingly fun, are that they have kits suitable for various ages, the cover multiple subjects/skills apart from computer science, and they have curriculum resources and competitions to extend learning. For beginning learners, there is STEAM Park which will remind you of Duplo and is more for role play and problem-solving instead of advanced robotics, but it does provide a great introduction. The robotics kits include the WeDo 2.0 for younger students and the EV3 (Mindstorms) for older and more advanced robotics teams. They now also offer a series of lesson plans across content areas. There are a number of ways to incorporate LEGOs in literacy as well including storytelling displays. You can look into creating or joining in Lego League competition as well including the one in my district.
Robotis & Jimu
These are fairly new robots and I’ve only recently begun using them with students. They are relatively straightforward and offer several options for various student levels. Robotis is similar in some ways to LEGO robotics and the Robotis Play kits are at a level similar to the WeDo. They also offer several other levels of kits that are much more expensive humanoid robots similar to the Nao that I would recommend in its stead.
Jimu has some fun robotics kits to create a dog, dinosaur, and various animal and machine creations. They are more reasonably priced than the advanced Robotis kits and the software including building directions and built-in actions is incredibly detailed and easy to control. Again though if I had to choose, give me the LEGos instead.
This company that seemed to originate on Kickstarter with a goal for STEM learning has a few very different offerings. I only recently got their CoDrone Pro to explore programming with flying drones which adds new elements for students to consider in their problem-solving. Their Rokit Smart seems is similar to the Robotis and Jimu kits, but it offers more functionality in terms of what students can build. Their option that has me the most excited though is their new Zumi, which is a programmable car with artificial intelligence that you can use to teach about self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and the ethical implications surrounding that. They don’t have a robust collection of learning resources yet, but they do offer training and have an online community to get questions answered.
Several years ago the Nao was supposed to be the amazing new solution for teaching programming to students. You’ve probably seen videos of them dancing on YouTube. To me, it was marketed as a social solution for my students with autism. And I have seen barely-verbal and socially challenged students open up with the Nao in ways that they struggled to do with adults and other students.
I credit Nao with introducing me to the benefits that come in introducing students with disabilities to computer science and robotics. I have to admit, when it is working as intended, it is really amazing to watch. Overall though, most of the benefits that offered seemed achievable through less expensive and easier to use solutions. Neither the Aldebran nor the Choregraphe software is accessible for the average teacher, so it’s beyond most classes.
The criticism I tend to hear about littleBits is that you can purchase individual electronic parts for much cheaper and put them together yourself. But that assumes that students are capable of soldering or even have the manual dexterity to place the parts. Part of why my district uses them is because it makes working with electronics accessible and kids can focus on what they want to do with the tools rather than getting bogged down in the complexity of the tools themselves.
They are easy-to-use color-coded magnetic electronics components that can be put together to create more complex creations. Now they offer even more complexity with their Code Kit. We begin with a challenge like recreating a scene from your favorite story or a news event. That led one student to recreate Sully landing on the Hudson through servo motors. Check out their lessons for more ideas or delve into their STEAM and Coding curriculum. While some may challenge its simplicity, I find it creates a great entry point for young makers. As for cost, you can start small with a few components or you can enter one of their contests to win a huge kit like my department did. They have challenges throughout the year.
I’ve begun using these similarly to how I’ve used littleBits, but it offers the benefits of mobility without being tied to a power source and easy programming. Each component is individually charged and also uses Bluetooth to communicate and don’t require that they are next to each other. In addition, they have a fun app, Curious Cars, that begins students with game-based learning to aid students in learning about the components. They’ve recently expanded their teaching materials to include several projects and lesson plans.
Cubelets are surprisingly more fun than I expected from what are essentially programmable blocks that serve as a robot construction system. There are 17 types of Cubelets and each has a special ability and they connect magnetically. Students can mix and match them and combine them with LEGO bricks to fashion a robot of their own. You can also create challenges with the blocks themselves like how can you create a lighthouse tower or a vehicle that stops at the end of the table. Do you need 1 drive block or two? Maybe you need an inverse or a distance cublet? That critical thinking is part of the goal. They are programmable through apps, but that requires the Bluetooth Cubelet. You can code with blocks, C code, or via remote control depending on the app. They have a series of engineering and exploration lessons for K-12 students using the blocks.
I haven’t made much use of the Labdisc since we’ve used other individual sensor systems related to our measurement and hydroponics efforts, but I can see how this portable all-in-one sensor system could be useful for inquiry-based science. They market themselves as a portable STEM Lab and they have models for biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and geography. Another teacher in the city used it to track their field trip to the zoo and they took the geographic data along with humidity and temperature readings to make inferences about the types of habitats different animals require when they returned to school. They have a lesson library that covers all grade levels.
I love the Makey Makey because you just plug it in and it works. It essentially allows you to turn any conductive object into a functioning keyboard. You can create controllers for your computer using everyday conductive objects like tinfoil, fruit, or another person. We’ve made pressure plates on stairs to encourage for student therapy and even created personalized accessible switches for students in wheelchairs. My favorite use is to use fruit (make it ripe) to create music makers with some of the resources that are available like Patatap, Typatone, and Soundplant to make music out
If you’re ready for the next level of circuitry you can try SparkFun’s Digital Sandbox which offers more options, but each sensor is visually created to remind users of its purpose. You can program it through Ardublock to help students still requiring block-based programming. You can begin with their experiments guide.
The micro:bit is a portable circuit board that I find to be easier to use for students than the standard Arduino. The built-in sensors, accelerometer, 5×5 LED screen allows you to visually demo a number of ideas like a digital nameplate or rock, paper scissors. Microsoft’s MakeCode offers an easy block-based way to program or demo a skill before you even plug in the micro:bit. They also offer a Python editor and mobile apps as well as a curriculum and lessons for primary schools. If you want an added challenge, you can program 80s gamer style with the SparkFun micro:arcade kit.
Raspberry Pi is definitely not what I’d recommend for beginners, but if you’re up for the challenge and have the dexterity to handle delicate GPIO pins, then you can essentially build your own computer. Kano makes it easier by providing all the parts in an easy kit. First, you build the computer then you program the computer. You can start by simply setting up a breadboard to turn on a light, but from there, students can program nearly anything they can imagine. Students and I have enjoyed using it to hack Minecraft.
They have a number of additional coding and sensor kits including a Harry Potter kit that is tempting me. They offer lessons and curriculum packets as well that mostly cover different computer science topics.
Pi-Top is similar to Kano in that it is a Raspberry Pi computer kit, but I didn’t like it as much. Not only is it more expensive, but it didn’t seem as well put together too. Granted they do offer similar functionality, simple accessories, and the CEED Model (which I haven’t tried) is the same price as the Kano. They also have their PiTop OS and games like CEEDuniverse which, along with their coding curriculum, offer more opportunities for playful learning. They also have limited educational resources for now, but those are likely to improve.
I generally credit Seymour Papert with creating the modern robotics and technology movement in education. He said learning should be ‘hard fun’ and student-centered. That’s what these tools should drive. It’s not about converting some standard lesson into one that now uses robots or computers but rather fostering opportunities for creativity and challenge that bring students’ own ideas to life. I wholeheartedly agree with him that learning is best facilitated by having learners actively engaged rather than simply being passive recipients of instruction.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER IS TO CREATE THE CONDITIONS FOR INVENTION RATHER THAN PROVIDE READY-MADE KNOWLEDGE.SEYMOUR PAPERT
So there are a number of options available at a variety of levels for hands-on computer science and Makerspaces. For my district, these options are all resold by Tequipment but check what’s available near you. If you’re looking for a simpler task for your young engineers, you can try to create a brushbot using a toothbrush and simple vibration motors that you can find for under $1. There are robots for every price range.