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6 Tips for Teaching Creative Robotics

As both a teaching artist and computer science teacher, I often find myself at the intersection of engineering and creativity. The connections between robotics and creativity have always been clear to me, and I find it’s worth continuing to nurture both an engineering/computer science emphasis and also an artistic/personal expression emphasis when I teach robotics.

I’m not looking for all of my students to become engineers or even enter STEM fields. I hope (and know) that teaching high-quality robotics programs will inspire some of my students to pursue those fields. Most of all, I want all of my students to feel that STEM and coding are accessible and relevant to them. Many students struggle with blocks in seeing themselves as successful coders or engineers. I find that broadening the scope of my robotics teaching gives all students an entry point to thinking like an engineer and problem-solving as a team, no matter what they choose to do in life.

I recently had a 10th grader who was turned off from coding ever since her seventh-grade coding class. Whatever her prior negative experience was, it evaporated over a few sessions of working on building working circuits and coding LEDs for a light-up painting that she made in class. Creating the art was the initial motivation, but she gained a new view of coding as applicable to creative projects. More importantly, she saw herself differently. “I might want to learn coding in college,” she told me at the end of class. “I know I can do it now.”

Discover tips for making robotics creative

Here are six tips to get you started in emphasizing creativity in your robotics classes.

1. Emphasize design thinking.

Many steps of the engineering design process are cross-disciplinary: understanding the problem, brainstorming, prototyping, revising your work, and communicating your solution are part of the process whether you are engineering a product or designing a logo. I have found that many students are not motivated to improve their design after the initial prototype, or they are simply too attached to their first idea as their best idea. They are used to turning things in and being “done.” To counteract this tendency, I like to start courses with a micro-challenge that can go through multiple iterations in just one class. A micro-challenge could be as simple as building one wheel attachment for a robot and showing three different ways it could be done successfully.

2. Draw, speak, and write as part of robot planning and reflection.

Writing things down, taking doodle notes, and sketching help with learning and retention. They also help to communicate our ideas clearly. I get students in the habit of writing and sketching early in the planning process and again to reflect on improving their builds. I like to have students reflect at the end of a project by creating a video on FlipGrid or creating a one-page summary (on paper or in Google Slides) of what they learned.

3. Leave it open-ended.

Give students room to create on their own. I often give my students a base build and then challenge them to design and build attachments to complete a task. The base and attachment build can also be split between team members if you are sharing UKITs.

This robot attachment was designed to corral the maximum number of blocks into a playing field.

4. Give opportunities for all types of student talents to shine.

I like to create missions and themes as a sandbox where students can be creative. If it’s a team competition, I like to have more tasks in addition to the build and code of the robot, things like create a team name and catchphrase, design a team logo or flag, add a team song to your code, code your team colors on your LEDs, etc. The creative tasks are flexible and open if students have better ideas than I do, plus they allow for early finishers to keep working on their projects.

5. Let students construct meaning.

I introduce new robot servos, parts, and sensors by letting students observe and explore first.  I let them build a vocabulary with their own observations, and then we refine those observations as a group. When introducing code, I like to give students the blocks we will use as a “puzzle” that has not been assembled yet. We discuss what we want the robot to do (our pseudocode) and then they work on solving the puzzle. Productive struggle in the early stages of learning to code will really help students down the road as coding is more complex and there are no one-size-fits all solutions that can be copied and pasted.

6. Add character to your robots.

Tape, markers, cardstock, and scissors can go a long way to add to the character pieces that come in UKITs. After the build is complete, give students the option to add to their robot and give it a unique look.  I have seen students create robots with moving faces, animals and creatures, and even a very accurately detailed Bugatti robot. By adding on to the original frame with everyday materials, students have a blast and build even more of an attachment to their robots. (Good luck getting them to disassemble when the project is finished!)

Try tips for making robotics creative

Consider using some of these tips as you plan your next robotics program. How can you appeal to students with a variety of interests and talents? How can you encourage skill development in STEM while also incorporating design, music, art, writing, or drawing? Make it fun, and the students will impress you with their creativity!

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Annie Schmitt is a Pennsylvania Computer Science Teacher and Rostered Teaching Artist who creates invitations to play for students in Grades K-12. A traveling educator since 2012, she links science, art, and technology to bring unique programs to students around Pennsylvania. She has taught thousands of students across the country and the world.

Annie is part of the 2022-2023 cohort of UBTECH Teacher Ambassadors. She has taught online with Camp:ASPIRE using the UKIT Beginner and has used the UKIT Intermediate with middle-grade students. She is currently developing exploratory courses in Interactive Art and Arts & Engineering utilizing the UKIT Advanced with Grades 6-12.

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