[Editor’s Note: This inspiring story was sent in by a member of our maker community, who also generously shared their software, circuit diagrams, and PowerPoint presentations so others can benefit from their experience in cooperative creativity — which, QED. Have you got a story you’d like to share? Send it to us!]

Turntable

Can a pop-up makerspace engage equal numbers of girls and boys in robotics and computer coding? We are happy to report that with a project that emphasizes creativity and cooperation instead of tasks and competition, the answer is yes!

In our rural Maine location, kids have opportunities to build Lego robots, VEX robots, underwater ROVs, and solar-powered cars. All of those programs channel advanced kids toward competitions in which the robots complete pre-defined tasks in timed races. And all of those programs are overwhelmingly dominated by boys.

We took a different approach. Working with our local public library, Skidompha, and a team of like-minded volunteers, we developed a one-week, school-vacation program called Gizmo Garden. The hallmarks of the curriculum were cooperation and creativity. Students built a swarm of robots that cooperated with each other in order to form a self-driving “Gizmo Parade”. Then, students customized their robots to creatively express their own personalities.

To build a robotic parade, students assembled off-the-shelf Boe-Bots from Parallax Robotics, controlled by Arduino Uno microcontrollers. So that the robots could follow a parade route made of green tape, students wired up a custom bread-boarded sensor head with twin LEDs and phototransistors that detect the edges of the tape. Then to keep the robots approximately equidistant during the parade, students added proximity sensors and wrote computer code to create a proportional control loop.

To customize each parade float, students visited maker stations staffed by adult tech guides. Each station specialized in a creative option: programmable lights, music, waving and rotating motors, mechanics, 3D printing, and computer coding. Material for most of the options was ordered from Adafruit, including the PrinterBot 3D printers which students used to make custom parts and figurines. To top off their creations, students used craft supplies ranging from toy frogs to sequins.

Instead of obstacle courses and timers, we provided a safe and fun environment where our seven girls and eight boys (and their adult helpers) had a blast. Our first group of students was 6-9th graders, and we’re now tailoring the curriculum to run for high school juniors and seniors at Bowdoin College’s Upward Bound this summer. Meanwhile, others are welcome to download our open-source software, circuit diagrams, and PowerPoint presentations at no charge from the Resources page of our website, gizmogarden.org.