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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

Our Cubelets Lesson Plans all use a common format. This format is our version of an Inquiry Framework. We intentionally modified this framework from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to represent how student mindsets change throughout the learning process.

At the beginning of a lesson or unit, students are filled with wonder and excitement. Ideally, they’re asking tons of questions and intuitively predicting the solutions based on their background experiences.

Then, students engage in the core learning experience. This is the investigation or engineering design challenge that will gently lead students to answers (and often many more questions!).

Finally, students try to explain their new learning in their own words. They reference background knowledge from prior to the lesson as well as new information they gathered during the investigation or design process. Students share their explanations with each other and use their classmates as sounding boards to tweak and refine their understanding. Sometimes they even go back to investigate or redesign again!

The very last step is less of a student mindset and more of an educator mindset. Taking the time to accurately gather formative data throughout a unit helps teachers more quickly identify students’ synthetic models and adjust student groups to better address common questions.

This Inquiry Framework is most valuable because it can easily be translated into inquiry investigations or into guided release of responsibility lessons. It can stretch to the length of an entire unit or squeeze everything into one individual lesson. Its flexibility is what makes it so useful. Every teacher, in every subject, can see themselves in our framework and also identify places to grow professionally.

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“I feel that robots in schools are an incredible equalizer,” says Craig Dunlap, a Blended Learning Teacher at Yealey Elementary in Boone County School District in Florence, Kentucky. “No one really knows what they are doing, so it’s OK not to be an expert.”

Mr. Dunlap runs Yealey’s makerspace program and assists other teachers with integrating technology in their classrooms, whether that’s Chromebooks, iPads, or, of course, robots. He continues, “I love one-on-one time with students over robots. We learn a new skill and form a bond at the same time.”

Image-25 v2

It took some time, however to realize his makerspace vision.

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Cubelets are the Inception of modeling tools. As you go deeper into your Cubelets experiences, you learn layer upon layer of new skills, taking your models from simple ideas to more abstract ones. At first, students model concepts like animal adaptations, poem structures, push and pull forces, or energy transformation. Then, as students gain a deeper understanding of Cubelets, they begin to draw models of how the data flows within and between Cubelets. This, in turn, opens doors for students to use Cubelets as a tool for modeling more abstract and complex behaviors like computer networks, the internet, and even Turing computers!

This is why we’ve written an entire Introduction to Computer Science mini-unit: to help you introduce concepts that take Cubelets from ‘fun building blocks’ to ‘modeling tool.’

At their youngest, or when Cubelets are most novel, learners will connect this tool to their background knowledge. For this reason, one of our recommended first challenges for Cubelets users is to build a Cubelets lighthouse. We mentioned this in our Tactile Coding blog post.

Then, students progress to designing robots that incorporate various animal adaptations such as nocturnal versus diurnal or object avoiding versus object seeking.

As robots become more complicated, however, Cubelets learners are bound to ask, “Why is this happening?” And if they don’t, we, as teachers, should!

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We recently shipped out Cubelets kit number 100,000. It’s an arbitrary number, but I think cause for celebration. Something about another digit, an order of magnitude, reinforces that a hundred thousand is a pretty big number.

The notion that we’ve made 100,000 boxed Cubelets kits is a little baffling when I think back through our history. I started on the design of Cubelets as part of my PhD research (we called them roBlocks back then) at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006. Something about the little robot blocks caused imaginations to go into overdrive; one after another, people visiting our lab kept asking if I could make just a few more Cubelets; for their science center or children’s museum. After a visitor from Japan offered to pay a ridiculous amount of money for my (only) prototype set of Cubelets, we decided to try to figure out how to make more of them in a way that didn’t rely on me staying up all night soldering circuit boards.

Here’s one of my favorite videos from the Cubelets Museum.  These were the first working prototypes of the design for mass production.  I had just returned from a trip to visit our injection mold supplier in China, and brought back these black prototypes.  I shot this video quickly on my desk, my friend Evan recorded the music, and I did a quick iMovie edit and posted the video.  Yesterday, our COO Jon Moyes and I were talking about the feeling of wonder, and he mentioned how vividly he remembered seeing this video in 2011 and deciding that he wanted to work for Modular Robotics.

Even back then we were thinking about the future.  I remember a conversation with Brad Feld, one of our Directors, where we discussed orders of magnitude for product lines.  Back then, we posited that we’d make around 1000 Cubelets kits, then we’d parlay what we learned from that into the next product that we’d make 10,000 of (remember MOSS?).  And that eventually, we’d figure out robot blocks and design a product that sold 100,000 kits.  Here we are, eight years later, with 100,000 Cubelets kits out the door and increasing volumes each year.  We didn’t see that coming.

From some perspectives, 100,000 is not a huge number.  When I was a little kid, it was a big deal for a car to reach 100,000 miles.  I remember when our big green Dodge van, Betsy, hit 100,000 miles.  The van only had five digits on the odometer; reaching 100,000 caused it to reset to zero.  But now some cars are making it to a million miles!

For us, though, 100,000 Cubelets kits (that’s around 720,000 Cubelets, by the way) feels big, and feels like a reason to celebrate.  After all, the mission of Modular Robotics is to make the world a better place with thousands and thousands of tiny robots.  Explicit in that is broad impact through scale.  We see every day how Cubelets can help kids form thoughtful and accurate models of how the world works, and it feels like we’re on our way to helping create a critical mass of kids who can think about complex systems, networks, and emergence in ways that my generation clearly can’t.

Here’s our most recent Cubelets video.  Some things have changed, but it’s surprising how much has not.

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The Ed Tech and Makerspace movements ask teachers to learn alongside our students more than ever before. This results in many classrooms being facilitated through some version of informal conferencing, where all the students (either on their own or in groups) are working on a task while the teacher floats between groups assessing understanding, helping students overcome struggles, and providing guidance for meaningful extensions of the day’s learning objectives.

But our classrooms are still full of diverse learners and it is incredibly difficult to support all of our learners at their level when we are learning alongside them. Luckily, we educators have at least one big advantage: We’re adults.

We’ve lived through life, amassed a variety of experiences, and so our brains have developed beyond the brains of our students. This makes our think-alouds extremely valuable learning tools. Still, at times I have found myself in the middle of an inquiry lesson where I was stumped about how to differentiate the content for my learners. I walked away knowing my questions had been too vague and, while anchored in the right mindset, had done little to push my learners through their zones of proximal development.

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One of the things I love about my role at Modular Robotics is collaborating with educators all around the world. And you know what?  We all run our classrooms a little differently! This variance makes it extra tricky for me to write content that meets everyone’s needs, so that’s what this blog post is all about. Let’s review some of the most common classroom structures where I find Cubelets:

CC5- class chart

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Indeed you can!  Do you know what a Turing Machine is? It’s a type of a computer, or, well, it’s a model of a computer. A simplified computer, with a memory tape and a read/write head that moves back and forth along the tape. It’s a funny little type of a computer, but it’s interesting in that with a Turing Machine, you can do any kind of digital computation that we can think of. Maybe not in a super optimized fashion, but… LOOK! Here’s a Turing Machine made with Cubelets and some LEGO bricks:

This construction was built by Genaro J. Martínez and students and collaborators at ALIROB (Artificial Life Robotics Lab) in Mexico. I think it’s brilliant. There’s a web site with a few more videos and all of the code has been published there too. You’ll see a ton of neat little programming features in these robots:  Rotate Cubelets, for example, can only be controlled by specifying a speed, not a position.  Check out how they use a distance Cubelet as a “stop” to recalibrate the little swinging arm after each swing.

Most of the Cubelets we make end up in elementary or middle school classrooms.   So we spend a lot of time working on making Cubelets accessible, educational, and intriguing: focusing on the low-threshold aspects more than the high-ceiling aspects.  It’s nice to be reminded that Cubelets are actually a universal computational material, a medium, capable of supporting some pretty advanced thought experiments.

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We call it tactile coding, but you may have heard it called “physical computing”, and it’s becoming a movement.

As computer science becomes a pillar of K-12 learning standards across the country, many of the early adopters are realizing the concepts underlying computer science often live outside the computer. When we look at the standards and practices embedded into the K12 CS standards, as well as NGSS, helping students demonstrate the underlying skills and processes behind computer science are actually better addressed away from the screen.

There’s also something else that’s important to consider, especially for our elementary teachers. When we think about how the brain develops, some of the more abstract concepts that support computer science are beyond our youngest students’ developmental levels. Sure, we can train them to repeat some movements on a screen and call it coding, but when it comes to understanding how and why computers really work, we need to look for more concrete examples of fundamental concepts.

Let’s anchor ourselves in a Piagetian developmental approach to computer science. While Piaget tied his stages to general age ranges, children all develop at different paces. Plus, it’s acknowledged that exposing children to increasingly complex ideas aids in their development. Please consider references to ages or grade-levels to be generalized, as they may not fit your experiences or students exactly.

Pre-K and Kindergarten

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When your students are ready to begin coding with their Cubelets, it’s time to consider what new classroom structures and routines will ensure students maximize their time investigating and learning. By planning ahead, you can avoid the time sinks of troubleshooting and learning a new app on the fly. We have two different Cubelets you might be using, and they both have different paths to classroom management success.

Before you plan to program your Cubelets with students, please try programming one yourself. Some school internet filters block the cloud services we use. If that is a problem for you, simply send this request to your IT department and once they’ve greenlighted our servers, try again! Still have questions? Email our Customer Support Team at support@modrobotics.com (They’re amazing!).

Using the Bluetooth Hat

Using the Classic Bluetooth Cubelet

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Cubelets are a highly engaging tool—and I mean highly engaging!  Teachers around the world ask for tips on managing a classroom full of students who are completely engrossed and inspired by playing with Cubelets. What a great problem to have!

The first piece of advice to you is: embrace the chaos. Cubelets are a tool that inspires rapid iteration. It is normal and good for students to quickly design and revise their constructions – even breaking off into unplanned tangents while they do. To manage this kind of classroom, settle into it and get your hands dirty.  Walk around from group to group and ask them questions.

  • What are you building?
  • Tell me about this design.
  • What is challenging you right now?
  • What else could this robot construction be used for?
  • Why did you choose to put this Cubelet here?

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