Coding and STEM: Robot Obstacle Challenges 1

21 century classrooms encourage students to “think”. Instead of regurgitating a series of facts, students are asked to apply the facts learned to analyze why things happened, how these one thing impacts something else, to come up with solutions to problems, to anticipate what might happen next, etc. Another important teaching aspect is that logical thinking is incorporated into all subjects, with the intention of preparing students for highly-sought after STEM careers. Logical thinking - taught through activities such as coding concepts - are integrated early, starting in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. How can TVIs support and embed coding concepts and logical thinking activities?

Perkins eLearning recently facilitated a 2-day Coding Concept workshop for educators working with students who are visually impaired. During this workshop, educators had hands-on opportunities with a variety of unplugged coding concept activities (no devices) progressing to activities using several basic robots. (See series of coding concept posts here.) After students have been introducing to basic logical thinking coding activities, begin incorporating the Engineering Design Process.

Engineering Design Process5 Colorful gears with the Engineering Design Processes: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create and Improve.

Initial ideas rarely solve the problem – this is truly a ‘process’. Students work through a challenge, test it, and redesign.  With elementary and middle school students, the Engineering Design Process is a five-step process. (More steps are added in advanced levels.) 

Engineering Design Process for Elementary and Middle School Students

  • Ask: What is the problem? How have others approached it? What are your constraints?
  • Imagine: What are some solutions? Brainstorm ideas. Choose the best one.
  • Plan: Draw a diagram. Make lists of materials you will need.
  • Create: Follow your plan and create something. Test it out!
  • Improve: What works? What doesn’t? Improve your design and test again!

Discuss the Engineering Design Process prior to the challenge. Initially for young students, as a group talk through each of the five steps as they specifically address the Bear Hunt Challenge. If the students are slightly more advanced, increase the challenge. Example: Ask each student to create a drawing/written explanation of his obstacle or of the entire course. 

Adaptation

For students with visual impairments, provide tactile materials to create a quick tactile graphic; and, peers should be encouraged to provide a quick tactile graphic of their obstacles to share with the student who is visually impaired.  A Sensational Blackboard, drawing kits (Wheatley, drawing wheel, etc.), or a combination of materials such as Wikki Sticks and pre-cut sticky backed foam shapes. Note: Being able to make quick tactile drawings and to be able to understand quick tactile drawings is a critical skill for math and other subjects!

Bear Hunt Obstacle Course Challenge (Simple Challenge)

This activity combines an engineering challenge (creating an obstacle course) with a coding challenge (coding a robot’s route). For young students, create a simple obstacle course for the We’re Going on a Bear Hunt book. (See Bear Hunt Coding post here, for information and tactile graphic.) The Challenge is to create a course that includes each area mentioned in the book:

  • Long wavy grass (Swishy Swashy!)
  • Deep cold river (Splash Splosh!)
  • Thick oozy mud (Squelch Squelch!)
  • Big Dark Forest (Stumble trip!)
  • Swirling whirling snowstorm (Hooo Wooo!)
  • Narrow gloomy cave (Tiptoe Tiptoe!)

For a slightly harder challenge:

  • Ask the students to include specific features, such as something they have to go over, something they have to go under, something that makes a noise, something to crash through, etc.
  • Attach a price to materials used and include a budget for the course.

Divide the students into teams. Give the students 5 minutes to come up with a team name. 

Once the course is set up, the student team has to determine and code the robot’s route through the obstacle course. 

Bring the class back together. Ask each team to quickly explain their obstacle course before running the robot through the course. (It is important that team members have opportunities to share about their ‘project’ in front of the class!) Afterwards, ask the team to identify any issues. Ask them what they tried when building the course and what worked/did not work.

Provide time for the teams to improve their course and/or code. Bring the class together again to observe the final run through the obstacle course. Prior to running the code, ask the team how they improved their course and/or code.

Teacher Hints

  • 3-person team – each team member must actively participate!
    • Ideally, the students will work equally; however, if necessary, encourage each student to choose and create one obstacle independently.
  • Provide a variety of materials: building blocks, carboard, Legos, tinfoil, water bottle, plastic cups, etc.
    • Determine if students are allowed to use additional materials found around the room.
  • State a specific amount of time to work on the course and to code the robot’s route.
  • Robot: For this simple activity, the Botley robot works well; however, other robots could be used.
  • Problem-solving: It is critical that the robot and the obstacles are placed in the correct position. If an obstacle is moved slightly when re-building the course, the robot may miss the obstacle (or hit it!). Try marking the floor where the robot should start and where each obstacle should be located. (Tape or Wikki Sticks works well to mark the floor.)

If the Bear Hunt is not an appropriate challenge for your students, create a ‘story’ (reason for the robot to move through the course) or ask the students to create their own ‘story’.

Code Blue Challenge

During the Perkins Coding Concept Workshop, each team was  asked to design a course for Botley that included 3 challenges: 

  • Avoid an obstacle
  • Crash through an obstacle
  • Noise obstacle
  • Tunnel

Engineers solve problems. Encourage your teams to think of a problem and solve it. The problem can be a "story" and the robot runs through the course to solve an issue. This group named their team "Code Blue". The Code Blue story was that Botley is diabetic and was having a low blood sugar reaction. Botley was disoriented and needed help navigating to his candy stash.

This 3-person team chose to work on a table top (not the floor) and lined the path with plastic Solo cups and cassette cases (to keep Botley from falling off the table in case of a mishap) and as obstacles to avoid. The path required Botley to turn several times. Code Blue added a “code blue call button” obstacle by making a small tower (from wire and felt material?) with bells on the top that would ring when Botley bumped into the tower. At the end of the route, Botley went through a tunnel and bumped into a plastic case full of candy that was positioned on the edge of the table.

The video below demonstrates Botley’s initial run through the Code Blue course. Botley traveled forward from the start line, turned left, moved forward (but missed the call button (bell obstacle) on the left side. Botley then turned right, moved forward and turned left. He missed going through the tunnel itself, but ended up hitting the right edge of the tunnel, pushing the tunnel into the box of candy and knocking the box off the table.

Note: Interested in attending the Coding Concept workshop? Perkins eLearning anticipates offering this workshop again in the spring of 2020. Stay tuned for details!

Resource

The second post in this series is Coding and STEM: Robot Obstacle Course Challenges 2 (Hurricane Dorian)

Collage of Robot Obstacle Challenges