Image of a man kneeling and placing duct tape on a ramp leading to a tunnel bridge with a Sphero ball at the bottom of the ramp.

Coding and STEM: Robot Obstacle Challenges 2 (Hurricane Dorian)

Fun activities that apply coding and engineering concepts using simple robots, part 2.

This challenge follows the first Robot Obstacle Challenge post, Coding and STEM: Robot Obstacle Challenge 1.As educators, we know that our students are most successful when we break learning into bite-size chunks and then sequentially build lessons. The coding concept activities can be modified and/or expanded to be appropriate for students who are different ages and who have different abilities. The first robot obstacle challenge post had obstacle activities based on the We’re Going on a Bear Hunt book. In this post, the ‘story’ is based on more challenging, real-life topic – Hurricane Recovery.

Review the Engineering Design Process

  1. Ask: What is the problem? How have others approached it? What are your constraints?
  2. Imagine: What are some solutions? Brainstorm ideas. Choose the best one.
  3. Plan: Draw a diagram. Make lists of materials you will need.
  4. Create: Follow your plan and create something. Test it out!
  5. Improve: What works? What doesn’t? Improve your design and test again!

Hurricane Dorian Activity

Issue Satellite image of Hurricane Dorian with the eye directly over The Bahamas.

The tropical storm strengthened to a hurricane on August 282019.  Category 5 Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas causing catastrophic damage with 185 miles per hour winds dumping more than 2 feet of rain. With more than 53 confirmed deaths and 138 missing, relief workers are desperately needed to deliver medical aid and life-sustaining supplies to Elbow Cay, a devastated area that no longer has roads and infrastructure.

Your goal is to transport the relief teams and supplies to the devastated Elbow Cay community. Your team is responsible for building a safe way through, over, under and around the debris and standing water. Your course should include a bridge, tunnel, method of removing debris off the road, and a change in road texture. Extra credit (or points) for adding a unique feature! 


To make this course more challenging, discuss that you can only take minimal building supplies and your budget is limited; and that time is of the essence! Divide your supplies into groups and assign a cost for items in each group. Smaller building items are less expensive ($1,000 per item) while bigger items are more expensive ($2,500 – 5,000 per item). Limit the number of big items. Determine the budget ahead of time, and the define the success criterion of the project.

More challenging obstacles can be included, such as a teeter-totter.

Older students may research the impact of Hurricane Dorian to better understand the issues the islanders and relief workers face.

Review Engineering Design Process Step 1.


Break into 3-person teams. Give the team 5 minutes to decide on a team name.   

Discuss the team’s strategy, possible supplies that can be used, and the pre-determined obstacles that must be includes. Determine which robot your team will use (Botley or Sphero are great options!) Encourage everyone to fully participate; one way to encourage the student with visual impairments is for each member of the team to create one obstacle independently. Part of the strategizing might be to determine which obstacle each team member will create. Balance is important as the students should also work together as a team! Also, discuss your ‘story’.


Guide younger students who are not as familiar with the design process through these steps. The educator may set a specific time devoted for each step and tell the students when to move on to the next step. Older or more experienced students may move through these steps at their own pace.

Review Engineering Design Process Step 2.


Students (and adults!) typically want to jump right into developing their obstacles. However, putting a little thought into the design will significantly direct the team’s focus. Encourage students to make a simple diagram of their obstacle along with a list of supplies (and if appropriate, the cost of each supply). 


Provide quick tactile materials so that the student with a visual impairment has a tactile way to show his obstacle. (Provide Sensational Blackboard, tactile drawing tools or kit, foam shape stickers, Wikki Sticks, etc.) Peers may also use these tactile tools to demonstrate their obstacle plan to the student with visual impairments. 

Note: When the other teams demonstrate their courses, ask a team member to create a quick drawing of the course that the VI student can review before the robot runs the course.

Students with low vision may benefit from tactile materials or from paper and a black marker.

Review Engineering Design Process Step 3.

Build Obstacles/Course

Now the fun part – building the obstacles and course! 

Educators, you will set a time limit and give time updates. If necessary, you can choose to provide additional time if needed. (Students can be very creative and want additional time to perfect their course and to add one extra feature!)

Students can and should run the robot through their obstacles as they work on the course. (Teacher Note: Placement of the obstacles is critical, as the robot might miss a desired obstacle or crash into an object that should have been avoided!)

Review Engineering Design Process Step 4.

Run the Obstacle Courses

Each team will have the opportunity to tell their ‘story’ and to demonstrate the robot running their course. The robot is not expected to run the course perfectly! Discuss what worked, what did not work, why, what can be improved, etc. Each team should encourage the other teams.

Note: Students (and educators) are very creative on their own. These videos and the content in them are only intended to spark enthusiasm for facilitators. Do not use the videos or content in the videos as guides for students who are creating a course.

Course Description (Hurricane Dorian Horse Rescue Video)

This 3-person educator team created their course on top of two long tables which were pushed together. Pool noodles were slit and placed along the edge of the table to keep the Botley robot from falling off the table. Their mission was to rescue a horse from the alligator-infested flood waters. The course included avoiding two alligators. (The alligators were plastic salad tongs that were taped to the table as if the alligator’s mouth was open. The top tong could be pressed down to snap on the passing robot.) The flooded river was the crack in the table (tables were slightly apart) with a teeter-totter bridge. (The bridge was made out of rolled cardboard with a Wikki Stick on top – to keep the teeter-totter from sliding off – and the thicker cardboard rectangle made from the Wikki Sticks packaging.) The end of the course had a small wooden rocking horse. Botley started in one corner of the course, zig-zagged around the alligators, turned and ran straight up and over the teeter-totter ending up in front of the horse. 

Note: At the beginning of the run, Botley did not initially accept the code properly, as the stop button on the top of Botley had been pushed. The team member pushed the stop button again to reactivate Botley and then sent the code again.


FYI: Botley navigates the course perfectly and rescues the horse!

Fun Fact: After Hurricane Mathew, the presenter’s horse had to be rescued through waist-high flood water in the middle of the night, which is what prompted this obstacle course story!

Course Description (Hurricane Dorian Relief Food Video)

The next video demonstrates the Lunch Bunch team’s Hurricane Dorian Sphero obstacle course. Their mission was to bring food to the hungry people in the shelter. The Lunch Bunch team built their course using materials left over from lunch – plastic cups, plates, forks, etc. The obstacle course starts with a teeter-totter which was made out of Tinker Toys (a stick through the center of two circles) with a thick cardboard square (from Botley’s Activity Kit) balanced on top of the Tinker Toy stick. The second obstacle – the tunnel – was the large round see-through plastic cover with sides that covered the lunch sandwiches. The cover stands about 5″ off the ground. A section was cut out of the side so that Botley could run under the raised cover; the exit was two cut slits on the backside of the cover that created a flap. Botley pushed through this flap. The next obstacle was a series of plastic cassette tape covers which were taped together to create a bridge. The covers on either end of the bridge were open, creating a ramp. A phone charger chord was placed under the bridge to represent the downed power lines. The third obstacle was a water hazard, created with a plastic plate full of water that Sphero had to go around. The next obstacle was to be avoided (downed trees?) created by a yardstick on it’s edge held upright by a row of plastic cups. The next obstacle Sphero has to go under a bridge that has an obstacle that Sphero has to push aside. The bridge is made of 4 plastic forks (two on each side) that are holding a bent paper plate in the air. The base of the two forks are apart on the floor with the tines leaning together; the edge of the paper plate is in the tines. The obstacle is a plastic solo cup which is laid on it’s side under the papercup. The Sphero hits the bottom of the cup, pushing it out of the way without bumping the forks – which would make the bridge collapse. The shelter is plastic “u-shaped” piece laid on it’s side (made from the tunnel of the Code and Go Robot Activity Set) with dice inside representing the people.


FYI: Sphero navigates the obstacles perfectly and successfully delivers food to the people in the shelter.

Redesign Obstacle/Course Issues

Give a shorter amount of time for teams to improve their obstacle or course. To the class, a team member should explain the issue and what the team did to resolve the issue before running the robot through the course again. 

Review Engineering Design Process Step 5.

Course Description (Hurricane Dorian Improve Course Video)

The first obstacle in this video is a long tunnel bridge that goes over a water hazard. The bridge has a slow rise and 90 degree turn. There is a slight plastic ramp with raised sides entering the bridge and exiting the bridge. Duct tape is used to keep the ramps in place, which also helps the Sphero transition to the ramp. The bridge itself is made out of a drier duct (which can be expanded/contracted and shaped/turned). The water hazard is blue Lego platforms with blocks on top to raise the tunnel. The obstacles at the end of the route to the left of the tunnel are 5 stacked solo cups.

At the beginning of the run, the Sphero initially moved left (instead of straight ahead) and ran into the wall. The team member then repositioned the Sphero and calibrated the robot.

FYI: The Sphero successfully entered and went through the tunnel. Exiting the tunnel, the Sphero immediately turned left, missing the stack of cups. (The Sphero needed to move forward before turning or the cups needed to be moved closer to the end of the tunnel.)

Note: If the students are fairly familiar with the Engineering Design Process, the review can be at the end of the activity, after the robots have run their courses. The goal is for the students to incorporate the Engineering Design Process into activities independently.


The team member who tells the story and explains the course should be encouraged to expand the descriptions so that a student with visual impairments has a better understanding of how the course is made and the route through the course. As the robot moves, the student can follow along listening closely to the robot’s beeps and sounds that provide clues as each command is activated. The materials used in the course also provide good sound clues. When the robot moves, the observers should be quiet enabling the student with visual impairments to hear what is happening, with the exception of a verbal description of what is happening. As needed, a peer can quietly describe to the student information about the course and what is happening. If possible, the student can explore duplicate materials (like a drier duct) or even a replica of the obstacle as the team member describes the course. Students who are visually impaired are encouraged to explore the courses after the robot has gone through the course. Because courses can be fragile and moving items may cause unwanted reactions, the student should not physically explore another team’s course until after the robot has gone through the course. 

Note: Students with visual impairments should be active members of the team and should have full access to their team’s obstacles and course!



By Diane Brauner

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