Man vs. Machine: 4 Robotics Programs for STEM Classrooms

If robots are ever going to take over humanity, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Undoubtedly, the engineers who create them will be tough to match wits with, at least if they come from the STEM labs in our classrooms today.

Research shows that robotics is an effective tool for improving students’ 21st century skills. And teachers have taken note. In various school settings and across all grade levels, students are engaging in programs teaching them to design, build, and program their own bots. As they do, they are developing their creativity, collaboration, self-direction, and communication skills too. So whether you want to prepare your students to withstand the bionic revolution or hasten its coming, the following educational robotics programs will serve you well.

LEGO Mindstorms

When it comes to school robotics programs, LEGO Education is the big fish in a little pond. Their Mindstorms robotics package, designed for upper-elementary and middle school students, is a natural extension of a childhood love of LEGOs. A computer-based brick, specialized LEGO pieces, a swath of sensors, and programming software, Mindstorms kits power 21st century learning without the accompanying learning curve of new technology. Not only are classrooms and after-school clubs utilizing LEGO Mindstorms for their ability to boost students’ interest in science and technology, many of them have formed teams and compete annually in FIRST LEGO League challenges which take place locally across the country.



For early elementary students who won’t wait for middle school STEM classes, WeDo (also by LEGO) will help to create learners who don’t just know about robotics, but do robotics. Designed specifically for the early emerging engineer, WeDo enables teachers to tailor activities to specific curriculum subjects or project-based learning. A simplified version of LEGO’s Mindstorms offering, WeDo comes with a user-friendly software interface and a “plug’n’teach” activity pack that helps teachers cover science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an engaging hands-on, minds-on way.



If your focus is on programming robots rather than building them, Sphero might make you feel magical. At the very least, its going to make you forget that you’re really just playing with a ball. As the name implies, Sphero is a sphere. But it’s one that you control from your iOS or Android device. Make Sphero move, spin, change colors, and more. “Sphero is an interactive and engaging robot that brings programming off the computer and into real life.” With over 25 apps now available for Sphero 2.0, robotics enthusiasts are using Sphero to drive through homemade racecourses, turn their classroom into an augmented reality video game, and engage classmates, friends, and family in multiplayer fun. If you can pry it out of your students’ hands, you will see why Orbotix says that Sphero is “One smart ball [with] infinite ways to play.”



Play-i is so 21st century that it’s not even out yet. Still this crowd-funded project has been popular enough that over $1 million worth of pre-ordered Play-i robots sold out in the first month they were available. To get your hands on your own, you’ll have to order now in time to get Play-i by Christmas 2014. But when engineers from both Google and Apple get together to teach kids how to code, the wait for what they made is definitely worth it.

What everybody wants, but nobody has is a duo of robots that fuse storytelling and play with programming. Bo, a mobile three-wheeled bot, and its stationary sibling, Yana, teach kids how to code through narrative. Controlled via Bluetooth-based remote app, children as young as five can learn to use Play-i by looking at and touching the script on an iPad. Bo and Yana can sense each other, respond to objects, play music (literally. . .on a xylophone), and even deliver a freshly picked flower to a friend. But most important, the Play-i robots help kids learn about if-then code without requiring them to master a programming language. It gives them access to computer science education before they’re even old enough to know what that is.

Whether or not our good intentions will lead to the demise of mankind is yet to be determined. But with the opportunities to engage in STEM-based learning listed here, at least we can ensure that our downfall will be fun.

Lest our fears get the best of us, it’s important to remember that even Isaac Asimov, the face of futuristic science-fiction writing said, “I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.” Additionally, the author of Robots and Empire believed that “The true delight is in the finding out rather than the knowing.” So, instead of protecting ourselves from our own creations, here’s to our blissful ignorance of a potential apocalypse, even if it is one LEGO brick at a time.

Dave Guymon

Dave Guymon is a public online middle school teacher, edtech blogger, and the author of If You Can’t Fail, It Doesn’t Count.

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