How Seventh Graders can Learn and Teach Robotics 
First published on EdSurge
Karl Wendt

A few months ago I left Nashville to implement the hands-on robotics projects my team and I created at Discover Create Advance (DCA). I worked with a group of 7th graders at East Bay Innovation Academy, a charter school in Oakland, California. In my first time using DCA projects to teach principles of physical science as a solo teacher in a traditional classroom setting, I learned that beyond being prepared and organized, running robotics projects requires selecting where to innovate, challenging the students to go deeper, and inviting students to lead.

Innovate on the margins

Student-led innovation is a cornerstone of effective project based learning, but it can be difficult to manage. Using an existing project that has clear goals can provide an excellent foundation on which to innovate. When a student has completed something that works, they have far more confidence to try and fail and try again on an open-ended problem. Starting with a kit or basic project also provides known ways to ensure that key content is included in the student experience. Once the kit has been completed, students can use what they learned to recombine the parts in new and novel ways or add additional parts to the existing kit to demonstrate student-led innovation.

In the classroom in Oakland, the students built DCA’s Scribot (a programmable drawing robot) and then innovated by adding sensors, changing the programming, and designing and building various pieces to make a vehicle that can navigate a model city and perform a municipal function, like raising a fire truck ladder or delivering mail. By adding on to the existing platform students learned to make the project their own-- solving problems of interest to them.

Avoid the path of least resistance

With sophisticated projects come many questions, and there’s no way for one teacher to answer them all. Before students begin the project, they should create a detailed plan for the unknown. What will they do when they don’t know what to do? Where will they get answers? Managing this is key to surviving project-based learning in a middle school classroom.

I asked students to create at least three detailed examples of ways they could solve the problem they were facing before I would give them an answer. Often the very act of writing down the problem will give them a clue to the answer they are seeking. Giving the students more responsibility for problem solving enriches the learning experience and makes the classroom much easier to manage.

Distribute the leadership

Giving students who demonstrate course competency and maturity the chance to be a leader and help other students can make a big difference in what students learn and how engaged they are in the project. A few weeks into the project it should be clear which students have competency to help their peers. I made our student leadership roles optional, but I also made sure they saw it as a privilege. Student leaders should understand that their role is to guide other students to the answer, but not simply provide the answer. Our students helped their peers with everything from how to set up their digital portfolio to how to code and wire their robot.

Project-based learning can be overwhelming, especially with robotics, but the complexity that makes it difficult to implement can also be great for engaging energetic middle school students in deeper learning. Finding ways to focus the places to innovate improves the outcomes of projects, and giving students leadership experiences and ownership of the work boosts engagement, creates real world problem solving, and reduces the classroom management challenges for the teacher.

Meet Scooter!

posted Aug 21, 2015, 10:05 AM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Mar 2, 2018, 11:48 AM ]



posted Mar 13, 2015, 8:11 PM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Mar 2, 2018, 11:56 AM ]

Scribot build continues at STEM Preparatory Academy

posted Jan 27, 2015, 8:31 AM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Mar 2, 2018, 11:57 AM ]

Stem Prep student building Scribot. 

STEM Preparatory Academy student's near completion of their Scribots

posted Jan 27, 2015, 4:43 AM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Jan 27, 2015, 9:24 AM ]

Just before 4:30pm on a cold Monday in January, Hillary Sims, the principal of STEM Preparatory Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, walks down the long polished linoleum hallway floor, past the bright blue doors and billboards with neon green accents to make the day's final dismissal announcements over the intercom. Moments later, the hallway is buzzing with activity as students begin pouring into the school's cafe for club Scribot.

The STEM prep cafe is flooded with natural light from huge windows facing the late day sun. The walls are brightly colored and lined with long book cases. Each table in the cafe has several small clear Sterlite plastic bins next to an open laptop computer.

The students quickly find their partially assembled bots in the bins and they rearrange them to sit closer together. Within seconds they are building. They pull out their clear laser cut plastic parts, shiny stainless steel screws, printed circuit boards, and vast assortment of rainbow colored ribbon wires to begin the task of connecting the parts. They have a transcendent focus.

Students learn how to build the bot by following instructional videos running on their computers. Each student works at his or her own pace. If they don't understand something they can rewind without feeling like they are holding anyone else up. They also collaborate with their peers and look for new ways of solving the challenges they face. Rueben and Addisu, DCA's volunteer computer science mentors, continually orbit the students offering helpful hints and additional guidance when needed.

They have already overcome several challenges like learning the names and functions of the parts, orienting complex part assemblies correctly, understanding how to make difficult connections between the parts and being patient when a part breaks or they have issues connecting to the project website.

Soon the students will begin teaching their robots to draw using computer code.

Learn to Build Scribot With Dr. Karl Wendt and the DCA Team at the 2015 Boulder Mini Maker Faire!

posted Jan 19, 2015, 7:55 AM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Mar 2, 2018, 11:55 AM ]


By Garth Sundem

This is Scribot. Gaze upon the vertically inserted pen, its tiny programmable board in the front/left, the wheels, the batteries, the breadboards. Can you guess what it does? Don’t worry, at the end of this post you’ll see it in action. For now, you may notice that Scribot doesn’t come with a flashy exoskeleton branded with characters from your child’s favorite television program. That’s because Scribot is not a consumer product, but a tool created by Dr. Karl Wendt to teach design thinking in classrooms. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because Wendt was Khan Academy’s “Maker in Chief”, where his projects include Spider Bot, and Spout Bot, and Bit-zee Bot.

You may by now be noticing a pattern. Karl builds robots. Not only does Karl build robots, but he wants to teach you and yours how to build robots. And even beyond teaching you and yours to build robots, Karl wants to teach teachers how the principles of design thinking can be used in classrooms to help students build robots. That was his mission at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and that’s the mission of his Nashville-based nonprofit, Discover Create Advance.

It seems a terrible shame that we’re sitting here in Colorado writing about Karl while he’s half a continent away in Nashville. That is, until you add another player to the mix, namely Alex Hernandez and his Boulder-based nonprofit,Design EDU. Alex is a local treasure – one of those guys who flies under the Boulder radar, but, as a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund and head of CSGF’s next-generation school initiative, turns out to have a major national influence (read his blog, thinkschools). Alex and Design EDU do education, including weekend design seminars for teachers and community dinners where educators can air their ideas and get feedback guided by the design thinking process itself.

And when Maker Boulder reached out to Alex to suggest speakers and facilitators for our Innovation in Education Summit hosted at the Boulder Mini Maker Faire, Alex says, “Karl was my first call.”

Alex told us the story of one of Karl’s presentations he’d attended at Harvard. “Karl was showing off this submarine he’d made with kids at High Tech High [in California]. And he realized that in order for us to see what the sub could do, we had to see it swim. So before the presentation, Karl goes to Home Depot and buys a big trashcan. He cuts a hole in the side and covers it with flexible plexiglass and does the calculations in his head for how much water pressure would be pushing out against the glass and how much cement he’d need to hold the windowpane in place.”

The presentation was a hit.

And that’s what Karl Wendt will bring to the Boulder Mini Maker Faire and the Innovation in Education Summit: a heckuva cool design thinking presentation based on this newest, neatest robot, Scribot. In addition to sponsoring Karl’s travel to the Faire, Design EDU is sponsoring 30 Scribot kits that educators in attendance will learn to build. Outside the Summit, Karl’s Discover Create Advance booth will let people play with Scribots in action – a bit like Turtle Art from years long gone, after writing a simple program (with guidance by the good doctor), faire attendees will upload programs to the Scribot and watch the robot write the programs into reality on paper. Get your tickets to the Faire today, and stay tuned for a full Innovation in Education program.

Photon Runs at Valor Collegiate Academy

posted Jan 8, 2015, 8:59 AM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Mar 3, 2018, 4:24 PM ]


We began our hands-on learning for the Photon robotics project with an explosive exploration into 
where matter comes from and how it gets to earth. The students made balloon supernovas, 
an accretion disk, a planet and then they even mined their 'planets' for gold. They also learned 
about matter and energy, atoms, the elements, the periodic table, gravity and fusion. We then 
learned about electricity and magnetism by building and testing our own magnets, batteries, 
electromagnets and motors. Finally, we applied what we learned about matter and energy while 

building our maze navigating Photon bots!

Scribot goes to STEP Preparatory Academy Nashville

posted Jan 8, 2015, 8:57 AM by Karl Wendt   [ updated Jan 19, 2015, 11:29 AM ]

Students at STEP Preparatory Academy begin building their programable Scribot robots!

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