Electronics
Muse of Nerds: Robots and Creative Writing

Ben, Luke, Mary and Lilianna Design Their Robot Camps

This past summer Siena College held robotics camps for children ages 7 – 12. They were a huge success, with children learning how to build and program robots, plus, understand the physics behind the movements. Working with NXT can be fun, but challenging. To keep up the interest behind the mechanics, each camp had a storyline that the kids were following. Every day of camp involved reading a chapter of an adventure, with the challenge of the day reflecting what the characters were facing in the story. It highlighted what robots can be used for in real life (underwater, outer-space.)

For the campers, it was a fun week. However, for my two children and the camp director’s two children, that camp took a year to put together as part of their creative writing program. That’s right- a summer robotics camp was constructed by children for children. No wonder it worked so well. How did this come about? How does creative writing tie into robots?

A few summers ago, Dr. Michele McColgan (next month’s interviewee for Muse of Nerds), a physics instructor at Siena College, ran a robotics camp for kids using The Mayan Adventure. Instead of random assignments on building and programming each day, the kids followed a storyline where their robots helped the characters on their adventure. Four kids in the camp were her two children, Mary and Ben, and my two, Lilianna and Luke.

Michele really loved teaching robotics to kids this way, but there weren’t many programs like The Mayan Adventure. Robotics are not a staple in the average classroom yet, so teaching curricula are limited. I offered to help her by writing up some story lines that she could tie into robot challenges. We both thought it would be a great idea to work together. And then life continued to keep us busy.

We both homeschool our children, and we thought of a great way to meet both needs. The four children would write story lines and then put together robotic challenges for a future camp. This would help Michele in her work, plus provide a fun and exciting creative writing and advanced robotics course for our kids. This is the same group that did RPG’s with creative writing with me the year before.

At the time, Lilianna was 14, Luke 11, Mary 11, and Ben was 10. The boys and girls worked as two groups. They spent Thursday afternoons in the Fall at my house writing their stories. The challenge was to have each chapter end with some movement challenge the robots could accomplish. The girls had written a real NXT robot into the storyline. The boys had a character inside a huge robot that acted out the challenges.

Ben sets up the “lake” challenge.

Lilianna setting up the “Spiderbot” challenge.

In the Spring, the kids went over to the Siena campus to work on robot design and programming. Since it would be a beginner’s camp, example robots and code would be provided for the students. The four kids also put up a website where all of the information for camp was held. The boy’s story was called New World, and the girls’ The Geek, The Rat and The Underwater Dome. They took photos and screenshots, illustrated scenes, even made videos to help the campers. Michele scheduled four camps: two for each story. The first group would be a test camp, which the four designers could adjust what didn’t work in time for the next group.

‘Spiderbot’ challenge.

Reading that day’s chapter out loud.

Luke helping a student.

The barely had to change a thing. Their hard work and attention to detail made for flawless camps where students were engaged and learning. The four designers were helpers at the camp to watch their hard work come to life. It was amazing to see a real-life goal be reached. I was so proud of them. Michele was proud, and also relieved to finally something new for her popular camps.

Our kids had dreamed of putting their robot stories into a book and become very rich, but for now, everything is free online (click on the titles above.) Please check it out, and leave some comments and feedback that I will pass on to the designers. If you use it in your classroom, let me know!

Rebecca Angel

Rebecca Angel was one of those kids that put the dragon book on top of her pile in the hopes that someone would say, "Hey, I'm into that stuff too!" Alas, she had to wait until she was an adult to find fellow geeks. Luckily, she married one and they are homeschooling two children in upstate NY. Rebecca is a singer/songwriter, creative arts instructor, proponent of science literacy and 21st century education, and lover of tea, funky tights, RPGs, anime, manga, comics, fantasy books and movies. She writes about these things on geekmom, her favorite community of fellow geeks!

2 Comments
James

September 29, 2011 4:58 pm Reply

For students interested in robots, Carnegie Mellon PhD student (and TED.org speaker) Heather Knight is a terrific role model. I had the privilege to interview Ms. Knight for my education blog (http://onedublin.org/2011/02/11/heather-knight-and-social-robotics-the-intersection-of-storytelling-and-technology/) on her work in the field of Social Robotics. Not only is her research really cool, there are real world applications in the area of healthcare and other fields. As an aside, Ms. Knight is not only a technologist but also an avid writer.

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