Category Archives: Problem Solving

Undercover Robots Camp – Spy School

My students have loved using the Dash robots from Wonder Workshop so much that I thought they might enjoy some extra time with them over the summer.  So, earlier this year, I devised a plan for an Undercover Robots Camp to be held at my house.  Last week was the first session, “Spy School.”

Using 4 Dash robots, the campers were divided into teams of 3 for the week.  Dash received a letter that he was invited to train to be a secret agent at spy school, and each team took their robot through the different spy courses, such as speaking in Morse code and surveillance.  At the end of the week, their robots “graduated” from Spy School.

I’ve never done this before, so I wasn’t sure how it would go. Fortunately, I had a great group of campers who were willing to experiment along with me.  Throughout the week, I sprinkled puzzles and crafts (such as creating undercover disguises for the robots) along with the programming challenges, so there were lots of opportunities for every team member to shine and get involved.

My favorite part of the week was the graduation ceremony.  The students got so creative with my box of random stuff as they made graduation hats and gowns for their robots!  And one of the teams leapt for joy when they finally were able to program their robot to join the graduation procession at the precise time and spot.  (Sorry that the video below got prematurely cut when I ran out of space on my phone.  Oh, and one robot got replaced right before the final ceremony due to low battery power!)

This week is our second session, where Dash has his first assignment as a bona-fide secret agent looking for the saboteur of a robot pageant.  I’ll let you know next week how our undercover spies do in foiling the plot!

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The L.E.A.D. DoSeum

Mrs. Lasher’s incredible 5th grade GT students are currently hosting a “pop-up” museum at their school.  Inspired by San Antonio’s new hands-on children’s museum, the DoSeum, the students designed their very own interactive exhibits, and invited select guests to visit.  Here is the invitation they designed.

The L.E.A.D. (Learn, Explore, And Discover) DoSeum consists of three rooms: The Seeker Space, Puzzle Parlor, and Tech Town.  You can see descriptions of the rooms in the invitation linked above.


Mrs. Lasher chronicled the process of creating the L.E.A.D. DoSeum from its inception.  You can read her blog posts and see pictures of the DoSeum here.

I think that this is such a wonderful idea, giving students the opportunity to take charge and plan with an authentic audience in mind.  It’s also nice to do near the end of the school year, as other teachers on the campus will probably be more than happy to take their students on a tour!  Even if you don’t have 3 rooms to spare, you could consider working with other teachers for the last couple of weeks of school to split your students into teams to each design an interactive museum room in their classroom.

Thanks for sharing this, Mrs. Lasher and 5th grade GT students!


The Do’s and Don’ts of Making Zombie-bots

With my students, brainstorming generally begins with zombies.  So, even though our theme for the district Robotics Showcase was, “Trash Trek,” practically the first idea that was thrown out was zombies.

Now, one of the main rules of brainstorming is not to judge, but I immediately broke that rule.

“Umm, what do zombies have to do with trash?”  I asked.  Apparently, a lot of things – because the room was instantly filled with student voices calling out every connection they could think of between zombies and trash. (I just want to say it’s a little disconcerting to find out how many 4th and 5th graders have watched The Walking Dead when I don’t even allow myself to watch it.)

We finally settled on creating a challenge board which involved a robot taking a walk through a park, and he is suddenly chased by zombie hippies (don’t ask me where the hippie part came in), and the only way he can escape them is by pushing a bunch of rubbish out of his way into a recycling bin so he can get to the militarily protected part of the park.  (Important because we happened to have lots of plastic army men, so it would be a shame not to include them.)

Admittedly, a stretch.

As we planned what props to use on the challenge board, the students were, not surprisingly, more invested in the zombies than the trash.  “We should make them jump out at the robot,” one student said. He was new to this, and didn’t realize that we would not be at the board as other students tried to solve the challenge. I explained that we were not physically dressing up as zombie hippies, and in fact, would be working elsewhere during the zombie hippie attack.

“Why don’t we use the Ozobots?” one of the students asked?

“Yeah! We can attach the zombies to them and they can move around the board!”

And so, a new idea was born.  The problem was, the Robotics Club hadn’t learned how to use Ozobots, yet…

“Okay, Maker Club,” I announced the following Monday.  “We’re going to help out the Robotics Club by making zombie hippies.”  After I explained the idea, the Maker Club happily got to work.  They created tracks for the zombie hippie bots and drew suitably terrifying zombie hippies of all shapes and sizes.  Much testing was needed to see if the tracks had been coded correctly, and if the zombie hippies were light enough for their bots to carry them. Some students made zombie hippie tubes, and others made cut-outs to ride the Ozobots.  Some tracks had the zombie hippies dance, while others had them slow down, and then leap forward with zeal to grab your brains.

Some things we learned that don’t work very well:

  • Zombie tubes.  Great concept, but too much drag on the Ozobot.
  • Inconsistent tracks.  When you glob a bunch of black in one part of the track, this apparently makes your zombie hippie bot freeze – which is a lot less ominous, unfortunately.
  • Covering the Ozobot power button with your zombie hippie.  Kind of hard to activate the zombie hippie when its leg is taped over the power button.

The Robotics Club was quite impressed by the Maker Club’s contribution.  (Some Maker Club students also helped to make the park trees a bit more stable for our board, too.)  The Maker Club was happy to help.  And the participants in the Robotics Showcase from other schools were appropriately fearful of our fearsome zombie hippies, but still able to meet the challenge of avoiding them and picking up the trash.

To summarize:

  • Zombies should never be written off just because they are zombies.
  • Kids have way better ideas than I do.
  • It’s totally more fun to make with a purpose, especially if it involves using your expertise with coding to design zombie hippie bots.
  • I don’t think Robotics Club will ever make a static challenge board again.

For more information about Ozobots, visit their website, especially their STEM education page which offers lessons and other resources for teachers.

Photo May 21, 9 14 08 AM
In retrospect, this is a terrible picture. I should have gotten a closer-upper photo of the zombies. But since I’ve already written the post, you will just have to take my word for it that they were fierce-looking.  The zombie hippies, I mean.  Not the people.

Stratos Spheres by Thinkfun

When I first opened the Stratos Spheres game from Thinkfun, I didn’t get it.  24 yellow and blue spheres tumbled out along with a white one.  It looked kind of boring, to be honest – which was surprising to me considering the source.  I’ve reviewed many Thinkfun games and none of them have been boring.  I was a little worried that I would even find someone to try this two-player game out with me.

Two enthusiastic third-graders who visit my classroom every Friday before school had no problem giving the game a try.  At first, they weren’t even interested in the game; they just wanted to build with the spheres.  They were completely entertained by using their imaginations with the pieces, and might have played like that for 30 minutes if I hadn’t suggested playing the actual game.

Stratos Spheres is similar to Connect 4 in that you are trying to get 4 of your color in a row, and the other player can block you with his or her color.  However, Stratos Spheres “rows” are 3-dimensional.  This gives you more choices for building your row of 4, which can also be diagonal.  Play starts with one player connecting a colored piece to the white sphere, and alternates back and forth until someone creates a row or you both run out of spheres.

Stratos Spheres by Thinkfun
Stratos Spheres by Thinkfun

The spheres have connectors on their sides that can also be used to block.  Players cannot remove a sphere once it is placed, which means that a perfect spot for your piece might be blocked by a piece by a connector.  This can be frustrating, but can also be used to your advantage.

Winning is tricky.  Sometimes you can win without even knowing it. One of my students was examining the connected spheres from every angle to decide his next play when someone pointed out to him that his opponent had already won.  He’s not the only one this has happened to, apparently, as you can see in this video review of the game from “Dad Does.”

I am terrible at this game.  My fourth graders easily beat me.  This, of course, made me want to play even more – because I needed to earn back my street cred.  However, we had some actual academic work that needed to be completed, so we haven’t had a chance, yet, for the number of re-matches it will take for me to improve.

Stratos Spheres is only $9.99, which is pretty good for a game that is light and can easily be transported in the supplied bag.  Road trips or plane flights might be more palatable for kids 8 and up with this game to keep them occupied.

For more game recommendations, including several from Thinkfun, check out this Pinterest Board.  With summer just around the corner, you’re probably going to want to stock up!

Full Disclosure – I received a free copy of this game from Thinkfun to review.  However, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Announcing: Undercover Robots Camp

UPDATE 4-3-16:  Session Times have been changed to afternoons to accommodate students who participate in neighborhood swim teams.

Do you live in the San Antonio, TX area?  Do you have a child aged 7-11?  Then this is the camp for you!  I am offering an Undercover Robots Camp this June, 2016.  We will be using the Dash robots from Wonder Workshop.  (Robot purchase is not required, but bringing your own can result in a camp discount.)  Here is the link to the registration page.

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 7.14.01 PM

Click here for a PDF version of the above brochure!

The Star Trek Replicator Challenge

I mentioned two invention challenges for students last week, and I am thrilled to add another opportunity to the list.  The Star Trek Replicator Challenge is being offered by NASA and The ASME Foundation.  The launch video is a great introduction to the challenge, which invites students to “design a non-edible, food related product for astronauts to 3d print in the year 2050.”  The contest opened on 2/16/16, and will close on 5/1/16.  You can find rules and specific guidelines (which are a bit intimidating) on the official challenge website.

Which One Doesn’t Belong?

I just love the people I follow on Twitter.  I get so many great ideas that would probably take a decade to reach me if it weren’t for the #eduawesome people who share resources regularly.

The other day I caught a tweet from @JStevens009 that had a link to a mysteriously named Google Slides presentation, “WODB?”  I opened it to find 52 slides that each showed four pictures.  (John stated that a colleague who doesn’t tweet had shared the presentation.)  Doing a little more research, I found the @WODB Twitter stream, which led me to the WODB website, “Which One Doesn’t Belong?

The website was created by @MaryBourassa, but includes submissions from many people.  The basic premise is to provide 4 pictures that share some attributes, but not all.  Your mission is to explain why each one doesn’t belong, and to support your answer. There are some that are more obvious than others, and that’s where the fun comes in!

from WODB?
from WODB?

For example, in the image  above, it is obvious the nickel does not belong because the rest are pennies.  The bottom right picture does not belong because it is the only one that shows the tail side of the coins.  The bottom left one does not belong because it is the only one that does not add up to 5 cents.  But what about that first picture?


Someone tell me what the other 3 pictures have in common that the first one doesn’t. I can’t figure it out.

And it’s driving me crazy.

I just teach gifted students; that doesn’t mean I am one!