PomPomBots: Creative Robots for ages 8+ (To be Continued…)

Contributions by Virginia McCreary, Judy Lee, and more FabLabbers

With a “Plushy Robots” all-girls summer camp coming up, Team FabLab was tasked with creating a way for each camper to go home with a robot they programmed themselves with just a couple of constraints: it had to be cheap, so we could make 10 of them, and it had be made of soft materials, since we promised Plushy Robots.

Sketching out different ideas of what could be done with Arduino’s basic servo motor program, I vividly remember Judy (@judieelee) exclaiming in a wide-eyed eureka moment: “Pom Pom Bots”

Since then, we’ve run this activity with hundreds of kids and seen every one of them get comfortable with plugging in the wires of the servo and changing the speed and movement of that servo by adjusting Arduino code. What follows is a lesson plan detailing the steps to run this activity yourself.

Setup & Introduction

If you’re not familiar with poms, they’re the colorful soft balls you can buy in big bags at your local craft store. Together with some googly eyes and hot glue, you can make some pretty adorable creatures. Once you add felt and fuzzy sticks (pipe cleaners) to the mix, the sky’s the limit.

The materials per student for this activity include:

  • Arduino Uno with USB cable
  • Microservo (9 gram)
  • 3 jumper cables

The materials you should have piles of for students to share include:

  • PomPoms of many sizes and colors, Fuzzy Sticks, Felt
  • Googly eyes
  • Scissors for fabric, wire snips for fuzzy sticks.
  • LOW TEMP hot glue guns

In addition to these materials, you will also need a nearby computer lab (we used laptops) to program the Arduinos. This activity involves constructing the robot and programming the robot. How you set up your space will depend on how many participants you have and how many helpers you have.

We had three 8 foot tables for hot gluing and pipe-cleaner-sculpting and two 8 foot tables set up with 10 laptops for a group of 20 kids. We had 6 instructors (sometimes a couple more volunteers) for 20 kids, which was great. I can’t recommend going into an Arduino-programming activity without an instructor per 2 or 3 computers — it’s really important to guide students through the lesson on an individual basis. The success of this activity has been in large part because the instructors are familiar enough with Arduino code so that they can spot typos and common errors right away. Learning perseverance in debugging can wait for another day — we’re trying to get these kids comfortable with programming, to be able to see themselves as programmers, and staring at a screen for more than a few minutes without knowing what’s wrong can be very discouraging.

Start the class by gathering students around a table with some example bots you built yourself. Have the bot running so kids see the result of the activity and get their gears turning. We often use this time to egg the kids into a conversation on robots in general. You get to ask kids, “What is a robot, anyway? Is it a machine that does something for us? At what point does a machine become a robot? Does it have to make decisions for itself? What’s the difference between following instructions and making decisions?”

I encourage you to ask kids what they think of robots and what they think the future holds any chance you get, you’ll be surprised with what they come up with. My favorite exchange that’s happened during this activity:

At what point would you call a computer intelligent?

“When it makes you happy”


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Maker Education in Shenzhen

Our tour bus made its way through a construction site, backing up and doing 3 point turns (pretty good bus driver) running into dead ends trying to get across to this brand new school, “Harbor School”, finished a month ago. I didn’t realize it at first but I guess our visit was a sort of inauguration for the school’s makerspace. We met the headmaster, who was really passionate about the idea of project based learning, enough to successfully argue for the funds for this really beautiful space, stocked with Raspberry Pi for all the computers, LEGO-look-alike robot kits, soldering irons and LittleBits.

The school as a whole was really impressive, like I was jealous I didn’t get to go there. They had their own dinosaur skeleton and in the common spaces by the stairwells there were TVs playing “Planet Earth” and also the biggest laser cutter I’ve seen in my life.

There were a couple of American guys that worked there that we chatted with. If I remember right, one of them was there because he had done a lot of maker education and was hired by the school, and the other guy had been hired by the government to determine a way to get maker education to fit in with the curriculum.

This is a really interesting problem in China as well as the USA: we’ve got these really rigorous point by point learning goals that at a certain age you’re supposed to have a particular skill. When you require that people meet goals, you introduce the problem of evaluating whether or not the goals are met, resulting in the tremendous problems created by standardized tests, teaching to the test, etc. But now we’ve got thousands of teachers (American and apparently Chinese, too) who see the engagement and creativity that comes out of project-based learning / maker education. If you want to see a wider adaptation of this style of learning, however, you still have to be able to evaluate it in a way that proves the standards are being met (until such a time that standards can be done away with ;).

So that’s what this guy’s job was (if you’re reading this, email me!): coming up with a way to evaluate students who have learned in a classroom that wasn’t teaching to the test: but building stuff, being creative, following their own passions. How do you prove to a bureaucracy that they’re learning better than someone who studied what would be on the test? Cool job, I hope to keep up with his progress.

I’ve got high hopes for the kids growing up here. They’re going to be building all kinds of cool stuff. Maybe futuristic trains, telescopes, rocket ships and submarines like the poster on their wall 🙂