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It’s an old adage: If you want to inspire children to learn, challenge them and they will exceed your expectations. That sound advice was giving me little comfort. I was two classes into a four class robot workshop for third and fourth grade kids and we were falling behind.

MAKEZINE_5FamilyFri_BadgeI had 24 kids to walk through a detailed robot kit build. I thought we’d get through the physical build in one or two classes, and have two classes to play with the circuit and make the robot do different things. Boy, did I mis-judge things. By the end of the first class, we had barely managed to finish the first two steps of the build. I went home and collapsed for a bit. I was exhausted and not a little bit panicked.

I called in some helpers for the second class, and things went better. Still, I had some kids falling behind; others were losing focus while waiting. Even with two other adults in the room, we were not making good progress. I could see that my two helpers were wondering if I knew what I was doing. I was starting to wonder myself.

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It wasn’t the kids’ fault. They were working hard and trying their very best. I have taught robotics to groups of young makers before. I had worked hard to prepare for this class, but things just weren’t working out. I went home again and re-thought how to proceed. I needed a game-changer.

For the third class, instead of putting more work on the adults, I put more work on the kids. We moved some kids who had fallen behind to one table, and I had one of the other adults work with them to get them caught up. I paired the remaining kids up and encouraged them work with each other as partners. I gave each team a detailed set of pictures with simple instructions to follow so they could go at their own pace instead of depending on me.

You know what happened? It worked! The kids that could work well on their own did so. Others got help from their partners or an available adult when needed. One boy even finished early and I had him walk around and check if anyone else needed help. A group of girls at one table was only too happy to help the slowest of their group. I was able to focus my attention on just the few kids who needed the most help and let the others move forward by themselves.

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I had set a goal in my mind for what needed to be completed that day. Every single one of those kids exceeded that goal. Next week is the fourth and final class; we can spend all of it focused on making the circuit and play testing the robots. Instead of being worried, I can’t wait for next week.

Sometimes it is hard to find the right way to approach a learning experience. It is not always easy to know how to get the most out of it, and how to make it fun and rewarding for the kids. It’s a challenge, and I find I work best under a challenge. So do most kids.

Andrew Terranova

Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and an electronics and robotics hobbyist. He is an active member of the Let’s Make Robots community, and handles public relations for the site.
Andrew has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children’s Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Learning Center in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.


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Comments

  1. baldermoon says:

    The most rewarding part of teaching is when the students surprise you. One of the bigger problems with modern schools is that they don’t give students the opportunity to surprise their teachers. You should be commended for your work.

    1. Thanks. I’m not in the trenches teaching full time, which has different challenges. I love being able to come to a school and enhance what the kids would normally see. Luckily, my kids go to a school that is able to sponsor programs like mine. There are other parents and teachers offering other after school enhancement programs too.

  2. May I ask what robot you built with this age group?

  3. Tim Dolan says:

    Great Job. You also taught them by example as you changed your strategy on the fly and improved the class as you went. Keep up the great work.

  4. randomjnerd says:

    One thing I found when working with the current generation of kids, is that most of them have never touched a tool, even when working with high school kids. So before we build something, I have them take stuff apart. Trash picked lawnmower engines, yard sale windup alarm clocks, scavenged VHS era camcorders (the closest I will come to electronics).

    After one session of dissassembly they have some idea of what a tool is, and have seen a gear train, perhaps a belt drive, etc… Then we can build something. (and the take-apart day concludes with an assignment – one side of a sheet of paper, with a drawing of something they found inside whatever they took apart.

    1. Great idea! I always loved taking things apart as a kid.
      I noticed that many of the kids lacked some basic knowledge, like what a washer or a nut was. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to show them.

    2. chuck says:

      I hosted my first take apart workshop at the USF Engineering Expo last weekend and it was fantastic! We took apart some computers, DVD players, game controllers, and other familiar devices. Most of the kids had never taken anything apart before. My approach is to let them do their thing and ask questions as they go, and they sure ask a lot of questions. ‘What does this do?’ leads to a discussion of electronics, engineering, design, etc. ‘Why is this so hard to open?’ lets us talk about designed obsolescence and ‘throw away’ consumer culture. ‘What do we do with this stuff after we take it apart?’ leads to a dialog about recycling, reuse and waste stream reduction.
      We are doing another session at the Tampa Bay Mini Maker Faire in a few weeks and we hope to put together an in-class program soon. Fun!

      1. randomjnerd says:

        I don’t like electronics as a subject for kids take-apart, there isn’t a whole lot to see inside. Take apart a windup alarm clock, and you get gears, springs, and bits moving all over the place. Do the same with a modern digital clock, and there is a bit of circuit card, with all the electronics on a single chip that isn’t even packaged, just bonded out, and covered with a blob of epoxy.

        Sure they learn about packaging, but to me that’s an advanced topic. I would much rather them deal with moving parts.

        Oh yea, my stock answer to “why did they do it that way”: “Its the cheapest way they knew how”

        1. chuck says:

          I agree with you there. For the next workshop I’m trying to collect older stuff with moving parts and less SMD components- VCRs, power tools, mechanical stuff- but I want to have familiar devices, too. The most popular item at the last workshop was the game controllers. These kids had no idea what was inside something that they had held in their hands regularly for years.
          Ultimately I want to create an in-class program that combines disassembly with hardware hacking. We could take apart some VCRs, connect a simple speed control to the motors, and build a laser pointer spirograph. Motors and felt tip markers make cool drawing bots. Piezo elements from alarm clocks and smoke detectors combined with discarded amplified computer speakers to make ‘junk’ electric drums. Old turntables turned into a ‘rose engine’ drawing device.
          My goal isn’t to teach technology per se- it’s to spark imaginations and give the kids the tools to pursue learning on their own. I want the kids to leave my workshop with more questions than they came in with and a few hints as to where to find the information they want.. Answers are the end product of learning- questions are the seeds. Give a man a fish…

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