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Today’s Tech Challenge: Teach This Robot How to Dance

7 months ago
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Standing just over an inch tall, they can race. They can dance. And perhaps most impressively, they can teach students of all ages to code — without kids being any the wiser.

They’re called Ozobots. And at Notre Dame de Lourdes School in Swarthmore, teachers and students are embracing this robotics technology as a fun way to bring STEAM (science, technology, engineering arts, and mathematics) subjects to life.

The idea is simple: each Ozobot has a sensor allowing it to read and follow lines on paper or on tablet screens. Students draw lines composed of different colors — using combinations of black, red, green, and blue — to tell the tiny robots to speed up, make turns, or perform spins.

In the classroom, that has translated to a multitude of engaging activities allowing students to combine coding and creativity.

A New Way to Compete — and Collaborate

While there are many educational robotic systems to choose from — including Cubelets, Dash & Dot, and Lego Mindstorms — technology teacher Kimberly Hunter was drawn to Ozobots for their intuitiveness. “They were so fun and so easy to use, I thought they would be a great start for beginners,” she says.

After researching options and a conducting short trial run, the school purchased a set of 18 Ozobots with support from its penny war fundraising drive.

Hunter soon found there was no shortage of ideas for using the Ozobots to reinforce lessons about geometry, probability, and even art — all searchable online.

Over the past year and a half, she has used the robots to conduct a number of timely activities with her fourth through eighth graders, including a trick-or-treating challenge and an Ozobot Olympics.

Younger students can color commands on paper to direct the robots, telling them to stop at a specific destination, for example, to find Easter eggs.  Older students use iPads to code commands using the OzoBlockly app, calculating the odds that the robots will follow a particular path.

Hunter’s classes typically work in small groups to complete a specific task, such as stopping at each house on a drawn map to gather Halloween candy as quickly as possible. For the Olympics, students were tasked with creating an original sports-related obstacle, earning points for creativity, robot speed, and teamwork.

“In addition to the lessons themselves, students are learning to troubleshoot,” Hunter says. “Since they work together to code, they have to solve problems by listening to one another’s ideas.”

Racing into the Future

Hunter is looking forward to using the Ozobots for more holiday-themed lessons and challenges. And now that she and her students have gotten the hang of coding, she plans to have her eighth graders help younger students learn the basics.

The robots have allowed Hunter to build her own confidence in coding as well. “I had never used robots before, but now I feel comfortable trying something more involved,” she says. “Lego Mindstorms are on my next wish list.”

Hunter admits that robots can run the risk of being too popular. She restricts Ozobot activities to once a trimester, so as to avoid consuming all her class time. But that hasn’t slowed the still-steady stream of questions from students, parents, and other teachers.

“Whenever parents walk into my classroom, they always ask where the Ozobots are,” Hunter says. “They say they hear all about Ozobots at home.”