How to Run a Robot Club in your Library

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In my mind, makerspace has two sides: the tangible creation and the design work. Tangible creations draw from DIY/mechanical skills, and design work draws from digital skills. Most makerspace activities are a combination of both: in 3D printing you use digital skills to design a 3D model. Then you use mechanical skills to load the filament into the 3D printer, maybe to level the build plate, and you send the model to print.

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Some makerspace activities are much heavier on the tangible side: sewing machines, button makers, paper circuits.

Some are heavy on both design work and tangible skills: laser cutter, die cutter, vinyl cutter, 3D printing, etc.

And others are heaviest on the design work (or the technology), the most popular example being: any type of coding robot.

I think there’s a huge amount of value in learning any type of makerspace  (maybe I’ll get into that in another post one day!) For now I want to talk about why Robot Clubs are so popular and so important, and share how I run mine.

Coding skills are becoming more and more valuable – and so are the critical thinking skills coding encourages. To be a good coder you have to identify a problem or goal, think of a plan, and debug it as you go along. To a certain extent, you have to do that with the coding robots.

This program is a win-win-win. Parents love that kids are learning real coding skills, and kids love learning through play. Plus it’s a win for the library because it shifts people’s perspectives towards an innovative, relevant space.

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What I Used

When I started the weekly Summer Robot Club, for 25 kids, I used the following:

  • 1 Dash Robot
  • 4 Ozobots
  • 3 Spheros
  • 1 Lego Mindstorms EV3
  • Various LittleBits sets
  • Various Snap Circuit sets
  • 4 laptops
  • 5 ipads
  • 1 3D Printer

Since my first sessions of Robot Club, I have added 2 Dash and Dot Wonderpacks, a WaterColourBot, 5 iPads, and many extra LittleBits and Snap Ciruits sets.

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Program Structure

This was a weekly hour long program that ran for 4 weeks at 2 branches during the summer. There were twenty five filled spots both times. The program is set up in a self-directed station structure. Ideally these are the stations, and the number of kids at each:

  • Dash + 1 iPad + roll of masking tape for maze making (3-5 kids)
  • 3 Spheros + 3 iPads + roll of masking tape for maze making, and popscicle sticks for ramp building (6 – 12 kids)
  • 4 Ozobots + paper + green, blue, red, black markers + printouts of Ozobot coding language and brainteasers (4 – 12 kids)
  • 1 Lego Mindstorm EV3 set + 1 iPad (2 – 4 kids)
  • LittleBit sets (1 – 2 kids per set)
  • Snap circuit sets (1 – 2 kids per set)
  • 4 laptops on sites like code.org, Tinkercad, and Code Academy (1 kid per laptop)
  • 1 3D Printer ready to print models designed on Tinkercad by kids using the laptops

This year I plan to include new stations based on the additional technology we have:

  • 2 Dash and Dot Wonder Packs + 2 iPads (6 – 10 kids)
  • 1 WaterColorBot + 1 laptop (1 – 2 kids)
  • 1 roll copper tape + a few button batteries + a few LED lights + paper + conductive pens (4 kids)

On the first session I spent about 10 minutes introducing the kids to the different robots with demonstrations and short videos. Then I sorted kids into the stations they wanted to start with.  Kids were encouraged to stay with that station for the whole session, or to switch only once. Every week after that kids would sort themselves into stations as they arrived.

At the end of the 4 sessions, each kid had to show me one thing they had coded (sphero going through a maze, Dash saying hello and doing a little dance, an ozobot completing a coded path). Every kid got a RoboKid certificate, with recommendations for websites where they could keep learning more code.

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Challenges and Tips

I think the most outstanding challenge from start-up is learning all the technology. Thankfully, all of the items I’ve listed are extremely user friendly. They are designed so that kids can pick them up and learn by trial and error. Even if you’ve never coded before, you could probably put together a pretty complex program for Dash on your first try. All of the robots come with their own apps, specifically designed to make your job easy. I also make the Tickle app available to the kids because it allows for more advanced interactive programming (for example, you can build a screen of buttons and have each button control the robot in a different way).

To make things more interesting than just the challenges in the app, let kids create a maze using masking tape on the floor. They then have to use the coding apps to direct their robots through – commanding them to go forward for x seconds ad x speed, stop, turn left, go forward again, etc.

The other big challenge is overseeing so many kids with so many pieces of technology. I quickly learned that the more volunteers I could have with me in the room, the better.

It may seem daunting to introduce so many new educational tools at once, but I really think it’s worth it. Each one teaches coding in a slightly different way. And the more new technology kids can teach themselves, the more ready they will be for the world of coding languages. Kids enjoyed having the choice, and kids who struggled with one type of coding could switch to another type and excel.

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I will keep adding more to this post as I think of more tips. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I will elaborate. Any Robot Club stations I’m missing?

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