Teaching Campers about Robots

Teaching campers about robots is the core of any robotics camp. For our camps, we spent 4.5 hours each day building, testing, and learning about robot construction and using technology to make our robot conquer challenges.

What you do with this time is important. These are a couple techniques we tried for our five-day camp. They can be tweaked based on your individual camp.

2014: Modular Lessons

In 2014 (our first year) of camp, we tried a simple technique that promised constant camper engagement and developed a number of different robotics-oriented skills: one day, one topic.

Each day we picked a different type of sensor to focus on and created several challenges that would introduce and challenge the campers’ abilities to design and program robots with the new technology.

On the first day, we practice our mechanical skills by introducing the campers to the robot kits and the programming interface. We had them do activities like program a robot to drive a path by coding each of the turns and lengths into the robot. At the end of the day, we challenged them to create a tug-o-war robot as a challenge of design and mechanical skills.

On day two, we started learning about light sensors by having campers build a robot that could use the color of their surrounds to interpret tasks. They were given the challenge to follow a black line on a white board, which is doable given the correct programming pattern. We introduced a color maze where detecting the color of the wall would give you the instructions on how to proceed (red means turn left, blue means turn right, green means turn around).

Day three brought distance sensors where campers used the sensor to solve a maze built out of wood. We then repeated this exercise on day four with touch sensors that required similar, but different calibration.

Finally, the round the entire week up, we ended with day five where we brought all of their skills together into a single competition. We invented a game we liked to call Street Sweeper. Robots played on a 4′ x 4′ board with a cross-hatchet pattern of tape. Their goal was to move marbles on the board towards their edge of the field, outlined in red or blue tape.

Pros: This methodology was a solid way for campers to learn about the different things that their robots could do. Campers became familiar with the different sensors and the plethora of different challenges meant that something new was always happening.

Cons: Having many different lessons means that the burden falls on the camp organizers to prepare all the materials for the different lessons. For us, this meant that we had to have a variety of different game boards that needed to be switched out every day and there were a lot of different game pieces that needed to be kept track of, used, and repaired.

We also found that only having one day for the competition didn’t give campers time to explore the challenge in a way that would have let them try more creative approaches.

Overall: The lesson based approach did what we need it to do — it got campers up to speed on what was going on and gave them time to explore the different sensors. However, we found that the effort required to make it happen could be better spent elsewhere.

2015: Focused Competition

In our 2015 camp, we wanted to eliminate the work that it took to plans and organize a week worth of lessons (22.5 hours of build time), and we wanted to do that by focusing the campers on a main competition. So we looked towards VEX Robotics and their VEX IQ and EDR competitions.

VEX Robotics is a name that should be familiar with anyone in the robotics world. We looked towards them because not only do we consistently purchase professional-level robotics equipment from them regularly, we planned on using their elementary and middle school level kits in our camp rooms anyway.

In short, we found borrowing their games to work perfectly in our camp setting. Campers became super engaged with the challenges and we didn’t have to think out every detail about rules, game play, etc. We could even just purchase all the game pieces right from VEX.

We gave campers a majority of the week to attack these challenges, with counselor help. Depending upon grade level, we introduced the challenge on day two (middle school) or day three (elementary) and gave them the rest of the week to design, build, and test. Halfway through day four, matches would slowly begin with ample amounts of time in between each match for the campers to tweak and refine their robot.

Pros: By using an existing competition, you take all the work out of making your own challenges/lessons. You should still design creative ways to getting campers up to speed on the robot kits, but the game is already thought out and instead of worrying about tweaking rules you can instead focus on helping the campers play the game.

Cons: This plan is not without its downfalls. Competitions like the ones we used are meant to be built over months, not in three to four days. Wee had some campers walk away frustrated about not having enough time to build the robot they dreamed of. We also found that the game pieces and fields will take a chunk out of your bottom line, but the convenience is well worth it.

Overall: The competition model we found worked out much better than the lesson based model. Campers quickly latched onto the games, and it made the perfect environment where robotics volunteers could help the kids with exactly what they are good at: building robots.

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