Robotics Weekend ignites the imaginations of future scientists

Student watches small, wheeled robot move across the floor.

Team solar demonstrates their robot at the first ever Robotics Weekend. Credit: Anna Miller

January 12, 2015

The robotic crab scrabbled sideways toward the edge of the table. A group of wide-eyed students, ages 8 to 12, waited to see what the electronic creature would do. Just when it looked like it would careen over the edge, it abruptly turned away and began moving in a different direction, to hoots of excitement from the audience.

It was Robotics Weekend at Perkins and the kids were completely engaged.

The 11 students with various degrees of visual impairment – four boys and seven girls – came from as far away as New York and as near as Dorchester, Massachusetts, to learn about programming and circuitry and robots. The first-ever event was organized and run by Pat Ryan, supervisor of Outreach Short Courses, and Stuart Grove, teaching assistant.

The weekend was part of a series of Outreach Short Courses at Perkins designed to give public school students who are blind or visually impaired an opportunity to work on skills outside of the regular school curriculum. Other Outreach weekends have included a Goalball Challenge and Wilderness Adventures.

Why are a group of children willing to spend an entire weekend indoors doing things that look like school and learning?

“I love science!” said Jimmy, 10, grinning. “I love to mix things, explode things, build things.”

Sarah, 8, said she’s an engineer. “A civil engineer,” she clarified. “It’s somebody who can build multiple things. Today we built a robot.”

The robotics weekend took place in the sleek, modern Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology. Students were introduced to basic programming concepts on Friday night, and then used their new skills to program ready-made robots to walk and roar.

On Saturday morning students were divided into four teams and given kits for building a robot. Each robot was powered by a different energy source: solar, battery, saltwater and hand. Some students used magnifiers to read the instructions while others listened to them read aloud. The youngsters came together after lunch to demonstrate their creations at a “robot rodeo.”

Jimmy explained that his team’s robot was powered by batteries charged by hand. “There’s this cranky part – it’s not cranky, it doesn’t feel emotion,” he said, winding the hand-crank while demonstrating the gears and wires inside.

While his team’s robot and the solar-powered one moved forward, the robot powered by saltwater sat disappointingly still. Some team members moved off to diagnose that problem while the last team stepped up to the table.

Teaching assistant Grove placed 11-year-old Paige’s hand on her team’s crab-shaped, battery-powered robot to turn it on. She listened for the beep that indicated it was ready to go and started the demonstration.

This robot was more sophisticated than the others, Ryan explained, because its sensors helped it avoid obstacles. This led to a coding lesson where each child “programmed” a friend, giving step-by-step instructions on how to turn on a light switch. Breaking the action into separate, precise steps – for example, lift your hand, touch the light switch, apply upward pressure – gave students a better understanding of coding, where each action needs its own distinct direction.

“Tying activities back to a real-life example makes it more real,” said Ryan.

The weekend marked the first time Perkins has offered an Outreach Short Course in robotics. Ryan and Grove said they spent months figuring out how to take this technical subject and boil it down to a handful of core components that could be taught in a weekend.

“We spent one whole afternoon learning to program and play with the robots,” said Ryan. “These kids picked it up even faster, they’re that motivated.”

By Saturday afternoon, the young engineers were still going strong. Sarah was trying to coax her recalcitrant saltwater-powered robot to move. Two students were building a circuit board they hoped would launch a flying saucer. Others used a flashlight to make a robot move. None seemed ready to end the day.

Paige looked up from her endeavors. “Robotics is awesome!” she said.

Image gallery