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Teaching With Robots

Teaching With Robots A Guide To Finding Curriculum and Resources

by Dr. Kenneth Berry, kenb@botmag.com,
Assistant Professor, California State University, Northridge 

    The following is an expanded treatment of Ken Berry’s Spring 2007 Robot Magazine EDU BOTS feature story on locating and using robotics curriculum and lesson programs. Please also see the resource list of curriculum and lesson plan sources included at the bottom of this story. —the editors

“We cannot afford to fail in preparing our students for the jobs of tomorrow—jobs that will require skills in math, science, and engineering,” said Donald L. Carcieri, Governor of Rhode Island in early October, 2006. He was at the launch of a new program sponsored by the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Governor’s PK-16 Council, the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council, and the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. The $140,000 program will put VEX robots in every high school in the state, and support the formation of robotics teams at each of the schools to compete against other schools in the state, region and nation.


This is just the latest in a fast moving trend to get robots in schools. There are around 10,000 robotics teams operating in schools around the country. FIRST projects for this year include 1,300 FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Teams, 5,600 FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams, and 900 FIRST Vex Challenge (FVC) teams. BEST has 500 middle school and high school teams. Botball has 200 teams. RoboFest has 230 school teams. Battle Bots IQ supports 100 high school and college teams. And the list goes on with MATE and underwater robots, RoboCup, Trinity College Fire Fighting Robots, etc.


This trend has taken many an educator by surprise. They want to take part in this new educational phenomena but they do not know how. Entering a competition is usually the first step. Students are eager to join school teams, and dedicated teachers are willing to coach. However, coaching robotics is usually a volunteer activity that can be extremely time consuming. During the competition season spouses of these dedicated teachers often morbidly refer to themselves as FIRST, or BEST or BBIQ or you-name-it robot competition widows. Coaching a team can be a draining avocation for the most dedicated educators. So, at some point they begin to realize that robotics has a lot to offer their students academically. Instead of robotics being an avocation for the educators, they can make it part of their vocation! They can teach science, math, physics, and technology classes using robots as a theme!

The benefit of making robotics part of the workday is that a teacher can get paid to play… I mean, instruct students on the three R’s with the fourth R, Robots. But this takes planning, and most of that planning has to happen in the fall if the course is going to be approved for the next year. School boards consider new classes in January that will be taught the next fall.


Here is a laundry list of requirements that teachers need to develop for their school board for course approval:

List of academic standards that robotics addresses
Course outline and curriculum
Textbooks that can be used as primary or secondary resources
Estimated budget for running the course (buying the robots)
Good pedagogical rational for upsetting the status quo


“Standards and testing” is the chorus of the No Child Left Behind legislation that ties school’s academics to federal funding. This legislation mandates that high academic standards be established in every state. Once they are established, each state must create a test to measure student progress toward the standards. It would be too easy to just have one set of standards. Each state has its own academic standards. Every teacher in every state knows by now what standards he or she has to teach. (See the list of resources, below, to find academic standards for each state.)

Fortunately, finding the specific standards that robots address is relatively easy once you decide on a set of standards. Robots are complex and require knowledge of many different academic disciplines. Algebra’s ratios and proportions are covered by many different aspects of robots including most obviously gear ratios, Ohm’s Law (E=IR), work force problems (W=F x D) and Newton’ laws (F=ma). These are also physics in the form of simple machines, electricity, work and force. Finding connections to other math disciplines like geometry and pre-calculus is not hard. Even connecting robots to Chemistry, with batteries and biology, with any variety of sensors, is relatively trivial.


Once a teacher knows the “What” that will be taught through the standards, he/she needs to establish the “How.” Curriculum provides this road map. Curriculum provides the lesson plans and the pacing of the course. The lesson plans provide the day-to-day tactical plan in the classroom. The pacing provides the long-term strategy. During each year a teacher must cover a great number of topics. Of primary concern to the teacher is covering all the topics before the year ends. Curriculum is the plan.

There are many sources of curricula now available to teachers. There are many more sources of lesson plans. By simply putting “lesson plan robotics” into a search engine a teacher will be met with the proverbial fire hose full of stuff. Google for example provides 1,040,000 hits. Sifting through all these lessons can be frustrating.


Some of the best collections are at NASA’s Robotics Education Website, http://robotics.arc.nasa.gov/edu/9-12.htm, and Tufts University Center for Engineering Education website, http://www.ceeo.tufts.edu/. These are somewhat controlled for quality as well. Most of them are good.

Lesson plans alone are problematic. Plopping a lesson plan into an existing course is rife with problems. A lesson plan may require students to have an understanding of concepts that have not yet been introduced. Or, they may highlight concepts that were introduced earlier in the year. However, Alpha teachers, as we used to call them at NASA, or as they are more genially referred to as “Points of Light”, have put these lessons together into year-long curricula. Alpha or Points of Light teachers are extremely hard working dedicated teachers who make a huge difference in their student’s lives. Unfortunately, most teachers live lives of their own and have to make time for their families.

Fortunately, there are more and more prepackaged curricula for teachers. The Robotics Academy at CMU has developed a nice set of multimedia curriculum for Vex Robots and LEGO Mindstorms robots. Parallax has developed curriculum for bread board robots that incorporate data loggers and sensors. RidgeSoft provides programming lessons in JAVA, the language of choice for Advanced Placement (AP) courses in programming, with their IntelliBrain-Bot. The GEAR’s robots come with a complete high school curriculum for their system. And, Intelitek has developed curriculum for programming Vex robot system in easy C. Each of these has a cost associated with them either in buying the robot platform or in purchasing the curriculum itself.

There is also free curriculum created by the RoboEducators that can be found at http://www.robo-works.net/roboeducators.html. It is currently in a very rough form.

Even these will have to be tweaked to fit a state’s particular academic standards for a specific academic class. Nevertheless, these resources will provide a nice foundation upon which to build a curriculum that matches a specific state and school district. Creating a curriculum for a robotics class still takes a dedicated teacher who is willing to creatively find ways to get the “toys,” I mean, instructional tools into the classroom.


For a first hand account, here is part of a note from Kevin Barnard an Alpha Teacher/Point of Light in North Carolina regarding his efforts to create a robotics class:

“I have used a number of different curricula, and borrow freely from all of them. I think I have all of the Robotics Academy CD’s. I use the FIRST LEGO League lessons. I search the net. I have had robotics pentathlons, sumo, NASCAR races (line followers), tractor pulls, Battlebots, basketball, and more. I have taught all levels of kids, with pretty good success. I have never finished writing a curriculum!!!”

It is not easy with what is currently available to be sure, but dedicated teachers are hard at work doing what they can to create more complete curricula.


Along the same lines as curriculum are textbooks. Textbooks are still considered the oracles of all knowledge on any given subject. School boards like to see textbooks or just books on the subjects being taught in the classroom. Books and textbooks especially have an air of authority to them. By their nature they have been approved by many people. A book must go through many hands before it is actually published; it must be critically examined by many eyes. University breed academics often write them and review them for each other. Therefore, most of the mistakes and misrepresentations have been removed before they reach the students. And, to merit a book, a topic must be important for so many people to spend so much time discussing it.

Robotics is clearly an important topic, so of course there are many good books and magazines on robotics that teachers can use as textbooks in their classes. Some of these are specific to robotics in the K-12 classroom like Barbara Bratzel’s Physics by Design. Others have been created for the college market like Eric Wang’s Engineering with LEGO Bricks and Robolab, and Fred Martin’s, Robotic Explorations: A Hands-on Introduction to Engineering. Other books are for specific purposes like Forest Mims III’s books on electronics. Others are of general interest about robotics created for the general population and not specifically for the classroom. They do not have exercises at the end of each chapter. (see the Resources section for a listing of textbooks)


For most new courses the biggest ticket item is the textbook. Textbooks often cost $100 a piece. Each student needs one. Multiply $100 by every student in 5 periods of robotics and you have a large cost. New courses are costly propositions even if they are English and History classes that do not require a lot of extra equipment. That is why school board approval is necessary. A new course, no matter what subject, is going to cost between $30,000 and $50,000.


However, in robotics classes the largest cost needs to be the robot kits. Parallax, Ridgesoft, and GEARS all provide the curriculum/textbooks with the robots. The good part of this is that textbook money can often go to robot kits. The bad part is that robots cost more than textbooks and often do not last as long. Nevertheless, determining the budget for a new robotics course is dependent mostly on the robot platform.

The robotics competition in which the school participates usually dictates the robot platform. First Robotics Competition (FRC) and First Vex (FVC) will likely use Vex; First LEGO (FLL), and RoboFest use LEGO Mindstorms (RoboFest allows participants to use any platform although most still use LEGO); BBIQ use GEARS; Mars Rover Project use K-Nex. All of these educational robot platforms need to be rugged, yet flexible. LEGO’s, K’NEX, and Erector set type robots fit both criteria.

Rugged in the sense that the parts will not break with repeated use. Notice, I did not say the robot. LEGO/Technic robots are always falling apart. However, the bricks and the computer brain are robust and will not be destroyed if dropped or stepped on. The most rugged toys are built for toddlers and the youngest members of our families. School kids are not far removed from that age, and need, and will ultimately break very rugged parts.


The final choice of robot platform often boils down to the connectors. Educational robots are easy to make and pull apart. This provides a great deal of flexibility for the teacher. One robot kit can produce many different robot models over the years. The LEGO stud, Technic pin, and K’NEX connector, all allow for quick assembly and take down. Prototyping is important in educational settings. The first robot design is probably not the best or even any good. Students need to be able to quickly reconfigure their robot when it does not do what it is supposed to do. In the process, they construct their understanding of the world around them.  LEGO robots are the quickest to reconfigure. They also are most likely to fall apart. Vex is built from Erector set pieces and K’NEX are built with special robs and connectors which hold the robot together pretty well, and therefore make them harder to pull apart and reconfigure.


Once a teacher chooses a platform, he/she must decide how many robot kits to buy. This is tricky. Ideally every student should get a robot. Realistically there will not be sufficient funds for this.  Some teachers will resort to making a few robots available at a “Center.” A Center is a section of the classroom and a section of the curriculum that students rotate through. This is a great way to reduce the number of robots. The disadvantage of this set-up is the loss of whole group social interaction.

Kids especially teenagers love being social, note the popularity of MySpace. If the whole class is working on the robots together students can compete, cooperate and help each other on tasks. Also, the class can move through the curriculum together. Most successful classrooms have robots for student groups of four. A teacher can usually break up building, programming, wiring, and leadership tasks easily among the four students in a group for each task. Keep in mind that each class period will need robots. A teacher cannot afford the time for students to build and take apart robots in a one-hour class period.

The cost of the Robot Kits may end up being the sticking point for the new course proposal to the school board. Robots do cost a lot of money, but they are worth it. Many of the technology courses that once populated the vocational track at most high schools were costly too, and many have disappeared as a result. Nevertheless, they provided a valuable service to students who disliked pure academics. They made staying in school relevant to many students who are now dropping out in record numbers according to a Harvard study. Los Angeles Unified has recently decided to restructure the district to better support Technical Education for this very reason. Technical Education seems to be on a rebound. Compared to auto shops, wood lathes, welding tools, and metal shops, robots are much more attractive. They are far cheaper and much more safe.


Besides these technical issues that must be resolved and documented, the school board is ultimately going to ask how this new costly course is going to benefit students. This is a very important and very big question that requires an article of its own. For now simply take the words of the Honorable Donald L. Carcieri Governor of Rhode Island, “This program will provide young people with an extraordinary opportunity to get hands-on, real-world science and engineering experience in a way that brings true excitement to learning. I am pleased to make this program an important part of our plan for educating Rhode Island’s next generation of science, technology, and engineering leaders.”


Dr. Kenneth Berry


National Standards


National Science Education Standards, http://newton.nap.edu/html/nses/


National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards, http://www.nctm.org/standards/Science

Technology Education (Learning how to use technology)

International Technology Educators Association, Technology Standards, http://www.iteaconnect.org/TAA/Publications/TAA_Publications.html

Educational Technology (Using technology to learn)

National Education Technology Standards (NETS) http://cnets.iste.org/

Atlas of Science Literacy (a great resource to show relationships between science concepts)



Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (MCREL) is the lead research institution on academic standards,


Education World has a nice interface for finding and viewing the academic standards for each state. http://www.education-world.com/standards/


NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project has several nice sites with lesson plans.

http://robotics.nasa.gov ,

Lesson Plan Matrix


Robotics Curriculum Clearinghouse


Massachusetts PreK-12 Engineering.


Tufts Center for Engineering and Education Outreach (CEEO)

Lego Curriculum Ideas – All Subject Areas


Carnegie Mellon University and National Robotics Engineering Consortium’s Robotics Academy Curriculum.


Robotics Engineering Curriculum by Intelitek,


Engineering, Science and Technology Foundations




The Boe-Bot comes with a complete set of books to build and program the robot.


Gears Educational Systems

Mike Bastoni has created a wonderful curriculum for this platform.



The curriculum includes a course outline, tutorials and many example programs for the IntelliBrain-Bot. The programming is in JAVA. http:// www.ridgesoft.com





Wang, Eric. Engineering with LEGO Bricks and RoboLab


Martin, Fred, Robotic Explorations: A Hands-on Introduction to Engineering, MIT Media Labs, http://vig.prenhall.com/catalog/academic/product/1,4096,0130895687,00.html

Bratzel, Barbara. Physics by Design, http://www.collegehousebooks.com/physics_by_design.htm

General Purpose books and Resources

SolidWorks CAD Teacher Blog has exercises and 3D models developed by
teachers and their students for MATE ROV, Gears Eds and

http://blogs.solidworks.com/teacher .



Mims, Forrest, Getting Started with Electronics

Robot DNA Books

Constructing Robot Bases, Programming Robot Controlers, Building Robot Drive Trains

Ferrari, M., Ferrari, G., and Hempel, R. Building Robots With LEGO Mindstorms: the Ultimate Tool for Mindstorms Maniacs

Iovine, J., PIC Microcontroller Project Book

Words by Ken Berry