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Last Robot Standing: Introducing Robotics in Middle School With Creative Competition

Pennsylvania Convention Center, Terrace Ballroom II/III

Participate and share: Interactive session
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Director of Education and Mission
BirdBrain Technologies
Sarah FitzHenry is an educator working to provide equitable and engaging educational experiences for all students. As the Learning and Community Manager for BirdBrain Technologies, she connects, supports, and empowers educators all over the world as they bring creative robotics into their classrooms. Sarah is a tech geek, maker, writer, volunteer, and co-host of the Once Upon a Tech podcast. A Jane-of-all-trades, she can be found in Charlottesville, Virginia making mistakes, learning new things, and asking a lot of questions.
Technology teacher
Peabody School
Chris is an artist and teacher living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He used to teach art and include a lot of technology. Now he teaches technology and includes quite a bit of art. His interests pull him in many directions from carpentry to oil painting and bookmaking, from microcontrollers to video effects. He finds very little time to get bored, but mostly he enjoys reading books, watching movies, and making things with his two daughters and his wife.

Session description

Engage middle schoolers using programming, engineering design and teamwork skills. This playfully competitive robot sport (where destruction is not the goal) helps students gain confidence with the foundations of robotics, and lets their creativity shine! You'll leave this session having competed in a hands-on battle using Finch Robots.

Purpose & objective

Our goal with this workshop is to introduce teachers to a successful way to incorporate a playful and engaging robotics unit into their curriculum. We will make available our slideshow to attendees so that they can walk away with a concrete lesson trajectory to prepare students to successfully compete in the robotics competition at the end of the unit. Teachers will get an opportunity to try out an abbreviated version of the competition during the workshop. Though there is a lot of substantial information and strategies in the slideshow, attendees will gain a keener insight into this unit through participating directly with the competition element of the project during the workshop. Not only all of that, the workshop is going to be fun and exciting.

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Outline of our presentation with approximate timings:

-Introduction - Who are we and what we are going to do in this session. (3 min)

-A description of the progression of activities and mini-projects that gets the students ready for the Last Man Standing tournament (10 min)

-Last Man Standing - rules and video introduction (3 min)

-Now it is your turn: Introduce the truncated version for this workshop. (2 min)

-Introduce Birdblox (an iPad programming environment that connects to the Finch Robots) (3 min)

-Attendees will break into small groups to work together with one robot. Pass out robots and iPads to the small groups. (4 min)

-Give attendee small groups an opportunity to connect their robot with the iPad. They will do some brief exploration of the interface and experiments with controlling the robot. (4 min)

-Discuss/demonstrate tips on how best to control the robot using Birdblox. (3 min)

-Attendees will practice scoring points (knocking a pingpong ball off of an upturned cup) and strategizing techniques for offense and defense during the game. (12 min)

-Set up matches between groups while the groups are working
Attendees will compete! (all matches will run simultaneously) (3 minutes)

-Attendees return Finch Robots and tidy up (2 min)

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Supporting research

There are innumerable books, articles, and experts who speak to the benefits of using creative invention, robotics, and playful approaches to learning. One of our main sources of inspiration is Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez’s book Invent to Learn. We have also been growing our understanding of play and its relationship with learning through books like The Playful Classroom by Jed Dearybury and Julie Jones. We have also been looking at the work being done at the International School of Billund in conjunction with Lego regarding playful pedagogy. Additionally we were excited about the research being done at Project Zero about the Pedagogy of Play.

Stager, G., Martinez, S. L. (2019). Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. United States: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Dearybury, J., Jones, J. P. (2020). The Playful Classroom: The Power of Play for All Ages. United States: Wiley.

International School of Billund Case Studies and explanation documents

Project Zero at Harvard research into the pedagogy of play

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Session specifications

Project-, problem- & challenge-based learning
Grade level:
Skill level:
Coaches, Teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices:
Devices not needed
Participant accounts, software and other materials:
Subject area:
ISTE Standards:
For Educators:
  • Advocate for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students.
  • Dedicate planning time to collaborate with colleagues to create authentic learning experiences that leverage technology.
  • Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
The submitter of this session has been supported by a company whose product is being included in the session