ASK AN EDUCATOR – “How do I add a robotics class to my high school classroom?”

J.Miraldi asks:

“I am also a High school technology teacher, I currently teach electricity and electronics. I have been givin the task of adding a robotics class next year. I have never done any programming what so ever, but have a pretty solid grasp on electronics. what do you suggest I do with my 20 students. I have a full shop: lots of components, breadboards, soldering irons, band saw, drill press, 7 desktop PCs, and even have a LPKF S-42 protmat(got it with a grant!!)
I was thinking about arduino and shields to build some robots that can perform some basic tasks.
Let me know what you think”

Starting a robotics program can be a blast and if you are bringing electronics and mechanics knowledge to the table, you are really mostly there. When I taught high school freshman, we were challenged with this same task. The existing curriculum was old and fragmented, and we wanted to find a way to teach the students the fundamentals of electronics and programming through rudimentary robotics. Each of our classrooms were outfitted with the same shop equipment you have, sans PCB mill :-), and we were able to establish a robotics curriculum that now lets 450 freshman individually design, construct, program and operate their own robots……oh and its on a pretty tight budget.

The students start off by learning basic electronics and soldering by completing circuits like LED flip flops, playing with 555 timers, etc. until they are ready to understand and solder our micro controller. I designed a carrier board, like Arduino, that uses the PICAXE micro controller, called the Kilroy. (If you are interested in using PICAXE, I will send you my GERBERs for the Kilroy and you are free to make your own, just submit another question and I will respond via email.) Depending on the programming aptitude of your students, PICAXE might be a good initial way to go as it is programmed in BASIC and pretty easy to use. Although honestly, after spending the last couple of years playing with Arduino, it is considerably more fun and capable then the PICAXE.

The students are then given:

1 – 12 x 12 x 1/8″ PVC or ABS sheet (the reason for plastic is they use heat guns to conform it.
2 – CDs
2 – Continuous rotation servos (we used to by Parallax servos until their prices went up. You shouldn’t spend more then about $7 each here)
1 – Micro controller board (whether PICAXE or Arduino)

They are then tasked with designing, constructing, programming and operating their bots through a series of challenges. Two of them are the:

Maze – we made 4′ x 8′ plywood mazes that the students use timed turns to navigate through. You certainly can up the challenge by introducing optical sensing, touch sensors, rotation sensors, etc.

Race – the students have a drag race to see whose bot is fastest. They experiment with running their servos with batteries in series and parallel as well as changing wheel diameter, gearing and adding gripping material to the CDs.

We also have a fantastic robotics program for the upper 10-12 grade students that Charles, another teacher blogger here on Adafruit, has established over the past 5 years. The course initially uses VEX robotics kits to get the students more familiar with structural design, gearing, RF, and sensors. They are then tasked with designing robots for different competitions (things like soccer, alternative locomotion, etc) The follow up course then uses Arduino and our VEXMAS VEX interface shield to construct some much higher level bots. He and I even went as far as to build a scale house in the classroom and tasked the students with designing bots that could enter a structure, climb stairs and save a doll from a simulated disaster situation!

The moral of the story is that teaching robotics in high school is the perfect opportunity for you as a teacher to use your imagination and creativity to engage and challenge students. Have them see how robotics can bridge the gap between programming, circuit design and construction and use those skills together to make some pretty neat stuff.

Cheers and good luck!

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1 Comment

  1. Custobots ( sells the Ollo kit, as well as a few others that are suitable for education environments. They have been working with local schools (high school and post secondary schools), so have some expertise in this area. I would have loved to have seen a robotics course in high school – hopefully my daughter will see these things when she hits high school in a few years.

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