On a bright spring morning, a group of exuberant 1st graders gathered in our school library to cheer on their 5th grade buddies in their first ever “robot battle”—a contest that had student-created bots attempting to push one another out of a circular ring. This culminating event followed intensive work over several weeks during which our librarian (often assisted by a college robotics student) gathered 5th graders in small groups to design and pilot their own unique sumo robots built with LEGO Mindstorm components.
During the first few sessions, students worked from printed instructions, but as their confidence grew, they were invited to experiment, and each group created their own design, iteratively improving and adjusting as challenges arose. As a result, the field of contenders was quite diverse– some were small and some were quite large; some had scoops and others had lances. Our librarian deliberately limited the amount of help offered to students as they were building, giving only bits of advice here and there (and helping with Bluetooth connection issues). Otherwise he left the designing and building up to the children, often learning along with them as different arrangements of motors and different chassis designs were tried. Although students experimented with programming, all chose to pilot their robots manually during the robot battle. (This leaves us with a clear goal for adding challenge to the unit next time around: programming robots that autonomously battle.)
As the duel ensued and a winner was ultimately declared, it was clear that our budding robot designers and the cheering onlookers were inspired—by the good-natured competition, by the opportunity for student-led learning and by the chance to see an idea become a reality. The 1st graders were amazed by what their buddies had constructed, and their enthusiasm provided extra excitement for the 5th graders. One impressed 1st grader summed it up perfectly: “I can’t wait to be in 5th grade!”