Robotics for the Rest of Us

When I first started my job, I used to spend hours planning programs, planning for every possible thing that could possibly go wrong. I would arrive at my events’ an hour early and would nervously pace the room, thinking all the thoughts we’ve all had: Do I know what I’m doing? What if a teen has questions I can’t answer? What if I get fired and have to be a barista again?’ 

But since 2006, librarianship has changed. We are no longer expected to be experts and with the advent of the Maker Movement, teen programming has become more about HOMAGO than lesson plans. This led me to do something last winter that I never, ever thought I’d do: I started a Robotics Club’ with no knowledge of robotics. If I can do it, so can you. Here are my thoughts:

EV3RSTORM

One of the basic robots that teens can make with LEGO Mindstorms

1. Buy some Mindstorms kits.
LEGO Mindstorms kits’ are a great way to offer beginner robotics. Kits are a bit pricey at $350/each (plus AA batteries), but after you make the initial investment, robotics programs cost nothing but staff time.’ I recommend providing one kit per four students.

2. Get Organized.
The kits are basically fancy LEGOs and consist of thousands of little pieces. I recommend you try to sort the kits into containers before you begin. However, keep in mind that no matter how well you organize, things will end up looking like this:

photo

Teens build robots using the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit

I try to keep the kits separated as best as I can, but that is very hard to do.

3. Familiarize Yourself With the Instructions

Mindstorms instructions

Mindstorms instructions

The EV3 kits come with one basic set of instructions. The LEGO website provides instructions for over 20 more robots. As with regular LEGOs, physically building things is the most time-consuming part. Take the time to look at the instructions and go through the different pieces. I have helped find stray pieces far more than I’ve actually helped with robotics.’ Learn what the pieces look like so you help and so you can train your eye to look for them on the floor.

Brick

The EV3 Brick, which is used for programming.

Each robot design is centered around what is called the “brick:” a Game Boy-esque device which can be programmed to perform different tasks. Motors and sensors can be plugged into the device through cords. The brick comes with an internal demo program which can be used to move a robot back and forth. More complicated maneuvers can be programmed through the EV3 software, which can be downloaded onto a computer or smartphone. There are some great beginner tutorials found on the Stemcentric website.

4. Learn From the Students and Have Students Learn From Each Other
Many schools offer competitive robotics clubs, which can seem exciting and also intimidating to students. The advantage of libraries is that we can offer casual programming for students who want to try robotics for the first time. Every student will enter with a different skill set. While some kids will struggle with finding the correct pieces, others will be inventing their own robot design.

Mindstorms kits can serve all different skill and experience levels. Use these different levels to your advantage. As I have already established, I am not a robotics expert. When students ask me questions I don’t know how to answer, I redirect the question to a more advanced student.’ Teens get to know each other through learning together.’ If the group is stuck on a question, I have them help me search YouTube for tutorial videos.

5. Set a Goal
I usually run my programs for an hour and a half once a month. While there are new students each time, there is usually a base group that comes every month. For first timers, focus on just building a basic robot. Students who are unfamiliar with the kits may need the entire program time to build. That’s fine!’ If you aren’t using the kits for additional programming, offer to save their creation so they can experiment with programming next month.

For students who are a bit more familiar, set a challenge for the month. I started very basic, by having the kids design a robot that could knock down a tower of Jenga tiles (spoiler: all robots can do this in one way or another). Some students might love smashing things, so they may choose to do that every time. Or, lay out an obstacle course and challenge students to program their robots’ accordingly.

Go with whatever works for you!

Our library purchased ours through our’ IMLS grant for Maker programming. If’ you are interested in more information about STEM programming see the STEM Programming Toolkit.

Have you tried out Mindstorms at your library? Share your experiences below.

 

 

About Jaina Lewis

Teen Services Librarian at The Westport Library in Westport, CT since 2006. Minnesotan at heart. Current chair of Teen Tech Week. @jainalibrarian
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