Robots in the classroom

Tom Montague, Digital Careers, State manager Vic. & Tas.  @tommont99

A quick glance at Wikipedia will tell you that robots have been around for some time. I’ve seen them tirelessly packing bottles of hand cream into boxes at Ego Pharmaceuticals, and spraying cars on production lines but when my good friend Ken started talking about how good his iRobot vacuum cleaner was I really did start to think that the robots have arrived. I haven’t got one yet so I don’t know if it will scare or vac up the household rabbit (Mr Wibbley) but a quick internet search revealed some rather interesting factoids.

These days most robots are used for dangerous or repetitive tasks. While I have never thought that vacuuming was that dangerous or repetitive, plenty of Australians have and do. Interestingly the humble iRobot vac was invented by an Australian entrepreneur called Rodney Brooks who grew up in Adelaide, where he studied pure mathematics before moving to the US to do a PhD in Computer Science. A local connection is nice but what I really like about this vac bot is that it is deliberately hackable so that others can improve it if they can code and want to.

The other place robots are now appearing is in classrooms. At the top end is the NAO robot but with a price tag (AUD$10,000+) the NAO bots are mostly confined to universities. But it’s the small things in life that get you in and it’s the small yellow bee bots that are now appearing in many primary and secondary schools at around $50+. These bee bots can be used to help teach students taking their first foray into programming. Bee-bots are about as cheap as they come unless you build your own and that’s possible too (go to ).

So you might ask what’s so interesting about robots and why would I want to use a robot to get my students interested in digital technologies and how to program?

There are several reasons:

1) Students like finding ways to get the robots to do things like run a maze or obstacle course.

2) When students try to program their robots they get instant, self-evident feedback. It follows their instructions (their program) implicitly and as a teacher you don’t have to tell your students they made a mistake so it keeps you in the good books, not that being liked is why you are there.

3) Thirdly it provides students with solid evidence that programming has a purpose and parents and teachers with the opportunity to provide a bigger picture in terms of where programming and software can be used.  I rather like this because it’s been my observation that a lot of students, including my daughter, can at times wonder in class ‘why are we studying this’?

While the software used to program classroom bots is likely to differ from the software used in today and tomorrow’s workplace, the principals will remain the same and everywhere you look there are great examples for students to consider. For instance software was used to control the robotic arm on the space shuttle when deploying satellites into space. Similarly the by-wire technology that is commonly used in commercial aircraft to raise and lower the landing gear; guide the plane on auto-pilot; and provide cockpit warnings are all controlled by software programs.

Closer to the ground, pretty much all telecommunications (radio, TV, and internet) are managed using software programs and even the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that are used to map the sea floor, largely rely on software too.

There are a couple of approaches you can take if you don’t have any in your school or any experience in digital technologies. As a first suggestion I’d contact Robogals (see ) and ask them to visit. I recently accompanied Robogals team on a visit to a Melbourne bayside school and they brought along a suitcase or two of Lego robots and laptops, enough for a class of 20 female grade-5 students who they taught to program to run the bots though a maze, all within a 1-hour lesson. If you need more convincing checkout the LEGO Mindstorms virtual robotics tool kit at:

If your school doesn’t have the resources to buy a robot chances are you can borrow one especially if you work at a government school. Below I’ve listed a few links to some sites that I’ve recently come across. It’s also worth asking your local library to help identify local digitech and maker groups that may be able to help you get some bots into your classroom. There are also groups such as the Mornington men’s shed that have an interest in these things too.

There are also a number of groups that have an interest in robots such as FIRST Robotics that is “an internationally acclaimed robotics program that inspires a passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in young people.” Robocup junior is another worth looking at.

So dive in and give it a go. Bots are fun, the students love them, the barriers to entry are relatively low and you never know, you may have another Rodney Brooks or Cynthia Breazeal in your class who will change the world with the robots they make.

Useful websites for resources

No doubt there are many more sites out there and possibly better ones too. Here’s a short list just to get you started.

In Victoria go to

In Tasmania go to for bee bots, Meet Edisons and Lego robots (NXT and EV3).

In Queensland go to:

I’m advised some regional and municipal libraries in Queensland may also loan bots. A number of libraries now have maker spaces where you will find people that can direct you to useful contacts and resources about robots and all things tech.

In New South Wales go to: or

In Western Australia go to:

In South Australia go to:

In the ACT go to: or phone The Digital and Innovations Officer tel: 02 6205 9000

In the Australian Capital Territory go to: This is Canberra’s newest maker space.

I won’t individually review each link below but they are worth a look if you are at all interested.

For a site that has lots of information on on-line courses, and a robotics in education emailing list have a look at Damien Kee’s site.

For more class bot resources also go to:

For Teacher PD Contact your local Digital Learning or ICT educator association such as DLTV, TASITE, ICTENSW, EdTechSA, ECAWA, ITEANT, INTEACT

In Sydney also have a look at

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Clair-Louise says:

    I am not sure how we could use robots in History and would need to consider this further.

    • Tom Montague says:

      Hi Clair-Louise I recently went to the Kids Conference at ACU in Melbourne put on by the History Teachers Association of Victoria and Geography Teachers Assoc of Vic. Depending on the age group the robots could be used to tell stories. i.e. They can be programmed to move across a map where students explain what is happening. I’m thinking here of the march of Napoleon across Europe or the tour of a typical village in the 1800s and what students might see. The robot I’m thinking of here is the Ozobot. They are relatively cheap $70-80 each and target primary school level. You’ll love them.

  • Clair-Louise Schofield says:

    The robots look like an interesting way to engage students in their learning.

  • Clair-Louise Schofield says:

    An interesting idea to use robots in the classroom – it would be good to research how this can be integrated into our HSIE curriculum.

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