Thursday, December 15, 2005

Robotics, Session 6

or, The Importance of Low Expectations

After last week's miserable robotics session, I wasn't sure what to expect this week. I was anxious that it would be another disaster and the kids would all quit. I really wanted things to go well. Maybe it was the fact that I had fairly low expectations of what would happen today that made it all go 100% better. Or maybe we finally just hit our stride. Or maybe it was the fact that one of the kids I wrangled with last week switched to a different class (something we are both happier about) and another, who is a sweet and extraordinarily difficult kid, was absent. Or maybe - probably - it was a little of everything.

The session could have been a disaster. I left the keys to the laptop cart five floors below during snack, when I got distracted and put them down on a cafeteria bench. Luckily, I kept the kids occupied long enough for some frantic searching and asking around, and another teacher had rescued them for me.

I kept administrative stuff to a minimum. I took attendance and collected permission slips for Saturday's practice tournament, and then I broke them into groups of three for another team challenge. Basically, the challenge was to make a paperclip chain as long as possible without any talking and with one hand held behind your back. It was interesting - the teams that usually work together best did not win this time. I think hand-eye coordination favored the older kids. Everyone worked together well - I think talking gets in the way of cooperating for certain kids - and only two of the four teams had to pay penalties for talking, and they got over it quickly when they realized I was serious. (The penalty was that you would lose one paper clip off your chain every time you talked or used two hands - I removed a paperclip from their table so that I would be able to keep track of which team lost how many points - each team had different color paperclips). At the end, we brought all the chains to one table and laid them out side by side, to compare lengths. Hershey's Kisses were awarded to the winning team members. It seems like this activity worked well. One way to make it more difficult/interesting would be to award extra points for groups that succeed in making a color pattern in their chain (ie, red-blue-red-blue).

Then I divided them into three groups. Two of the groups took robot kits and went to work building robots. We are still at the stage of following instructions from the LEGO guide, not really altering them at all. The third group - all of whom chose this group - worked on building the dang boat which we have STILL not finished. Perhaps because this group never gets anything done. At least this week, they didn't bother me or each other, either. Mostly, they just want to play with LEGOS. I am seriously considering buying a couple of boxes of extra LEGOS and just letting those kids play if that's what they really want to do. It will keep them occupied and maybe they will get sucked into the actual robotics stuff over time. See, this is what I mean by lowering my standards in order to make everyone happier. Who am I to tell a kid they have to WORK with LEGOS, they can't PLAY? FLL coaches, any advice on this one?

I taught a few more kids how to include the rotation sensor in their programs, and they went to work trying to write a program to make the robot hit the grey fish but none of the green ones. Interesting work by the sixth graders as they rolled a wheel along the mat to estimate the number of clicks from the base to the fish. And then one little boy compared a large wheel with a small wheel and informed me that the small wheel would travel less distance in the same number of clicks, so they would need to rewrite the program if the robot was altered to include that wheel. None of the kids from my school are what you would call "advantaged," but this boy is among the more disadvantaged even within our school. He is one of those kids who, if he feels you're on his side, will follow you around like a puppy - he thrives on adult attention - and to see him make this discovery and then stay interested long enough to talk with me briefly about why wheels are divided into degrees - priceless. Later, when an older boy asked a question about wheel size, I pointed him to the first boy, and they worked out the problem together. These are the moments we do this for.

The other group made a robot that walked. They just finished it by the end of the period, to gasps of wonder and awe from the other kids. It was straight out of the instruction manual that came with the LEGOS, but involved a bunch of gears and other tricky stuff, and I think seeing it walking along the table helped some kids discover the possibilities.

We ended with a talk about what to expect on Saturday at the practice tournament (not that I have any idea myself), a round of applause for a good session, a mouse, and one more Hershey's Kiss per kid. We have nothing ready to take to the tournament, but we are finally having fun again, and learning, and that's really all that matters.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kris said...

I'm thrilled to see that you are willing to play around a bit with those challenges. Exactly as it should be!

12:46 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Everytime I read your blog, I come away impressed as hell with the level of scientific knowledge you are fostering in your students, as well as the extent of experimental science. I understand your frustration at the beating this subject has taken -- nationally -- at the hands of those who are so consumed with ELA/Math. There is an equal frustration among those of us who wish like hell our kids could have the type of science teacher you clearly are. We dropped from science from our curriculum last year to add another period of math before science began to count on standardized state-rankings (it's back this year), and everyone on leadership was hand-wringing, not wanting to pull the trigger, when someone said, (it may have been me -- I was thinking it) "Look, our kids aren't receiving true scientific instruction anyway. Read the chapter and answer the questions isn't it." Anyway, a long-winded way of saying I think you're doing amazing things.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Brandon said...

I just wanted to tell you what a great job you're doing despite any pitfalls! Keep on chugging!

4:37 PM  

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