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This is a classic and staple SparkTruck workshop. It doesn't actually require any high-tech tools on the truck, and all the materials you need can fit into a small bin! This makes the Vibrobots workshop great to run for your students even if you don't have any specialized equipment around.

This experience is a great blend of art and science, since it allows your students both to learn about motors and batteries, and also express themselves creatively through the invention of a unique creature.

This workshop can take as little as 45 minutes, or can stretch to almost 1hr 30 min, depending on how quickly you choose to move through the steps and how much warmup/debrief you'd like to include. We've found this workshop easy to squeeze between the bells in a regular school day schedule.

Quick stats:
Total time required: 1 hour
Number of facilitators: 1 per 10 students
Number of students: 40 maximum
Age of students: ~10 years old, +/- 4 (but grownups love it, too!)

Step 1: Prep

Here's what you need to have handy:

Tools

  • Sharpies
  • Scissors
  • Safety glasses

Materials

  • Pager motors (1 per student)
  • Coin cell batteries (1 per student)
  • 8.5x11" plain paper
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Masking or painter's tape (we like this stuff because it comes in skinny widths)
  • Misc craft supplies:
    • Pipe cleaners
    • Self-adhesive googly eyes
    • Craft feathers
    • Aluminum foil
    • Paper clips
    • Construction paper
    • Foam sheets
    • Small pom-poms
    • Etc... really, anything works here!
      • But we advise against glue and glitter. Messy, messy.

Before the workshop starts, you want to strip the wires of the motors so about 1/2" of naked wire is exposed.

To set up, we like to use our three 8' Lifetime tables, and set them up in a large U (no chairs), designating one table or a part of a table as the "testing arena." Distribute Sharpies and paper on the tables, so they're ready when the students start. Have the rest of the materials handy nearby.

Step 2: Warm-up

We like to do something fun & physical to get the blood flowing and get the students ready to learn and engage. You can get creative here - name games, jumping jacks, making animal sounds, etc.—anything works.

Step 3: Brainstorming

1. List

Some talking points for this step:

  • "Today, you're all going to design and build your very own robot creature!"
  • “What’s the first step to designing something? Brainstorming!”
  • “Who knows what ‘brainstorming' means?” “Coming up with lots of ideas!”
  • "You will have 2 minutes to make 2 lists. List #1: as many creatures as you can think of that live on land. Who can give me an example? [Take examples from crowd]. Great. List #2: as many creatures as you can think of that live under water .What are some examples? [Take examples from crowd]. Great! So you get the idea. Okay, you have 2 minutes - go!"
  • “List every single thing that comes to mind. There’s no such thing as a bad idea when you’re brainstorming."

2. Draw

  • "Okay, now that we've spent some time thinking about creatures that exist already, it's time to start inventing our own."
  • "Here's what you're going to do: you're going to take one thing from your land list, and one thing from your water list, and you're going to mash them together into a new creature, and you're going to draw what it looks like."
  • "Let's do an example together. Who can tell me one thing from their land list? [Get one example]. Great. And who can tell me one thing from their water list? [Get one example]. Great! So what happens when you combine a ___ and a ___? What's that creature going to be called?"
  • Do one more example just like above.
  • "Great! So you get the idea? Now you'll have 3 minutes to draw as many combination creatures as you can."
  • "Fill up those sheets of paper! We're still brainstorming here, so it's not about making a beautiful drawing, it's just about getting all your ideas down on paper."

When time is up for this step, have a few students share their inventions with the class. Have them hold up their drawing and answer questions such as:

  • "What is this creature a combination of?"
  • "Where does this creature live?"
  • "What does it eat?"
  • "What does it like to do for fun?"
  • "Is it a friendly creature or a scary creature?"

As we transition into the next step, encourage them to think of which of their newly-invented creatures is their favorite, because that's the one they'll get to build.

Step 4: Assembling the Circuit

This is by far the technically trickiest part of the workshop.

1. Give out motors and batteries

  • "Who can tell me what this thing is? Great! How about this other thing? Great!"
  • "Let's see what happens when you touch one of the wires to one side of the battery, and the other wire to the other side of the battery. Do it now and tell me what happens!"
  • (There are usually a lot of excited noises at this point.)
  • "Now we have to assemble these together."

2. Connect the motor to the battery

It is really important that all the students can clearly see what's happening in the lead instructor's hands as she demonstrates what to do next.

  • "Take a piece of tape about an inch long."
  • "Touch one of the wires to one side of the battery, and the other wire to the other side, like you did before."
  • "Take your piece of tape and tape down the two wires, so the piece of tape goes up one side of the battery and down the other side of the battery."
  • "It's kind of like making a tape taco with a battery in it."
  • (It's important that the piece of tape is not so long that it can wrap around and around the battery.)
  • "Alright, not we have to figure out how to be able to turn it on and off, so we don't drain the battery."
  • "So what did we do to turn it on? That's right, connected the wires to the battery. So then what do we do to turn it off? That's right, disconnect one of the wires."
  • "So you can see how we just open up the taco to disconnect one of the wires. This will be our on/off switch."

3. Connect the motor to the popsicle stick

NOTE: It's not important that the battery is connected to the popsicle stick; just that the motor is connected to the popsicle stick.

  • "Alright, now that we've got our robot creature's guts, we need to figure out how to connect the guts to the backbone. This popsicle stick will be the backbone of our creature. And what do we have around here to connect things with? That's right - tape!
  • "Let's look at one thing first before we connect them. Go ahead and turn your motors on by connecting the wires."
  • "While the motor is on, what happens when you take your finger and touch the tip ("hat") of the motor? That's right - it stops spinning."
  • "So what did we learn? We learned that this is not a very powerful motor, and even just the strength of your finger is enough to prevent it from spinning."
  • "So then when we connect the motor to the popsicle stick, which part is it important that we leave free to spin around and not tied down? That's right, the tip."

Demonstrate how to use a piece of tape (skinny tape makes this easier) to tightly affix the body of the motor (main barrel, not the spinning top) to the popsicle stick, and make sure that all students got there.

  • "Okay, now what happens when you turn the motor on and set your creature down on the table? That's right! This is how our robot creature will run around."

Step 5: Building the Creature Body

  • "Okay, now that our robot creatures have guts and backbones, what are they missing? [Take responses from the crowd]. That's right: tails, eyes, wings, everything else!"
  • "Luckily, we have some fun materials here—some paper clips and sheets of foam and pom poms—that with your imagination will turn into all of these other body parts of your robot!"
  • "Now you have ___minutes to finish building your robot creature."
  • "This is the step when the scissors come out and paper clips start flying all over the place, so I want everyone to grab and wear safety glasses!" (Make sure to model this behavior by having all instructors put on and wear safety glasses for the duration of this step.)
  • "Remember, your creature has two requirements. 1) It must be able to move around the table on its own, and 2) It has to look something like what you imaged when you drew it."

Hand out the remaining materials, and for the rest of this step, it's a building free-for-all.

  • "Now, I don't want to see you spending ___minutes building a beautiful robot and at the last minute realize that it doesn't work! So I want you to come over here to the testing arena and test your robot early, and test it often, to determine whether you have to make any adjustments to get it to be able to move the way you want."

One of the most important points here is not helping too much. Answer questions such as "But how do I build legs?" with "I don't know... what do you think?" to encourage your students to tinker their own way to a solution.

If a student is done early, you can invite them to walk around to help others, and/or challenge them to make their creature move in a perfectly straight line, etc.

Step 6: Debrief

When time is up, allow your students to remove their safety glasses, and have everyone bring their creatures to the same table so everyone can see each other's run around.

Then, solicit some stories from the students. Ask questions such as:

  • "Who wants to tell me about their creature?"
  • "Where does this creature live?"
  • "What does it eat?"
  • "What does it like to do for fun?"

We believe that the debrief is an important part of any learning experience. This step gives the students a chance to own their learnings by articulating them. Some questions that we like to ask at the end are:

  • “What did you learn?”
  • "What was your favorite part?"
  • “Who got stuck? How did you get unstuck?”

Step 7: Questions?

If you have additional questions about running this SparkTruck workshop, or if anything in this Instructable is unclear, don't hesitate to get in touch with us at hello@sparktruck.org!

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