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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

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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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a “charitable cultural organization with a mission to transform the way people see the world through film”, hosts one of the largest publicly-attended festivals in the world, attracting nearly half a million visitors worldwide. During the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, TIFF hosts digiPlaySpace, a children’s exhibition showcasing digital interactive installations created by international artists and developers with new works introduced each year.

Cubelets at Eureka! exhibit at the National Children's Museum (Jonathan Pow/jp@jonathanpow.com, image provided courtesy of TIFF)
Cubelets at Eureka! exhibit at the National Children’s Museum (Jonathan Pow/jp@jonathanpow.com, image provided courtesy of TIFF)

Cubelets were first introduced at TIFF in 2013 and later became part of the touring exhibition. “digiPlaySpace has proven to be wildly popular with visitors around the world, and Cubelets have been an integral part of that popularity,” says Suzan Sabir, the senior project manager who oversees the digiPlaySpace traveling exhibit program at TIFF. “I believe that part of this appeal is that visitors are able to create a simple robot easily and quickly – instant gratification – and then they can move on to more complex robots with additional experience.”

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Travel roughly thirty-one miles west of Auckland, and you will come to New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, a scenic destination in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf with nine thousand permanent residents. Librarian Julia Mount spoke to us about how she has been utilizing Cubelets with young patrons at the Waiheke Island Community Library:

“A couple of years ago, a colleague and I started a digital club/Makerspace that runs on Sunday mornings. Theoretically, the Makerspace is for children between the ages of 5-13 and their families, but often passing parents will involve their pre-school age children in the activities. The Makerspace has since given lots of fun and learning for me as well as those who attend. Because Waiheke Island is a holiday destination, our Makerspace regulars are supplemented with holiday makers during the summer break, expanding the chances for locals to make new friends as well as let families from other locations know what Auckland Council Libraries as a whole has to offer.

“Cubelets are an open play part of the Makerspace. A library team member or child who already knows about Cubelets will demonstrate to newbies how to make a basic robot with just three cubes – Distance, Drive and Battery. We then challenge the newbies to make seven different robots with just the three cubes. While some enjoy the challenge, others just start experimenting and inventing.”

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We love hearing about all the ways that Cubelets are being used to build better thinkers. Whether it’s a tweet showing off robots built by a first-grade class, seeing Blockly in action during Coding Club, or cheering on the robot races in a makerspaces, we treasure it all. But every once in awhile, we come across a story so inspiring that we just have to share it with everyone. This is Hayley’s Cubelets story.

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Like most sixteen-year-olds, Hayley Brady’s interests cover the map. An avid painter, she is also involved in various activities at her school, most notably as the vice president of the “nerd club.”

“[It’s] basically a place for people who are interested in science, movies, comic books, TV shows, and video games to come and discuss and occasionally debate about their interests.”

The Dublin, Ireland native has the same big dreams as most 16-year-olds, too, wanting to study veterinary medicine. She already volunteers with a local animal rescue group, helping trap and neuter feral cats, or fostering animals in need.

But Hayley isn’t just focused on her future: she has already made a huge contribution to her local school, and qualified for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition Final in January of 2018.

How? Hayley recognized the potential of Cubelets robot blocks as a tactile and interactive way to reach students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Her project, “The Development of An Interactive and Tactile Learning Programme for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Modular Robotics.” was deemed “inspiring” by the BTYSTE judges, and was seen by over 50,000 people at the exhibition.

“We purchased the Cubelets for use in the Special Ed department using funding our government provided for “hand held” technology,” says Hayley’s teacher, Lynda Jordan, of Pobalscoil Iosolde in Dublin. “The lessons involved initially [were] inquiry based learning. The students were asked to identify the functions of the Cubelets and allowed to experiment with the possibilities.”

Hayley, however, saw untapped potential in the little blocks.

“There had been no research made that I could find on how Cubelets could be used in special needs classes. I immediately jumped on the chance to use the Cubelets to make a class specifically for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as it is important to me, and I have a first person perspective of the disorder.”

With help from Ms. Jordan, and drawing from her own experience as someone diagnosed with ASD, Hayley put together a series of lessons designed to work with all aspects of ASD, including communication, creativity, confidence, avoiding distractions and independent learning.

“When I made my first lesson plan I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Hayley. “One day while we (a special education teacher and I) were doing the classes one of the students accidentally hit another in the head with a Cubelet. In a regular class the student who was hit would have been upset, they would have possibly had a meltdown and not been able to return to the class for the rest of the day. Instead what happened was they (after initially throwing a cubelet across the room) took some time out and were able to come back to the class without too much disruption and continued to work on their assigned task, which simply never would have happened in a normal class.

“The students I worked with did not tend to perform well in their usual classes. They would often test poorly, become distracted or lose interest. They showed poor self-esteem and would rarely communicate with others. In these classes, they were co-operative and confident; they were enthusiastic and ready to learn. They communicated better, they were more creative, and they were able to work independently as well as co-dependently.”

Hayley says that her results are just motivation to do more. She plans on creating more lesson plans, and entering the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition again in 2019.

Ms. Jordan is excited to see what comes next for Hayley.

“The students who experienced the Cubelets suggested, fairly insistently, that we include a Cubelets lesson as part of the school’s permanent programme. They said they were going to start a petition! It’s wonderful to see such passion for learning.”

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“Focusing on student learning to use technology enables them to be consumers of technology. Teaching them how to create new technology enables them to be designers, innovators, and problem solvers.”

– Dr. Chris Stephenson, 2012 Executive Director of CSTA

Happy Computer Science Education Week!

Computer science is finally becoming a core component of a complete education in our 21st-century, digital world. According to  CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association), by 2022, 1.3 million jobs in computer and mathematical occupations will be created.

We are already well into the digital age, and yet an overwhelming majority of students are graduating their K-12 education without a complete computer science education. The students who are exposed to technology are often taught through the lens of consumers rather than creators and designers.

But just as basic economics and mathematical principles are included in a comprehensive education to provide students tools to make informed decisions and analyze the information around them, students ought to be introduced to how technology such as banking apps, messaging systems, and cloud storage actually work.

As reported by Miles Berry in CSTA’s “Voice” in 2016, England has already introduced computer science into its national curriculum. Through feedback from teachers, they determined the most effective computer science pedagogies.

Computer Science Image

In the same vein, CSTA revised their National Computer Science Standards in 2017 to include practices that mirror the findings in England:

Even students who are too young to have developed strong abstract reasoning can “code” with Cubelets blocks without needing to use a computer interface. Because Cubelets are designed with three types of blocks (SENSE, THINK, and ACT), students learn the importance of inputs and outputs, weighted averages, persevering through a rapid redesign process, and “making” towards a goal.

As students grow and become more complex computer scientists, introducing Cubelets Blockly is the next step. Blockly programming is very similar to Scratch programming, which even college students regularly use as their introduction into computer programming. The current Cubelets Blockly tutorials introduce concepts like variables, timing, loops, conditionals, and more.

Looking for some inspiration about what to build next with your Cubelets? Check out ModRobotics on Youtube or some Robot Recipes on ModRobotics.com!

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“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” – Thomas Edison

By now, many of us have heard of makerspaces. There’s likely one at our child’s school or local library or a nearby museum. What’s exactly in a makerspace is a mystery, however.

When we think of makerspaces, many of us think about high-tech equipment like laser cutters or 3D printers; but while many public makerspaces do include these neat tools, any space can be a makerspace. After all, makerspaces are actually exactly what their name suggests: a space to make things.

Makerspace Overview

Humans are natural makers.  From infancy, children are constantly imagining, creating, and testing the world around them.  The purpose of maker spaces are to foster that creative and critical thinking – and to keep supplies in an easy-to-use area.

Children do not need fancy makerspace tools, like a 3D printer, to continue to be inventors. They just need stuff to create their ideas and test them. In the words of Nancy Cole, “I’m realizing that much of my house is currently a makerspace. We already have Legos, blocks, pipe cleaners, fuzzy pom-poms, a glue gun, aluminum foil, bendable wire and multiple containers of markers, crayons, colored pencils and paints. Oh, and random pieces of cardboard. I just need to carve out a dedicated space in our home to gather it all together and allow my children to explore the endless possibilities of their imagination.

So what can we do as parents to support our creative problem-solvers?

The first step is to change our lens: look around your house for maker supplies you already have.

Some of the best maker materials hide in plain sight. Tissue boxes, paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, and envelopes with the clear plastic address box all make incredible building supplies. You may need to consider getting a couple rolls of different types of tape, glue, and a pair of scissors, as well as some drawing supplies if you don’t already have these at home.

Once you see how many makerspace materials you already have, you just need to make a space for them.  Once you find a space – in a play room, a corner of the living room, or even a spare bedroom; bring in your kids as the designers. They will have ideas you never considered, and by creating the space themselves, will be more likely to take ownership in keeping it clean and stocked. To see how others have designed their at-home makerspaces, take a look at some of these:

A recipe for a dedicated Makerspace

A recipe for toolbox Makerspace

Recipes for single-shelf Makerspaces

Remember, any space can be a makerspace. Whether it’s a small bookshelf in the corner, or an entire playroom makeover, it’s the freedom to get messy, persevere, and learn through failed attempts at solving problems that “make” the makerspace.

In the words of Janette Hughes, “In these spaces students are learning how to tinker collaboratively with a problem and keep trying until they find a solution. They are learning to be thinkers, innovators and problem-solvers rather than mere consumers of information.”

Remember, too, there may be a public makerspace in your city, too! A simple Google search could uncover hidden gems at your local library or museum. After a visit, see if there are any ideas you can bring home with you.

Happy making!

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Ask Brandy Ray for her favorite Cubelets moment, and she’ll tell you about watching three- and four-year-olds using Cubelets to explore robotics.

It was so fun to watch their understanding unfold! We did so many Cubelets challenges in the classroom. We even used Cubelets as a way to teach math and science concepts such as sorting and human senses. Before long, my students were able to understand that each Cube is programmed to be a sense, think, or act Cube, and that each of these Cubes influenced the behavior of whatever they’d created. After creating a Fraidy Bot, one of my three-year-old students shared, “It senses your hand. I can drive it to you!”

Now a fifth-grade teacher at Mackintosh Academy in Boulder, Colorado, Ms. Ray has used Cubelets in a variety of classroom settings across a wide age range. She utilizes Cubelets to teach concepts such as computational thinking, cause and effect, and the different components of a robot. Cubelets robot blocks allow for “hands-on inquiries,” a method she finds valuable for instilling these lessons.

Ms. Ray has seen first-hand the kind of impact Cubelets have had on her students. Cubelets have taught her students techniques for how to problem-solve, an important lifelong skill. She has watched older students experiment to find out how a particular THINK block works, and has challenged younger students to try to build a robot using only three Cubelets blocks.

She finds that Cubelets are a useful way for her to teach math concepts like sorting, as well as for modeling science concepts. Ms. Ray observed her students learning the principles of cause and effect using Cubelets. They also explored how each robot block is programmed to perform a specific function, and that each one will influence the whole robot construction in different ways.

For her fellow educators, Ms. Ray acknowledges that working with materials and concepts that they may not be familiar with can be intimidating. Nonetheless, she encourages teachers to take the risk and try out Cubelets in their classrooms. She has found that, even right out of the box, Cubelets can be used to investigate a variety of content areas.

But more than that, Ms. Ray says, “It’s so fun to watch a student figure out how Cubelets work. Surprise and excitement light up their face!”

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Robot fun has made it into summer camps!  With 40 locations in the US, Steve & Kate’s Camp leaders were excited to add Cubelets to their activities in 2017.  With the addition of Cubelets, they found that robotics has been a popular offering in their camps.

Michaela Clinton, Camp Director in Denver, worked at camps for 15 years before joining Steve & Kate’s. She was “drawn to the educational philosophy of letting kids express themselves in ways they may have never been able to before.”

At Steve & Kate’s, students design their own summer camp experience. They are given the choice of several different kinds of activities, including sports, cooking, music studio, and robotics. Campers are allowed to pursue whatever interests them at any given moment during the day. As Cubelets encourage discovery through play, they are a natural fit for the open exploration style of learning that is a hallmark of the Steve & Kate’s camp experience.

“We use Cubelets in our Coding and Robotics studio as the robotics component,” Ms. Clinton says. “We have open play time for most of the day, so campers utilize plastic mats on the floor to run their robots in all kinds of shapes and sizes.”

The camp also runs special weeks where the students are challenged to build robots according to a theme. One of the themes, “Spin This,” challenges students to build a robot construction that spins an object or spins itself. The most popular theme, however, is Battle Bots. Campers love adding lots of Drive, Speaker, and Flashlight blocks to their robot creations prior to setting their constructions against one another in battle!

What have leaders at Steve and Kate’s discovered?  Teamwork is one of the most important concepts that campers learn while exploring with Cubelets. Campers also learn about mechanics (or mechanisms), connections, logical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Collaboration is key with Cubelets, and campers become comfortable with sharing their robot blocks along with their ideas in an innovative setting.

What is Ms. Clinton’s favorite part about watching her campers work with Cubelets?

“When they discover that a change can make things work the way they wanted or in a way they never expected,” she answers. “When they make a new discovery they simply have to show the entire room what they have done. When they’re trying to problem solve and they concentrate really hard, the occasional tongue sticks out.”

Cubelets have had a profound effect on Ms. Clinton’s campers. She says that Cubelets have “opened up the wide world of mechanical potential. It lets them take their creativity into reality and see it unfold before their eyes.”

After a summer spent working with Cubelets and observing how children interact with them, Ms. Clinton has this advice for educators working in camps and similar settings:

“Play with them for several hours first. Set a few goals for what you want to create, then try to see it through. This will help you go through the experience that campers go through. Be ready with some coping skills for kids! Don’t feel like you have to fix their issue right away. Help them understand the limitations and capabilities of each cube and let them find out on their own what will happen. This opens up more possibilities.”

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Michael Jaber has seen first-hand the profound effect Cubelets robot blocks have on students. Students who tended to sit back now step up and lead; those who were shy are now willing participants. Those who previously had no interest in STEM have joined the STEAM Team at Jefferson Elementary School in Sheboygan, WI.

Mr. Jaber is the Coordinator of Instructional Technology. Every Thursday afternoon, he spends time in classrooms showing students new technology gadgets. As one of the featured gadgets, Cubelets have piqued the interest of all the students. Cubelets are used to explore robotics using a constructivist approach, and Mr. Jaber has seen teacher Diane Moon successfully use them in the Next Generation Science Standards fifth-grade curriculum.

When Jefferson Elementary first received Cubelets, they used them in a technology center rotation to allow students to explore and determine what the function of each robot block was This lead to purposeful conversations and the students worked together to create the specific robot construction that they had in mind.

“This was not teacher directed but rather student led,” Mrs. Moon said, “and I just looked on and learned as they learned.”

Cubelets are also used in Mrs. Moon’s classes to foster critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. For example, teams would build a robot construction and then be challenged to make improvements to it. This led to discussions and methods of problem solving that were advanced for her? fifth-grade students.

Cubelets often shine when things don’t go according to plan. One of Mrs. Moon’s favorite moments involved a top-heavy robot that kept falling over. The girls who designed the robot knew they had to fix the issue, but they didn’t want to lose any of its features, like lights and movement. Through a series of self-motivated trial and error iterations, the girls solved the weight distribution problem and kept their desired features, practicing their design-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Mrs. Moon found that Cubelets are not limited to technology-based lessons. Cubelets are cross-curricular, and can be used to emphasize lessons in all learning content areas. In one of their language art lessons, for example, they create stories with robot characters. In another, students use Cubelets to act out some of the stories read in class and record them with narration.

Mr. Jaber believes that his role is to support the  staff and students of the Sheboygan Area School District  and let them take the lead on their learning. He believes, Cubelets “encourage the use of higher-level thinking skills, creativity, and teamwork.”

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Jamie Roth uses Cubelets not as an add-on to her curriculum, but as an enhancement to her current lessons.

Teachers are frequently asked to add more into our already packed curriculum,” she says, “and time is always a factor. So, it’s extremely helpful when you find an authentic, engaging, hands-on tool to enhance curriculum and to spark that excitement in our students.”

Ms. Roth teaches second grade at Fireside Elementary in Louisville, Colorado. She has been using Cubelets with her students for two years. When she introduces Cubelets to her students, she utilizes the free lesson plans for grades 1-3 and has had great success with them. She has found the best way to start is to begin with the “Robots and Sensing” lesson. After that, she guides her students through the other three lessons, which give them a deeper understanding of Cubelets and robotic behavior.

“Because of Cubelets, my students communicate and collaborate well with their teammates,” she says. “They are excellent listeners and love sharing their ideas!”

Ms. Roth has found uses for the robot blocks in several different learning content areas. She has integrated Cubelets into her Forces & Motion science unit by having her students document  in their science journals what causes their robots to move, as well as why and how they are moving as they do.

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For a language arts application, she has her students write opinions, procedures, and narratives that involve Cubelets. Students write about topics such as “How to Make My Robot.” Throughout it all, her students are practicing their 21st-century skills – collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and problem-solving – without even realizing it!

Prior to implementing Cubelets in a classroom setting, Ms. Roth used them in a Makerspace. The Innovative Learning Lab had a weekly rotation, and students worked in groups of four while sharing a Cubelets kit. Ms. Roth would issue challenges that students would solve as a group with their Cubelets. At the end of the activity, they would sit in a circle and share their robots with the rest of the class. Students would then fill out a reflection worksheet that evaluated how they and their group members worked together, and what could be improved for next time.

Ms. Roth loves how excited her students get when using Cubelets – she says that they have told her that it’s like they’re not even at school! Her students are always amazed by how many different robots can be made with just three Cubelets blocks, and how each robot construction behaves differently based on its configuration.

Nevertheless, in the beginning Ms. Roth was overwhelmed by the thought of teaching with Cubelets.

I’d never used them before, I was hesitant to learn, and I continued to put them off,” she says. “Then, I realized I don’t have to know everything. My students will help me!”

That is exactly what happened. Ms. Roth learned alongside her students, and, two years later, they are still discovering and teaching her new things.

“Cubelets have really taught my students how to work in teams better than anything else I’ve ever tried in the past fourteen years.”

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