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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Making Robots Captivates Kids' Imaginations

Building robots inspires such passion in high school seniors Violet and Kjersti that they've begun mentoring younger robotics teams to teach STEM skills -- and save their school's robotics program.
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How Making Robots Captivates Kids' Imaginations (Transcript)

Violet: I think school would be a lot more engaging if we were asked to solve complex problems. Building a robot and seeing it run and seeing it complete tasks is definitely more satisfying than any schoolwork I've ever done. Getting an A on the test, that's cool, but seeing something I have built with my own hands move is way more satisfying.

So I'll try connecting a one-ten-nine. I'll put a jumper underneath.

Man: Yeah, just don't overlap them, right? Start with three.

Woodie: I think a reasonable way to think about robotics is birthing a machine that can be over there and do something that you either taught it to do, or that you're commanding it to do now. But something that you created that's apart from you that does your bidding.

Violet: So do you guys know how to test a motor with a battery?

Girl: Not really.

Violet: Okay, here.

So I grew up in a really geeky family. My dad is one of those super geeks. He always showed me sci-fi movies and so he's the one who kinda showed me into what robots are.

Kjersti: You could do it like that, or you could do it to the top here, so that way the hub would be on the outside.

It was something completely new for me. It was something that I'd never heard about before, especially heard about kids being able to do. And it was really hard, which was something that was exciting for me, a challenge.

Woodie: One of the things that makes robotics an ideal thing for young people to do is that that child obeying the parent's command is a real thrill. When you first see someone build something and they get it together and then they wiggle the joystick. "Wow, it works, it works!"

Violet: I think the fact that I'm kind of a stubborn person contributed to me being a good robotics engineer. When I see a problem, I wanna find a solution, I wanna figure it out. And if I run into a few failures on the way, I'm not gonna let that stand in my way. I'm gonna keep trying at it and keep going until I've found a solution.

Kjersti: Just feel over all of the little cables back here to make sure that none of them are loose or sticking out a little bit. Drive train, make sure that none of the chains are off, 'cause that's a problem that we've encountered.

Some of the ways that we've gotten better at building robotics are just in very simple mechanical ways, like being really good at constructing simple things and knowing which screws to use in which situation, so that things don't fall apart later on when you're using your robot. And then other things are very elegant designs. You have to see the problem in front of you and go through a bunch of different designs before you get to the one that looks the best and functions the best.

Violet: So one of the main parts of the game for this year is, you have to lift these rings up to different pegs and put them on the pegs. We use pulleys that are controlled by a winch. The lift comes up.

We use rectangular tubing here, along with your average drawer slides.

The way this robot moves around is the drive train right here,

There's a chain connecting each of the motor to the wheels,

We have two motors for each side,

We have an IR, infrared seeker,

This is what we call the brick,

And actually, brick is where all our programming goes, and it has wires going up to all the sensors.

The brick talks to the motors and tells them to run essentially.

I think that that's pretty much our robot.

Violet: I would like you guys to do, in this extra meeting time that we have, is try to see how many challenges you can complete.

After last year, I started just looking back, thinking back to all the effort I had put into robotics and all the time I spent doing it. And I realized how much I had changed, how much I had grown more confident in myself.

Okay, so for how about right now, you start from over here? And drive up and try to balance on the bridge.

I wanted to give that to other people, so that's why I started mentoring robotics students, trying to get people to understand why this is such a great thing.

Kjersti: The first thing I said to myself when I decided I was gonna be a teacher was that I wasn't gonna give them any answers, and I wasn't gonna build the robot for them.

Girl: Because one to six was not fast enough, right?

Kjersti: Yes.

I try to be better at guiding them towards an answer using their thought processes instead of my thought processes.

Check the sensor cables, so just go over these guys. Just pretty much make sure everything is plugged in and then--

I'm teaching them things, but more than that, I'm giving them a real problem to solve and I feel like I'm really giving them the skills to accomplish this certain problem.

Man: All set?

Announcer: Looks like we have the checking now, all the teams are set for match number six, here in Daly City.

Woman: Controllers please.

Woodie: There is a lot of failure in robotics work, but it's not total failure and you don't feel like a fool. When you're going through the loops, designing something, the first time you try it, it probably didn't work and what that teaches you is how to do the next loop to get better and better.

Announcer: You have less than one minute left. Four-four-seven-five in danger of tipping over.

Kjersti: Learning the art of failing is sort of a key aspect of robotics because if you don’t know how to recover from the failure, then you're not gonna be able to build a robot that encompasses all those failures and turns it into something beautiful that works really well at what it does.

Announcer: Six-zero-zero-one is moving very fast, flipping to block.

Woodie: If you follow textbooks only, you think there's a set of problems at the end of the chapter that have unique answers. That's very, very unlike real life. So learning about how to fail and bounce back is a fundamentally important thing to know about life. And learning that the people that come back and try again are the ones that are gonna get ahead.

Announcer: And that's a match, great match everybody.


Violet: I think that robotics would be really good for those kids who just think school's a waste of time. I know a lotta kids who are really smart, but get bad grades 'cause they just don't see the point, and with something like robots, it's so captivating and exciting and addicting, obviously, that I think it would engage people a lot more and make people more willing to put more effort into their schoolwork.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Vanessa Carr
  • Editor: Matthew Beighley
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Commissioning Producer: Zachary Fink
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was co-produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television as a companion to the PBS special, Is School Enough?

Is School Enough? Video Series

Edutopia's new series profiles young people who are making their learning more authentic by taking it into their own hands, on their own time. This series is produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television, as a companion to an hour-long PBS special that is now available to watch.

More Edutopia Coverage on Engaging Girls in STEM

Visit the Is School Enough? series page to see more videos on informal learning.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

"Birthing a robot" - what a captivating phrase, and so true.

Birthing books, courses, teams, projects, etc it's all about seeing a dream come true. OK, there are problems to solve, but the drive is all about seeing something behave the way you wish it too. Iterative learning too. Magic

Dharmendrakumar's picture
12 th grade Physics Teacher , Stockbridge ,Ga

Do you have any topic for project base learning in physics .

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Hi! You may want to check out this video, where kids in a physics class use project-based learning to design an airplane wing:


We also have some good downloads on the page that the teacher made available from their lesson plan.

And here's a discussion in our community where teachers are talking about PBL & Physics:


Best of luck to you!

Susan Chen's picture

Violet and Kjersti have inspired me to do some more research on robotics programs. I have previously associated such a program as being only feasible starting in secondary school. Seeing them mentor younger students was inspiring. It would be great if I could start a robotics program at my elementary school.

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