Saturday, February 23, 2013

Third Graders Building Robots? Mission Possible!

When we were first approached with the idea of introducing a robotics project to one of our classrooms, our first direction was a sixth, seventh, or eighth grade classroom. Due to needing a quick start and a flexible schedule, we started looking for a more flexible self-contained primary grade. Third grade, anyone? Reactions were mixed. There were concerns regarding the complexity of the content and students’ abilities for the required tools. The core team, Laleh Rowhani, the classroom teacher, and Karl Wendt, the project designer, believed it could work. With parent support along with two of our district coaches, we accepted the mission.

The third grade class began building a Spout Bot by first learning about energy and electricity.  Instead of just creating a robot that moves, it was important for the students to understand how it works.  It became a deliberate operation of building content first.


Karl Wendt from Khan Academy was in charge of Mission Control. Karl led each phase of the project in the classroom while fine-tuning his online videos and resources available through the Khan Academy site.  Students listened intently while Karl started to talk to them about where energy originated. They learned that it all started with the stars.

The students learned about atoms, the fundamental forces, elements and what the numbers meant on the Periodic Table.  It was amazing to hear students answering questions about fusion!  They also learned about the electromagnetic spectrum and how electricity flows through a circuit if it is connected correctly.  The students also got to power an LED light with lemons.  It took about four lemons to power one LED.

  Students examined how white paper reflects light, while black paper absorbs light. They also rotated through stations learning about magnetic pull and how motors work.  Part of the build required soldering so students were given a practice opportunity to solder two pieces of wire together in preparation for the build.

After all of this hands-on learning occurred, the students were ready to construct Spout.  We had a volunteer team in the classroom to help out with parts of this process which included two district coaches and parents.

Students needed to prepare their robot parts before they started to assemble it.  One of the things they needed to do was to bend paper clips. One was for the support of the motors and the other two were for the antennae which allowed the robot to switch direction if it bumped up against something.  Then the students were ready to work through different stations to complete the build of their Spout bots. There were two main stations where students hot glued motors and then moved to solder wires and connect switches.  Impromptu assessments occurred as students were asked questions about parts of the robots as they were being put together to check for understanding of the mechanics of the project.  If students were not at a station, they were at their desks designing the final look of their bots as well as writing reflections about their experiences with the process.  The build took approximately three, one hour class periods along with an additional day for fine-tuning and decorating their bots.  Now students were ready to present their learning and robot to the world!  


The culminating assessment was a student showcase and robotics challenge. Parents gathered around tables that contained mazes and watched as student teams used their Spout bots to save “Sally,” a face decorated ping pong ball attached to their bot, from the maze. Students shared their journals and design drawings and were able to explain scientific concepts as well as how each part of the bot functioned. Third grade students were able to discuss open and closed circuits, the function of LED lights, the purpose of resistors and where the energy in the battery originates.  Eyes lit up on both Spout bots and students as they watched their creations scoot through the maze. If their bot was performing poorly, a quick assessment and some problem-solving soon had them carrying Sally to safety.

At the end of this project, we all did a little reflecting. Students were enthusiastic about the experience and were able to explain many of the scientific concepts covered. Some even talked about their further explorations at home, which included a few trips to the hardware store for materials to build their own robot. Parents were thrilled by the shift in dinner conversation, with high energy discussions around science and their robots.  Parents also expressed appreciation for how engaged, motivated, and excited their student was about the learning experience. As the project team reflected on this mission, we were reminded that when we engage students well and raise the expectations for learning, students often rise to the occasion. Yes, this grade level needed some additional classroom support for managing the more complex tasks of the project, but students were able to digest the content and make personal connections to their learning throughout the process.

So did we accomplish 3rd graders building robots? The answer is yes!  It took a lot of collaboration, reflection and teamwork, but the mission was possible.



Spout Bot at Santa Rita Elementary School: Mrs. Rowhani's third graders learn about matter and energy by building a Spout bot with Khan Academy. Special thanks to: Santa Rita's volunteer parents, Kami Thordarson, Karen Wilson and of course Laleh Rowhani the class teacher.

By Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach and Karen Wilson, STEM Coach

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