Teaching Robots to Dance

Grade 8 students are teaching some orb-shaped robots to dance — preparing balls for a ball, you could say — as they tackle robotics and coding in science class.
The students are working with Sphero BOLT coding robots, coding their movements using an icon-based system on their smartphones and tablets. The idea is to teach them the basics of coding, working up to a presentation on the final day of the unit when the robots will perform a “dance,” which will be judged by members of the housekeeping staff.
“It has to be in synchronization, with at least two robots,” science teacher Mr. Adam Holloway explained. “The most synchronized dance scores the most points.”
The students are tackling a range of challenges as they deal with the process. The biggest challenge is that the code entered into programs doesn’t always translate ideally into real life, especially with physical objects that can have the tiniest of differences which can lead to bigger differences in the performance. As Mr. Holloway relates, a lot of robotics is guessing with codes, then seeing what works, then figuring out what the problem is and refining it.
The classes are using the squash courts in the Sportsplex as a venue for their robot dances, because they provide a big, flat, even surface, along with lines that students can use to test their abilities to make a robot drive straight. Even on that surface, the students have to learn how to compensate for the smallest of variations.
The students have varying levels of prior knowledge of coding, and the unit is quite self-directed. They have creative control over what they do with the robots, which leads to a lot of enthusiasm.
“It gets them thinking about coding in a fun way,” Mr. Holloway said.
This unit gives students early exposure to coding and instructors hope it will increase interest in the School’s other world-class robotics programs. It also fits neatly into the rest of the science curriculum; the next unit for the Grade 8s will cover physics and astronomy, and the challenges that NASA has had to address with its robotics program will provide a natural segue into that portion of the year.
Beyond Grade 8, the next step on the Shawnigan Journey will take the students into working with drones, in a similar coding process, in Grades 9 and 10.
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