Looking for great ideas about supporting primary and middle grade innovation? This episode of Beyond the Hour of Code is about innovation. . .

Robot as Innovation Engine

Most of the robots discussed so far have been wheeled wonders zipping across the floor, many of those have cute light up eyes. These roots are hardly representative of the robots in our lives. Our garage door opener doesn't carry the weight of personality, but it is a very simple programmable machine. Robots are programmable machines, and in schools robots can be used to teach about designing programmable machines.

From lights to thermostats, we live in an increasingly programmable world. Students need to be prepared to interact with programmable machines at the designer level. There are several great options for teachers looking to get students designing and prototyping.

  1. Modular Robotics
  2. Lego WeDo
  3. Thymio
  4. Hummingbird
  5. Raspberry PI
  6. Hyperduino

Modular Robotics (

The Cubelets and Moss robots building systems from modular robotics are the precursor to the amazing nao-robots in Big Hero 6. The cubelets robots allow students as young as four to discover, program, and create by connecting preprogrammed blocks. The small plastic blocks are the programming interface, they do not connect to computers or tablets. The physical blocks can snap together to connect a power source to a sensor and a buzzer, or they can make a light dependent on a motion sensor, a motor respond to sound. When students need more functionality and mobility they can graduate from the Cubelets robots to the Moss robotics kits. Looking for more information? Check out this TeacherCast podcast .

Thymio (

The Thymio robot is a self-contained robot with 2 motors, 20 sensors, and Lego-compatable build points. The robot has several pre-programmed modes allowing for discovery-based learning. The robot connects via USB to a conventional computer for programming. With a flexible programming interface that employs both visual and text-based programming, thymio supports programmers from prereading through early high school.

Hummingbird (

The Hummingbird robotics building system is marketed as an imagination engine. Students who are confident readers can use this kit to combine motors, lights, sensors, and switches with cardboard boxes and construction paper to create awesome animatronic projects. The sensors are connected to an Arduino-style microcontroller and that plugs into a conventional computer. The kit is programmed with Scratch. This is a great tool to scaffold up to independent design with Arduinos in later grades.

Raspberry PI (

The Raspberry PI is a complete computer that students can use at the center of an innovation and design project. The PI is the interface. They students need a screen and a keyboard, but no other computer. The potential for designing with Raspberry PI is seemingly limitless, It can be used for conventional programming, or it can be turned into a robot. Read through some of the work other teachers have done with the PI and you will be surprised about the full text programming some teacher have been able to support in students as young as first grade.


Roger Wagner's Hyperduino project makes arduino programming accessible on a Chromebook! houses great ideas and resources for quickly upgrading existing lessons into Maker projects.

The Road to Innovation

The ideal innovation class for younger students might be a balance between the structure and project management Don Wettick presents in Pure Genius and Sharon Musark's work supporting student innovation in afterschool and summer programs.

Using the Thymio robots, students in Sharon's afterschool program engage in design thinking and create a project that responds to a real need and uses a thymio robot as an element of the design. The Thymio has built-in sensors as well as strategic build points that allow users to connect it to LEGO bricks.

The tools exist to bring rapid prototyping to the classroom. More than ever before teachers can support students by providing the tools needed for students to design real solutions to real problems. When teachers match the available tools with a dedication to student choice, the potential for engaged and relevant learning is overwhelming. Without proper planning and support, these same tools can turn into a craft factory turning out 24 BluTooth birdhouses before mothers day.

Programming sensors to collect data, and programming motors to run in response to that data is the very heart of robotics. Designing tools that apply this functionality engage computational thinking and problem solving.

Students of any age can design a tool or device to solve a problem. Supporting students in this adventure requires a good match between the student's reading level and the programming platform. Some of the tools like the LEGO WeDo and the Thymio robot offer a range of programming interfaces. Multiple interfaces make it easier to craft a range of lessons and supports, and this in turn increases the range of ages the robot can effectively engage.

The robots you and your school choose to invest in will make some integration choices for you. Some robots swim, others draw. Which robots are best for your school? As there are new robots coming out every day, any recommendation in this text would quickly become dated. Here are some key factors to consider:

  1. Total cost. This is the cost of the robots plus any devices you will need to support the robots and the cost of maintenance and repair (Plan on a 30% breakage and failure for robots that see heavy use).
  2. Figure out the per user cost.
  3. Think about the space violable. Fast robots need more space than slower robots. Can the tables and chairs in the classroom be easily moved?
  4. Control. A quality programming interface can support programming to learn even more than the robot itself.
    Thank you for listening to this episode of Beyond the Hour of Code, where teachers learn together how to use the newest programming tools to reach the highest pedagogical goals. Please review and subscribe if this podcast feeds your practice and check out the book Programming in the Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code now available from Rowman and Littlefield at


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