I am helping with an after school robot club with the Lego Mindstorms EV3. Ten middle school kids, disappointingly all boys. (Next time we do this I will recruit but this is not my club.) The program is run by a guy (Brian) from Montana Tech University with a grant to have these after school clubs. He has a list of objectives the kids are supposed to get the robot to do. It is real interesting to watch the kid/robot interaction. Some kids are strictly on task with the objectives on the sheet of paper. Other kids not so much. I wander around the room and observe (I am the official school representative) and help if I can. They are using the EV3 software which I am not real conversant with yet but I can get the kids pointed in the right direction. I was so tempted to tell the kids that took off on a tangent to try and stay on target. I watched what they were doing and let them go with it. They wanted to control the robot with a Bluetooth game controller one of the kids had brought in. Absolutely nothing to do with the task list. These kids were deep into the problem solving loop. Trial and error, head scratching. Trial and error, more head scratching. Absolutely great to watch. They got it going with the controller and then with their smart phone. The process they went through was what teachers’ dream of. Kids totally focused on solving a problem and working through the logic of why it will not work.
Even the kids that do not wander off task are deep into problem solving skills. Since there is only one person (Brian) that knows the software and the kids are in about six groups they have to do a lot of learning on their own in regards to the software and the logic required for the program. It is truly amazing what they can figure out with little or no help. Admittedly this is a smart group of geeks but I am still amazed. They have enough knowledge of what a loop and an If statement do that if I suggest they should use them they are good to go. A combination of trial-and-error and head scratching gets them to where they want to be.
I have helped with a class using Karel the Dog (a code.org digital, on screen programmable dog). The difference in the enthusiasm and effort to reach the objective is dramatic. Yes, the Lego robot takes a lot more time. The robot has to be built and there are cables to deal with and a lot of table space is needed but from my somewhat limited observations the results are well worth the added time and hassle. If the funding is available the physical robot is worth it, especially for after school clubs. Not only is the programming and problem solving in play, but the actual building of the robot is an educational experience for many. Many kids simply do not play with building type toys any more.
I have to make sure this club keeps going. The Mindstorms robots belong to Mt Tech so once Brian is done with the club we lose the robots. I need to do some head scratching.