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Teaching robotic fundamentals with recycled electronic products to make robotics affordable for every school.

I have started a program at my local high school to teach basic robotics from recycled electronic products. We began by asking students to bring in old electronics from home such as; old VCRs, DVD players, cellphones, nightlights, etc. to be recycled in class. The students learn that there is a significant amount of working components within old equipment, and that these components can be assembled to create some interesting robots.

Our school could not afford a robotics curriculum from the traditional curriculum suppliers, especially those averaging between $8 - $10K per class. We asked students to select a simple biological life form from which they hoped to create, and then asked them to write a report of what behaviors they hoped to achieve when they were finished. The life forms included simple insects and or mice. For example, when a student chose to create a robotic cockroach, they explained how the cockroach avoids light and scurries away from the source. The behavior they had hoped to generate was light avoidance, which the speed by which the robot scurried was proportional to the light intensity.

When the student had identified what biological life form they hoped to create, as well as the behavior sought, we then moved onto circuit basics. We learned about simple components such as LDRs (Light dependent resistors) often found in night lights or other light controlled devices, which vary their resistance in proportion to light intensity. We also reviewed about simple circuit structures, capacitors, transistors, and resistors.

This allowed us to then begin assembling simple circuits that could be used to simulate behavior. Next we would make a list of components we needed and then began to reclaim as much of these parts as we could from old electronics. The students learned about how to desolder properly to reclaim each component. They then built and tested their circuits in preparation for the platform and motorized construction. (Cost $100 in all)

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    Apr 5 2013: Good idea dean
    I personally believe, practical learning >>>>>>> theoretical learning
    with strong desire spread this idea in developing most of the subjects to teach in a practical way
  • Apr 3 2013: Oh, I didn't mean to force anyone into the groups or even to participate,.
    Perhaps after a while, when the others see the fun and benefits, more will volunteer in the future.
    Good luck
    PS thanks for the reply.
  • Apr 2 2013: I like Mark Tilden's B.E.A.M. robotics - that should cut down on programming.
    I've not looked into printing circuits on a regular printer with slightly special ink, but maybe in a class of dozens, someone might.
    But yes, taking apart old stuff would be a great way to get cheap parts, and to learn how theey were put together as well. Maybe one of them might like to rearrange a VCR into a Transformer robot.
    In opposition to a competition mentality, maybe you could say, I want a each group to build a robot to complete one part of this "function maze" to get this ball from beginning to end; if completed - pizza-party (or an A)!
    (But my ideas don't really "save much money" - not nearly as much as starting with used electronics.) Seems like each kid would have a dozen old stuff that could be sacrificed.
    Maybe the students could talk with an electronics store owner, and for some free parts, produce a roomba-type thing in exchange, for them. The students get parts, building experience, and the chance to go back to that store every so-often and watch their robot work. And the store owner gets clean floors and the chance to sell more kits for robots.
    • Apr 2 2013: Hi Steve,

      I believe there is more to be learned from basic robotics than the expensive kit form. I personally believe that the expensive software based kits do more for teaching students about how to follow instructions rather than focusing on how or why they work. The simpler approach asks the students to select a life form they wish to create, then think about the behaviors they would like to imitate. When the kids are done they know far more about their robots than the kids who buy the expensive kids do about their own.

      • Apr 3 2013: I just meant the shop owner would have an incentive to make-up his own kits to sell to other interested shoppers.
        That's a good point about making your own vs buying a kit - if you really want to know how it works.
  • Apr 2 2013: Why just robotics? You like to mess with electronics - This reminds me of some EE's I have worked with - Often we enjoy or learn more from the box than the expensive toy. This is your thing - Do it and encourage kids to do their thing if hands on is it.
    • Apr 2 2013: Hi George,

      Yes I do enjoy robotics but I also believe there is a great deal that can be learned from B.E.A.M. style robotics. Traditional robotic curriculum is very expensive and requires the instructors to have much more training, especially in the programming realm in order to assist students. In the simpler systems, it is far easier to follow and develop a skill set than the software driven systems.

      • Apr 3 2013: Of course, I am all for you doing this. All learning is good. You are giving them a different viewpoint, and showing that learning can be more than spending a great deal of money.
  • Apr 1 2013: I do not know the size of the school and/or classes but perhaps breaking the class into project groups of 3 to 5 members each would encourage competition and diversity on how to accomplish the creation of a robotic mechanism. This would also show that there is not just one way to accomplish the project. Also look for a business sponsor, like they do for sports
    • Apr 2 2013: Hi Eric,

      We had 20 students in the pilot program, and we did split them into teams of 2. We spoke of competitions but only for those wishing to participate for extra credit. Those who are feeling a bit more insecure might only feel worse if forced to compete. Competitions are far more productive when they are done by willing participants.