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Robots and Storytelling: Engaging for All!

by Amy Cornell and Stephanie Johnson, Robotics Coaches and Science Teachers

Imagine two classrooms. In one classroom, students are building and programming a racing robot from LEGO motors, wheels, and gears, trying to make their car go as fast as possible. In another classroom, students are building a LEGO snack delivery robot, using wheels, motors, and gears, while creating a story around the robot’s function. They design different attachments to hold the snack, and program the robot to follow a path using sensors.

The learning experiences in both classrooms are similar. Students are using the same LEGO EV3 Mindstorms robotics technology. They are learning similar structural design and engineering concepts and developing similar technical and programming skills. However, different students are attracted to different types of activities. Students interested in cars are likely to be motivated to create motorized vehicles, while students with interests in art, design, drama, or music are likely to be more motivated to create stories and interactive scenarios about their robots. 

Traditionally, robotics in the classroom is introduced with a challenge that involves building a mobile robot to navigate a maze or obstacles. Exploring a wider range of possible applications has the potential to engage more students with a wider range of interests, especially girls.  It has been suggested that robotics can be more appealing, when activities are introduced as a way to tell a story, or in connection with other disciplines.  As explained in a report from the American Association of University Women (2000): “Girls and other nontraditional users of computer science—who are not enamored of technology for technology’s sake—may be far more interested in using the technology if they encounter it in the context of a discipline that interests them.”

It is possible to adapt existing robotics activities to make robotics more appealing, specifically to girls, by incorporating storytelling. At TCS, this was exactly our goal during the 7-week, all-girls robotics course. After a thorough brainstorming session to identify interest, the theme was chosen, and the story was created and told, through the interaction of the robot and the girls. Our first project was the snack delivery robot (as described above). It was designed as a mobile robot that had the capability of bringing pretzels or applesauce a long distance to a hungry girl. By using and understanding sensors and feedback, the robot was programmed to carry its snack, without spilling it, by following a black line. When arriving at the hungry girl, the robot paused, with enough time for her to eat her applesauce or grab some pretzels, before moving on, and bringing the snack to the next hungry girl.  A narrative was developed around the robot’s function as a snack delivery robot. As many robotics activities are structured as competitions, this project was specifically viewed as a whole group effort, offering the girls the opportunity to display and demonstrate their work (akin to an exhibition or play) rather than through a competition at the end of a challenge. The open-ended nature of the storytelling format seemed to accommodate the group’s wider range of abilities and interests. Demonstrating the robot’s function by video, also allowed for a greater variety of the girls creative expression—while still maintaining the motivational benefits of demonstrating all their hard work. 

By encouraging storytelling within robotics activities, it is possible to engage more girls. This continued to be the case for the second project.  The girls built a robot that could serve as an alarm-clock that had both, an alarm noise function, and a catapult function, to physically wake-up the person with a Lego tire. Building the catapult and deciding on the correct speed and trajectory of the tire was challenging, but proved to be successful as the end product. Later on, the girls came up for a design for a frustration-free stuffed-animal claw grabber. This project involved many design and structural issues to overcome. Programming, testing, and retesting the claw with many weights, sizes, and shapes of stuffed animals, lead to a design that consistently picked up the stuffed animal.  Our last project, was a drawing robot. Different types and lengths of attachments were built, and different colored markers were tried, to develop a visually aesthetic drawing. Experimentation with color and circle diameter proved to be most interesting and challenging. 

Can robots help get more girls into science and technology? By widening the scope of robotics that build on students’ interests in other disciplines such as, art, music, drama, design, and through storytelling, there is a possibility to engage a larger and more diverse audience of learners. During our TCS all girls robotics course, we targeted those interests. Each robot was designed, built, and programed for the purpose of a narrative. Combining the narrative with robotics proved to be an effective strategy with our TCS girls, resulting in greater interest, motivation, and engagement that we hope will continue into high school and beyond.