I Know Nothing about Robotics: How to Run a Robotics Program on a Small Budget with Zero Experience

I Know Nothing about Robotics: How to Run a Robotics Program on a Small Budget with Zero Experience
by Rachel Shaw

I know nothing about robotics.
I take that back.
I know a few things about robotics, mostly because I teach a robotics class.

Like everyone else, I was perpetually warned about the state of the job market. I was willing to take any library job I could find while I was in graduate school. After months of searching, I got called to interview for a job as a library clerk. As I talked more about my skills and career aspirations, the interview for the library clerk position rapidly evolved into one for a library assistant.  The library director asked me if I could create and run a robotics program for children. After informing her that I knew nothing about robotics and very little about teaching, she assured me I could come up with something.  I was hired.

After learning all the ins and outs of my new job in the world of public libraries during those first few months, I was kindly reminded that I needed to create this robotics program. I had never taught a class before, and robotics was unmapped territory for me. I barely understood algebra, and I avoided taking science classes at all costs. Still, a kind donor had given the library money specifically for a robotics program, so I had to create one.

Thankfully, the internet’s plethora of inspiration provided me with the perfect tools for a beginner’s robotics course. Lego Group had just released the Mindstorm EV3 to their robotics collection. The kit provided everything needed to build and program a robot in 600 pieces.  One kit cost around $350. My budget would only allow the purchase of three Mindstorm kits. I weighed the pros and cons of purchasing the kits and decided my class size would be limited. Students would build on teamwork skills as they partnered up to use the kit.

The robots were ordered, and in a few weeks, the kits arrived. I was excited to learn how they worked, considering I had never really played with Legos as a child. One of the teenage volunteers at the library revealed he knew a lot about Legos, so I forced asked him to help me learn how the Mindstorms were built.

After building a basic robot, the Track3r, I drew up my lesson plan. Children in grades 4-8 would attend the camp once a week for one hour after school for the duration of four weeks.  The first week would be building the simple Track3r robot. The second week would be programming the Track3r robot. The third week would be building another robot model of their choice. And the final week would be programming that their robot model of choice. As far as programming the robots went, the Lego website offered free downloads of the software complete with tutorials. This user-friendly software was awesome for learning and teaching the basics of programming.

I capped program enrollment to 10 students, figuring there were always a few people who would sign up and not show.  I ended up with six students, which was perfect for the three kits.

On the first day, we watched a YouTube advertisement for the robots to excite the students. After the video, they immediately paired up and started building their robots, already discussing which robot they would build after learning the basics with the Track3r. During the class, I offered my help in locating certain pieces and in using my adult strength to remove or attach difficult pieces.

The first day of robotics camp revealed I needed to extend the camp to 90 minutes each week. I also learned that these robots were definitely for older students. The 10+ year old recommendation on the box was spot on.  I could tell the younger students were frustrated with the intricacy of their robots towards the end of the camp.  In order to cater to the younger crowd, I purchased three Bee-Bots for the library using the remaining donation money.

Bee-Bots are sturdy little bumblebees with directional buttons on their backs. Students were required to program a series of directions and press “go” for the bee to move along the ground. The program I created was for kindergarten through 3rd grade. Advertised as a beginner robotics camp, it also ran for a month, meeting once a week for an hour.  I had three students, all in 3rd grade.

During the Bee-Bots camp, students practiced counting and planning the directions needed to input.  On the first day, they decorated covers for their Bee-Bots (to tell them apart), which they took home with them afterwards.  A free Bee-Bot application was downloaded on the library’s iPad to provide extra programing practice before attempting it with the physical Bee-Bots. One of the students liked the application so much he downloaded it on his mother’s iPad.

The weeks that followed varied in activities. Using foam blocks, we built obstacle courses to race the Bee-Bots, using pen and paper to plot the Bee-Bots’ travels. Using giant foam dice, the robots raced across the room, with even numbers being that many steps forward and odd numbers being that many steps backwards. Using flash cards with colors on them, students were given a starting point in the room and had to program their robot to get to that color first.

At the end of the first two robotics camps, word spread about the programs, and parents were calling to sign their child(ren) up for the next one. Although many students wanted to take both robots home with them, the parts are still here and ready for the summer next camp that will take place in 2015.

I guess I do know a thing or two about robotics.




This is Rachel Shaw’s first semester at SLIS. Along with being a full time student, she works 30 hours a week at the Frank Sarris Public Library in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.  As a library assistant, she does everything from managing the genealogy center to teaching computer basics classes. When she’s not focused on the library world, she is running away from her responsibilities on the track. Visit her LinkedIn profile to learn more.