Turns out Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus had it right all along! In the era of the Next Generation Science Standards, there is a great deal of evidence that experiential and project-based learning are effective approaches to education. As described in the Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences, project-based classrooms provide opportunities for students to “investigate questions, propose hypotheses and explanations, discuss their ideas, challenge the ideas of others, and try out new ideas.” All of this leads to higher test scores than in traditional classrooms.
While we educators may lack the magic necessary to shrink our bodies or travel through the solar system, technology can be an excellent, “magic-like” tool for teaching project-based learning across a wide variety of subjects. When implemented with care and intention, electronics and tech can enhance and expand the realm of possibilities, providing students with direct, hands-on experience of phenomena. A handful of carefully chosen equipment and materials provide an open-ended platform for endless variations of creativity, application, and exploration.
One of the major obstacles in getting started is figuring out what, and how much, to choose. The plethora of options can be daunting and it is not always obvious how to incorporate into a classroom. Here are four principles to help guide you as you make lesson and product choices:
1. Use what you have;
2. Let the students lead (peer-to-peer and even peer-to-teacher education);
3. Broken is better; and
4. Pass it on!
The remainder of this article will expand on the first principle: Use what you have. We will publish more in-depth articles on the remaining principles in the weeks to come, so stay tuned!
Principle 1: Use what you have.
Whether you are looking to teach history or robotics, there are many learning opportunities within everyday materials, particularly when paired with “smart” devices like computers, microcontrollers, or other Integrated Circuits (“ICs”).
Investing in an appropriate microcontroller* for your classroom gives your students more diverse options for projects and invites cross-disciplinary learning opportunities, a key foundation of NGSS. Microcontrollers can add coding to art, and art to coding. If you need some help choosing an effective microcontroller for your classroom, here’s an overview of some common, beginner-friendly microcontrollers.
Free or inexpensive components can be used in alternative ways: LEDs are also light sensors, motors generate electricity when spun, and speakers can be used as a microphone! Finding alternative uses for parts offers students a fun challenge and is a great way to explore connections across fundamental phenomena: Why is a motor also a generator? What does this tell us about how electricity and magnetism work together?
Encourage your students to ask deeper questions and look for connections.
Is there a closet full of old computers, telephones, printers, etc? Perfect! Old tech is often easier to understand because the pieces inside are larger and easier to see than in newer technology. Larger parts are also easier to harvest, or pull out for closer examination and/or use in other projects.
Guide the students in taking apart unused devices. If it’s broken, can the students figure out why? Is it possible to fix or hack it to do something different? If not, how could the students use the parts in new ways? What parts might the students harvest for other projects?
Here is a list of some parts that can be harvested without specialized tools and used in a wide variety of projects:
Motors can be used in a wide variety of projects including robotics, puppet shows, art projects, and creative music-making. This is a wonderful alternative to traditional robotics programs as it allows for a wider variety of ingenuity and a deep understanding of how motors function.
There are different types of motors that require different signals to turn on: DC motors, stepper motors, and servo motors are the most common. DC motors can be powered directly with a battery, while stepper motors will require a more finely tuned signal from a computer or microcontroller. Unsure what type of motor you discovered? Use three or four AA batteries or a 9V battery to touch the motor connections and explore how and when it moves.
From special effects to science experiments, sound is exciting! Harvested speakers offer the opportunity to observe how sound waves are generated, how sound travel through different materials, and how waves move in general.
Connect a 9V battery to the speaker terminals to move and “beep” it, or use the speaker with a microcontroller and/or other amplifier circuit to create instruments, sound effects, and music. Speakers can also be used as an input when connected to an audio amplification circuit.
Electromechanical parts like switches, pushbuttons, relays, and connectors
Switches and buttons provide a way for us to interact with circuits and electronics. They can be used to explore analog and digital signals, build logic gates, create cause-and-effect machines, and design communication systems, as well as many other possibilities.
A relay is an electronic switch for two separate circuits that make a “click” sound when activated. Relays are one way to control motors with a lower-power circuit.
Electrical connectors come in an astounding variety of types, shapes, mechanical and electrical connection mechanisms. They help make the electronics sturdier and easier to store, transport, and modify. And of course, they can be used to add flair to projects sans electricity!
Many electronics have infrared (IR) transmitters and/or receivers, which can be hacked to build remote controls for robots and other projects. Solar path lights and CD/DVD drives contain light sensors, security lights have passive IR sensors, and many printers have optical encoders!
If you have tech that qualifies as antique, you may be able to find transistors that can be reused (in newer tech, they are so small that they are invisible to the human eye). Observing transistors in older tech is an excellent pathway through computer history, design, and hardware function.
If observation of transistors isn’t the educational opportunity you need, they can be used to add autonomy and logic to circuits, or can act as a controller for output devices like lights, speakers, or low-power motors.
Mechanical parts like springs, gears, drive shafts, etc.
One of the main challenges in doing engineering projects is having make functional gears. Avoid all of that by taking apart a printer and pulling out the mechanical components. Electronic toys that move are another good source for gears and mechanical mechanisms, and can be hacked or “mashed” together in combinations that span delightful and eerie.
A quick note on safety when doing take-aparts:
Unplug the electronics and leave unplugged for a minimum of two (2) weeks.
Avoid large appliances, microwaves, and ink-jet printers (or just take out the ink cartridges)
Always wash hands afterwards. Students should keep food and drink in closed containers and off the tables.
Do not force anything open or closed. The biggest hazard with take-apart activities are sharps caused by broken parts when someone tries to pull a case open without properly removing all the screws.
Even without harvesting parts, seeing the inside of electronics is an effective and memorable way to explore how these devices are made and how they function. Once students see the insides of a few different devices, they will quickly identify connections across all electronics and have a better understanding of the “magic” behind the tech.
Aside from electronics, there are tons of useful and versatile materials all around us! Cardboard, paper, plastic containers, pipe cleaners, brads, clothespins, and office supplies are incredibly versatile. Use these materials in conjunction with the tech you have available, or as stand-alone project-based lessons in science, math, history, and other subjects. How might your students explore various ways to build moving mechanisms with cardboard and paper brads? How might your students use colored paper to explore how light is absorbed and reflected? How might your students explore and visualize sound?
Often, the key to incorporating project-based learning is providing the appropriate challenge. The best challenges allow for a wide variety of creations, are accessible and relevant to the students’ lives, and are as fun to mess up as they are to achieve! Challenges do not need to be binary or only one goal or path-oriented. The most effective challenges are those with the most room for surprises and “broken” rules.
With all of that said (well, written), the only thing you really need to remember is that you can do a lot, including incorporating and meeting NGSS, with what you already have. Look around, look inside, and look for connections!
Please reach out if you have any questions about this principle or if you’re looking for ideas in getting started. Happy learning!
* Wait wait wait… what is a microcontroller? Excellent question! A microcontroller is a “simple computer” that runs one program at a time. Examples of microcontrollers are Internet routers, TV remotes, and video game controllers.
Create, build, and play an obstacle course for Brush Bots! This is an activity for all ages that teaches the basics of circuits and design thinking while encouraging and inspiring creativity, discovery, and collaboration. Most importantly, it’s super fun! (But seriously though, watch the video it’s adorbs and will make you smile)
This tutorial will show you how to build (and source parts for) a Brush Bot, how to design and build mini golf inspired obstacles, and how to use the design thinking process to create a Brush Bot that can accomplish each of the obstacles. Go forth and build your own Robot Mini Golf course!!
Conductive material (e.g. copper tape, wire, paperclips, aluminum foil, etc.)
2. Brush Bot Body & Feet
Since there are tons of ways to build the body, no list is absolute. Here are some suggestions (upcycling materials are highly encouraged & also cut down on cost!):
Toothpicks and/or wooden skewers
Cardboard, cardboard, and more cardboard!
And maybe throw in some electronics in there also (see Step 4) 🙂
What the heck are Brush Bots??
Brush Bots, or Bristle Bots, are the simplest possible form of a robot: a motor with a counterweight and a battery attached to simple body. The counterweight causes the motor to shake, which, in turn, causes the body to shake.
The name “Brush Bot” comes from
a common design that uses toothbrush bristles as the “feet”. The term has been adapted to refer to any simple robot based on the counterweight motor design. Another super fun variation are Art Bots, which use markers or other materials to draw while they wobble around!
There are tons of ways to build a Brush Bot. A couple of approaches are shown in the photos. What other ways can you invent to build a Brush Bot?
Building the Obstacles
My obstacles were inspired by mini golf and through my experience in teaching Brush Bots and seeing various approaches from students and educators. I wanted obstacles that would be fun, accessible, and interesting for kids and adults, so I came up with four obstacles of varying difficulty.
Obstacle 1: Enter the Arena
Starting from 1 – 2 feet away, the Brush Bot must enter the opening to an arena. This can be made by marking an arena with tape, or by building a simple fence from cardboard.
Obstacle 2: Spiral Maze
The spiral maze is a crowd favorite and is a great obstacle for younger kids to tackle. Build the spiral maze by scoring a long piece of cardboard (~ 4 feet), then gluing it in a spiral pattern on a 2′ x 2′ cardboard square.
I decorated mine to look like a galaxy by spray painting the outside gold and the inside black, then gluing glow-in-the-dark stars on the inside.
Obstacle 3: Ramp
Although easy to make, this obstacle has proved to be the most challenging. I recommend using a low incline (less than 15 degrees) and adding a rough surface (e.g. sandpaper) on top of the cardboard.
Build the ramp by cutting out two identical triangles and then adhering a cardboard square on top.
Recreate or modify this Robot Head or create your own whimsical obstacle!
Building the Brush Bot(s)!
1. Dismantle and gut an electric toothbrush! Your mission: find the motor.
For the Assure-brand “Soft Bristle Electric Toothbrushes” that you can get at the Dollar Store (just $1 woot woot!), twist off the bottom, pull out the battery holder, and pull out the motor. You may need to tap (or hit) the open toothbrush on the floor to get the motor out, or (gently) use pliers to pull it out.
2. Grab (or build!!) a battery box, and connect the positive side (red wire) to one of the motor leads*.
3. Connect the negative side of the battery box (black wire) to the other motor lead.
Orientation doesn’t matter — try switching them and see what happens!
4. Design and build a body for the lil ‘bot and give it a way to move. Iteration through different designs is recommended and encouraged!
Some common and easy ways to make the Brush Bot move are to use toothbrush bristles, toothpicks, or popsicle sticks to make legs/feet. Try different objects and object placements to see what happens.
*The motor leads are those gold tabs with holes by the white cap of the motor.
Conquering Obstacles W/ Design Thinking
Design Thinking is a problem-solving method. Traditionally, it’s applied for design of hardware and software products in various engineering disciplines, but this process can be applied to pretty much any aspect of life. The Design Thinking process comes in variety of flavors, here is a common breakdown:
1. Design: Who is your audience? What, or who, are you designing for? What are constraints for your product/project?
2. Ideate: How can you solve this problem? Come up with at least 3 – 5 different approaches — impossible solutions are totally acceptable in this phase.
3. Prototype: Choose one of your (possible) solutions and build it.
4. Test/Observe: Test your prototype and observe how it behaves. Does it solve your problem? If not, what’s wrong with it? If it does, can it be done in a simpler or easier way?
5. Adjust: Change your prototype based on your testing and observations.
Repeat steps 3 – 5 until you’ve arrived at a solution that solves your problem, satisfies your audience (or teacher), and meets any design constraints.
You can go through the design thinking process before, during, or after the workshop. One of the benefits of having obstacles to conquer is that it motivates students to naturally go through this process without having to sit and think about it.
Compete & Add Prizes
That’s it! You’re ready to tackle and challenge your students, friends, and/or family to a game of Robot Mini Golf!
A bonus feature would be to add prizes for anyone who successfully completes either one or all of the obstacles. My favorite method is to give out small prizes (e.g. stickers or buttons) to anyone who builds a Brush Bot that completes at least one of the obstacles, and a larger prize for anyone whose Brush Bot successfully completes all of the obstacles. This is a great way to adapt this into a workshop for folks of all ages — older kids and adults can try to conquer all of the obstacles while the younger kids still get to participate and have a blast! 😀
Please feel free to share your Robot Mini Golf stories in the comments! Would lovelovelove to hear anecdotes of how this activity went with students and/or to see photos of your unique Brush Bot(s) and obstacle course creations!