Grade schoolers learn programming with mini robots

An Ozobots miniature robot. (May 11, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Mt. Eccles Elementary School students learned the basics of programming using pingpong ball-sized robots.

In December 2019, sixth grade teacher Krysta Williams authored a $500 Air Force Association Educator Grant to purchase five “Ozobot” miniature robots and related equipment. Though the funding arrived in March 2020, coronavirus restrictions meant that sixth graders weren’t able to use the robots in the classroom until May 11.

Ozobots travel along a track drawn on paper with a black felt-tip marker. The user can program the robots to execute certain commands by inserting sequences of colored code into the track. For instance, “green-black-red’ instructs a robot to turn left, and “blue-red-blue” instructs it to execute a U-turn. More elaborate maneuvers, such as zigzagging or doing a spin, are also possible. Ozobots move at speeds ranging from very slow “snail dose” to very fast “nitro boost.”

On Monday, May 17, teacher Dylan Johnson’s third grade class also participated in an activity using the robots. Students were tasked with programming their robots to successfully navigate a maze. Students enjoyed programming the robots, although it was sometimes challenging to draw codes neatly enough to be accurately scanned. Third grader Bastien Wagner said he might want to learn more about coding after finishing the activity.

CT 05-21 robots 2.jpg From left, third graders Bastien Wagner and Alex Mejias work on an elaborate track for their miniature robot. (May 17, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“‘Nitro boost’ is super fun,” third grader Alex Mejias exclaimed. “There’s a lot of speeds, and ‘snail dose’ is even slower than slow!”

Learning basic programming concepts gives students a chance to understand the computer technology underlying their favorite video games, movies and other media, Johnson said. Both Johnson and Williams said they hoped to continue using the robots in the classroom in the coming year.

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Although in these activities students used markers and paper to program their robots, Ozobots can also be programmed through a computer using more traditional block programming methods.