Teaching Programming with Lego Mindstorms Robotics Kits

Teaching Robotics with Lego Mindstorms

“I truly believe that the ability to write and understand computer code is a skill that will serve every worker in the coming economy, even those who do not engage in the activity regularly. ” Casey Alexander, New Start High School

Casey Alexander from New Start High School recently sent us pictures and a final report about the Excel Grant he received last fall. In his grant application, he told us: New Start is a small alternative school, which serves as a re-engagement intervention for Highline Public Schools.  Our typical student is disengaged from their schooling experience, and often expresses a strong dislike for standard academic activities.  They have often missed long stretches of school in their educational careers, resulting in academic and social gaps that we are in the business of trying to overcome.  Our school attendance is low, which has measurable impact on our students’ success both in and out of the classroom.

We make it our mission to re-engage students in their schooling and part of this re-engagement strategy is to begin to offer a variety of interesting elective courses, which place more emphasis on the skills needed in the emerging knowledge economy:  collaborative problem solving, project management, technological fluency. 

This is why I’ve begun a programming and engineering class this year.  I truly believe that the ability to write and understand computer code is a skill that will serve every worker in the coming economy, even those who do not engage in the activity regularly.

Teaching Robotics with Lego Mindstorms2

Students were engaged for 12 weeks building and programming robots with the Lego Mindstorms kits purchased with funds granted through an Excel Grant.

This type of thinking is important to develop, and is indeed the main aim of the typical high school mathematics course.  My students, however, have little experience manipulating technology, so writing code will not come easily.  I’m looking for ways to engage them with technological thinking and developing transferable skills while increasing their enthusiasm for the learning itself.  This is where robotics comes in.

This Excel Grant provided me with funds to purchase 4 Lego Mindstorms kits for my Computer Programming/Engineering class. Students were engaged for 12 weeks building and programming robots.

The Lego Mindstorms NXT Robitics Kit is a collection of parts and pieces that students can use to create working robotics.

From the product description on Lego’s website: The set enables students to build and program real-life robotic solutions. Contains 431 elements including the programmable NXT Brick; three interactive servo motors; ultrasonic, sound, light, and two touch sensors; a rechargeable DC battery; a DC charger; connecting cables; and full-color building instructions.
The modular nature of the kit means that students can quickly design and build robots to solve various problems. There are myriad curricula available to assist in teacher planning using these materials, or I can develop my own lessons. The NXT system also uses a programming language that is based on icons, rather than lines of code. This intuitive interface will give my students access to the type of thinking in which computer coders engage, without getting bogged down in the complex syntax of the languages. These are the reasons I would LOVE to build a course using the Mindstorms NXT robotics kits.

Teaching Robotics with Lego Mindstorms

By being able to see the results of their programming skills manifest as observable actions taken by physical objects, students were more engaged with programming and learned more.

The results: We began by building a stock robot and programming it to complete various tasks. Students were given daily programming challenges, such as making their robots move to specific places, completing obstacle courses, and retrieving objects. Students then designed their own movable robots and worked collaboratively to design an obstacle course, which they then programmed their robots to complete.

The next session was devoted to developing a deeper understanding of programming methods. Students built a model of the Mars Rover and programmed it to take various measurements (detect colors, estimate distance to a beacon) and to autonomously avoid hazardous objects. With that programming knowledge, we finished by building custom fighting robots and had a class tournament in which students’ robots competed for glory.

Prior to the units on robotics, I was teaching computer based programming. A few students found this interesting, but most of the students at New Start found it boring or difficult. Introducing the robots increased student engagement significantly. The hands-on nature of designing and building robots was enjoyable for many students; several would stay after school ended to continue their work. They didn’t enjoy the programming quite as much, but by being able to see the results of their programming skills manifest as observable actions taken by physical objects, they were more engaged with programming and learned more. The robots will be a featured unit in this work moving forward.

Teaching Robotics with Lego Mindstorms

Part of New Start’s re-engagement strategy is to offer a variety of interesting elective courses, which place more emphasis on the skills needed in the emerging knowledge economy: collaborative problem solving, project management, technological fluency.


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Since 1999, the Highline Schools Foundation has been supporting innovation and excellence in Highline Public Schools. Our funding priorities focus on programs to improve academic achievement, supporting college and career readiness, grants to teachers for engaging classroom projects, the arts, athletics, and programs that keep students in school and productive. Highline is a district full of need and opportunity. The Highline Schools Foundation is the only non-profit organization dedicated to all schools in our district—our goal is to help as many students as possible be successful!

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