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Organizing a Robotics Classroom

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IMG_4201Getting your classroom organized for the beginning of the school year is an arduous task for even the most experienced teacher.  It can be even more demanding for those that teach robotics.  You’ve got the robot kits, you’ve been trained in ROBOTC, but how do you set up your class for the first day of school?  The goal of this article is to help answer the question for both new robotic teachers and teachers that have been teaching robotics for years.

As we all know, a robotics kit is more expensive than a textbook.  Moreover, because robotics kits contain so many small pieces, they can be much more difficult to take care of than a textbook.  As a result, keeping your kits organized is crucial.  If using a Lego Mindstorms or Tetrix robot, one way that I have found that can be very helpful is to name the NXT brick.  Then, give the same name to the kit. Now, assign the kit to the group of students in your class.  If the students know that over-tablethey are responsible for that kit, it goes a long way towards them acting more responsibly with the kit. If using a VEX robot, you won’t have the same ability to name your brick, but you can still able to label your robotics kit.

Which students are assigned to work together is also something that the teacher must put some thought into.  Once again, maintaining the kits is of the utmost importance.  Therefore, I am not going to allow students to work together if I feel that will not take care of the kit.  Some students are more organized and careful with the kits than others.  I always try to have one of those students in a group.  I try to have the kits named and assigned before the first day of school.  If I don’t know the students, then I may have to adjust the groups as we progress throughout the beginning of the school year.

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Once the kits are organized, the teacher can then start to think about how their curriculum items are going to be accessed and utilized.  A math teacher has a plan for when their students have a question about a topic, or when a student is confused about a particular concept.  A robotics teacher has to have the same type of plan in mind.  The beauty of teaching robotics lies in the fact that students are intrinsically motivated to find answers to their problems because they are highly engaged.  Some students will still be conditioned, however, to try to elicit the answer from the teacher instead of reasoning through a problem on their own.  Robotics teachers need to create a plan so the students can work towards being independent and productive problem solvers.

To that end, a good approach to a complex challenge is to examine what needs to be done before the challenge, during the challenge, and after the challenge is complete.  Before the challenge, students should be focusing on create flowcharts to organize their program and writing pseudocode to reflect those flowcharts.  During the challenge, students should focus on commenting their code and debugging techniques.  Afterwards, students should be afforded the opportunity to reflect and respond to what went well, what went not so well, and what they learned throughout the process.

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Giving students a little bit of structure while they engage a challenging task will go a long way towards ensuring that the students’ high level of engagement does not turn into a high level of frustration.  Engagement works both ways in that sense: High engagement leads to students that are focused on their task, but can also lead to high levels of frustration because the students desperately want to finish that task.  To avoid the frustration,teachers should provide a structure that the students can rely on when needed.  Before the school year begins, teachers should spend some time planning students’ work, and then the students can spend time during school working their plan.

The beginning of the school year is always a challenge.  As teachers, we understand that unforeseen difficulties will always arise.  However, going into the school year with as much planned and organized as possible helps us to focus on those unpredictable events that will undoubtedly occur.

Check out how we organize robot parts at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy:


-Jason McKenna