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Barbara's 'How to program a robot' design narrative

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Barbara Brooksbank
26 March 2014


I was at the start of running an after school robotics club for year 8 (13-14 years) pupils. I was a mathematics teacher in the school but had experience of computing as well.


The club was going to run for an hour and a half after school and we were in a dedicated computer room. We had four new sets of Lego ‘Mindstorms’ robots which can be programmed either in a ‘drag and drop’ form or for more experienced users in a number of computer languages. The program is written on a computer, in the case of ‘drag and drop’ with supplied software and then down loaded to the control unit. The robot has to be built out of the Lego with the control unit incorporated into the build. The pupils attending the club were limited to eight in number, because of the availability of equipment, and had to express interest on a list prior to joining. The places were allocated on a first come first served basis and there was a waiting list throughout the school year. The pupils were mainly boys and they had all used technical Lego at home with varying degrees of expertise. They did not initially know each other but soon formed a strong friendship group. They all expressed an interest in robots but had no previous experience of any kind of programming.


This describes the first task set for them at the initial meeting. They had no access to either the Lego or computers at this time. I was aiming to build the group of boys together as a collaborative group, to give them an initial understanding of how they needed to think in order to be a successful programmer. To have a lot of fun.


When the boys arrived for this first meeting, the first task I gave them was to come up with, by the following week, a name for the club and a logo that could be displayed on a notice board. I explained to them that for the first week they would not be using the Lego or the computers but they would soon find out why!

I sat them down in a group and handed out paper; then gave them their task for the session. They were also giving a sketch plan of two sides of a kitchen, there was one side, with a notional robot facing it, that held a kitchen sink with hot and cold taps and surrounding surfaces, to the robots left, the other side was a worktop holding a kettle, a tub of teabags a mug and an unopened bottle of milk.

They were told to write instructions to the robot to reach it how to make a mug of tea. They were also told that it was not a competitive task; they were free to collaborate as much as they liked.

They were given up to half an hour to complete the task, with a definitive list of instructions they all agreed on.

After this time, I asked them to read the result to me one step at a time and I responded with comments and questions as they did so. It was suggested that they took any notes that they considered relevant as they would need the insight when they started on their first actual program.


Expected results:

There was initial disappointment at not being allowed to start straight in with the Lego.

The instructions they wrote were incomplete and at times confusing.

My comments produced some hilarity among the group as they started to understand the complexity of the task.

The common errors that I was expecting were

  • They did not turn the robot on, so nothing happened
  • They did not take the lid off the kettle when filling it, so we all got sprayed with water!
  • They did not plug the kettle into the power point and/or turn it on

The outcome of all this was that they started to gel as a group and to relax with me out of ‘teacher mode’.

Also, they began to realised the complexity of writing a program and that they needed to learn to be very detailed and yet concise in their thinking.

Unexpected results:

They all decided this was something they wanted to try out on unsuspecting parents!

I found out that it produced a lot of hilarity at home when I met the parents at the next parent’s evening.

One of them had the insight to realise how difficult it would be to teach his disabled sister how to make a cup of tea!

Much further down the line, a number of the club members took GCSE Electronics and their teacher told me he could always tell who had belonged to the robotics club because they had a very developed ability to think logically.


It was more successful than my expectations, the teacher/pupil divide disappeared very quickly and it made me consider how much a similar approach could be used in the maths classroom. Given time, what mathematical skills could be learnt in a more exploratory way?


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