Making Students Creative Producers

Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

Since my early days as a classroom teacher in Appalachia, I’ve  searched for opportunities to allow students to become creative producers. The image in this story comes from a Makeathon sponsored by Birdbrain Technologies. The students designed and created robots for a Petting Zoo at the Children’s Museum. It was great to see young children and their parents interacting with the robot pets.

Why a Robot Petting Zoo? Tom Lauwers, the Founder & Chief Roboticist for Birdbrain Technologies, wanted to give digital natives as opportunity to use robotics as a jumping off point in order to become creative producers. Tom did not want a competition; he wanted a forum for making, designing, building, prototyping, and creating. According to the Makeathon website:

Our Makeathon is a free event where high school students can experience a fun introduction to programming, design, and engineering. The Makeathon is designed to be beginner friendly. The goal is to introduce kids to technology in a creative and welcoming way.

The idea for the initial Makeathon came from Techhive who held the first event at the Lawrence Science Center in Berkeley. Tom reworked the ideas and I along with Bambi Brewster and Aparna Brown assisted Tom to develop the guidelines for the first Robot Petting Zoo in Pittsburgh. Tom wanted to have two full days, a Saturday and Sunday, for the high school students to learn the basic principles of building and programming with the Hummingbird Kit. The students applied on a first-come, first served basis. Thirteen students – seven girls and six boys – signed up. Using a survey designed by Aparna the students were paired into teams. It was amazing to see how quickly the teams began to collaborate. The students also were challenged to design pets with whom a young child would interact. The “pets” could be real or imaginary creatures.

Using cardboard, tape, boxes, and scraps of fabric the students created a unicorn, dragon. elephant, monkey, or bird. Along the way the students used  the CREATE lab visual programmer or Scratch to make the pets interactive. Tom and a group of adult mentors gave suggestions to improve the engineering and the programming elements. By the second day, Sunday, the students had seven robots ready to take to the MakeShop at the Children’s Museum for the Pittsburgh MakerFaire.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

The youngsters at the Children’s Museum found the robots quite engaging and interactive. Even the parents got into the act. The visits were short usually lasting less than a few minutes, but the interaction will hopefully create an interest from the tykes in robotics. According to Tom Lauwers, “The Robot Petting Zoo was a wonderful success, hundreds of kids at the Children’s museum interacted with the robots, and stunningly, all the robots survived the two day experience!”

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