Outside-the-Box Robotics Activities

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An artist's concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC)

Who doesn’t love robots? With a growing culture of makers, tinkerers and hackers, robotics can be a great way to excite and educate students about science, technology, engineering, math and computer science. However, introducing robotics projects and activities in the classroom can often be time-consuming, expensive and intimidating for teachers. So to help you out, here’s a list of some fun, easy-to-implement or inexpensive project ideas for both inside and outside the classroom.

Build a Bristle Bot
This Design Squad activity uses simple supplies like the toothbrush heads, wires, scissors, tape, rubber bands, a button cell battery, and a 1- or 3-volt motor (you can probably find one in an old cellphone--it’s what causes your phone to vibrate--but you can also buy one new). Essentially, you attach the toothbrush head to the motor, connect it to a battery and off it goes. You could even dip these robots in paint and use them to paint a giant picture. This is a great activity to teach about circuitry or even how motors work.

Don’t have the materials or time to make a robot? That’s okay, you can still have students learn programming skills by using RobotBasic, a free robotic simulator. RobotBasic offers free PDF downloads of introductory robot-based projects for schools. Check out their resources for helping educators get started with teaching programming.

Girls, Robots and Education
Deconstruct a broken toy robot, or bring in toy robots and run some experiments. In the article “Girls, Robots and Education,” authors J. Jill Rogers, Marylin Lisowski, and Amy A. Rogers suggest having students “dissect” old robots and identify the various robot parts. Alternatively, you could ask students to bring in toy robots, or collect several yourself, and have students set up experiments to see if they can determine the types and locations of sensors in their toy robots. Check out the article for more details and resources.

Build an Umbrella Stand that OutSmarts the Rain
This may not be as easy to implement or inexpensive as the others, but it’s just so cool. Definitely more advanced than the others on this list, this activity uses littleBits modules to hook up an umbrella stand to a weather API. Using some programming, you can get the stand to light up if it’s going to rain, indicating you should take your umbrella with you when you go out. These instructions call for a 3D printer to make the stand itself, but you could probably build an umbrella stand based on materials you have around the home or classroom, which would offer the added bonus of providing an engineering challenge--making an umbrella stand from scratch!


And if you’re looking for some media about robotics, check out our short video Engineering Is Exploring Space with Shape-Shifting Robots.  PBS LearningMedia is also a great resource to find media on a variety of topics, including robotics.

We’d love to get your input too. Do you already incorporate robotics activities in your classroom? Do you have recommendations? If you try one of these activities, let us know how it goes. Write to us in the comments below or tweet us @KQEDedspace.