Fun STEM activities with robots
Last week we ran two fun and creative STEM workshops, teaching kids how to make a robot, as part of 'The Crafty Robot Take-Over' of the lovely ‘World of OKIDO’ pop-up shop in Kings Place mall in Hammersmith. Both ‘Fizzbot’ and ‘Botato Wars’ workshops make great holiday activity so we had plenty of participants. The workshops allow kids to get hands on with proper engineering processes and principles, and learn the most important lesson in both design and engineering - developing through testing and iteration.
In the Fizzbot workshop kids build robots using craft materials like paper cups, pipe cleaners, straws and coffee stirrers, plus Fizzbits (from Crafty Robot Kits) to make them move. This seems to work well for a wide range of ages, with kids as young as 3 able to participate with some help from a parent, and older kids doing it all on their own. We’ve been doing Sumo battles at the end of each session which have been surprisingly competitive, and a lot of fun.
In the Botato Wars workshop we build app-controlled robots using vegetables, like potatoes, carrots and parsnips, plus the parts from the Smartibot kit. Once the robots are built and tested, and participants have had a chance to practice their driving (using the Smartibot app), it is time for the challenges. We do a robot race and then an arena robot battle, with the winers winning coveted ‘Botato Wars’ trophies.
How to make a robot with paper cups and craft materials
The Fizzbot workshops starts with a chat about the Fizzbit; we look at it seeing what components it has and talk through what each one does and how they work together to make the Fizzbit work. This goes something like - So the USB connector collects electrical energy from the USB port which is stored in the capacitor, and then flows into the motor when the Fizzbit is unplugged. We can see the weight on the end of the motor isn’t in the middle (a bit like when the clothes in the washing machine are all on one side). This means that when the motor spins the Fizzbit vibrates (just like the washing machine).
We charge the Fizzbit, hold it to feel the vibrations and put it on the table and watch it jump around.
Next we play with some Fizzbots (Fizzbit powered robots) made from small paper cups with legs made from straws and wooden coffee stirrers. We explain how the robot’s body helps control the Fizzbit’s vibrations which can then make the robot move in one direction or spin around. We talk about how the legs affect how the robot moves and about how we need to try different configurations and experiment to get a robot that moves how we want it to.
Then it’s time to get building! We give each participant a paper cup with a flat slot cut in the side at the bottom, that’s big enough to slide the Fizzbit’s USB connector through. Depending on the age of the participant we attach the Fizzbit for them or let them do it themselves using a small pad of self-adhesive foam tape. We charge the Fizzbit so they can see how the cup moves without any legs and then leave it to them to decide how their robot should look and to experiment with legs to get it to move how they want it to.
When all the robots are completed we do a sumo battle in a 30 cm circular ring. Everyone charges their robot and puts it in the ring whilst holding on to it. We count down and everyone releases their robot at the same time. The last robot to fall over or leave/fall out of the ring is the winer
DIY robots with vegetables
The Botato Wars workshop starts with a talk through the bits of hardware each participant will use to make their vegetable-based robot work - the two motors that will make the wheels move, the marble that will be the third point of contact with the ground, and can slide in all directions, the Smartibot board which will be the robot’s brain and the battery box that will provide power.
Next we open up the Smartibot app, pick a controller, connect to a potato robot and have a go driving. Then we pick the robot up and have a look at how the potato has been cut to make it easy to attach the motors and battery box and how the wheels and marble are positioned. We also look at how the wires are connected to the Smartibot circuit board (Smartibit).
It’s potato time! Everyone picks a potato to be their robot’s body, either a carrot or parsnip to make the wheels, and gets cutting. To make the attaching the motors, circuit board and marble to the vegetable really easily, before the workshop, we bolt on a set of 3D printed plastic spikes (files available here) using the nuts and bolts from the Smartibot robot kit. This means that participants just need to push the spikes into the vegetable to attach everything (before Apple made us make the plastic parts so we could run Botato Wars in their store we attached the parts to the vegetables with nails).
Once the motors, wheels, circuit board and marble are attached it’s time to wire up the motors, work out where to put the battery box, attach it with an elastic band and power up the robot. We connect the Smartibot app and see if it works. There’s usually something wrong:
motors connected the wrong way around so the robot goes backward to turns when it should go forward,
some part of the potato or motors touching the ground so it won’t move
a stability issues that mean it falls over when it moves or changes direction)
so tweaks and improvements are usually required. Luckily as everything is just spiked into a potato it is really easy to make changes, test again and iterate.
Fun BattleBot challenges
When everyone has a robot that they are happy with, and has had a chance to practice their driving, we are ready for the challenges. We tape out a square of about 80 to 100 cm on the floor with another piece of tape running from the middle one side of the square away from the centre. This this will serve as both the race track (drive around the square, with the extra piece of tape marking the start/finish line) and the arena for the battle.
All the robots line up behind the start/finish line, we count down and they are off with the first person to cross the start/finish line after three laps around the square being the winner. Any robot that drives inside the square gets picked up by the referee for a five second time penalty and then placed back down on the track.
Once the race is over there is five minutes to make any necessary repairs to robots (though no major design changes) before the arena battle. This takes place inside the square, with all robots placed just inside the edges, facing in. There is another countdown and everyone is off. This time it is all about staying inside the square with any robot that crosses over the line (just like in tennis on the line is OK, over the line is not) getting knocked out, with the last robot in the square the winner. This usually gets very tense and exciting.
At the end the victors in each round receive a 3D printed 'Botato Wars' trophy, and everyone has one last drive of their bots before pulling them apart, so the parts can be re-used in the next session.
If you want to run these workshops yourself and need the parts grab some Crafty Robots or Smartibot Kits in the shop. If you'd like to participate in one of oursm check out our forthcoming events on Eventbrite. Thanks for reading!