Students love the Cubelets

This is a guest post

In Canadian schools, June is a month that requires some of the most creative teaching.

Picture this:
Summer hits. The sun is out. The weather is hot. Minds start to wander into dream
lands of summer vacations. Thoughts of sleeping in, swimming and playing video games
replace math, language and science lessons.

Motivating students in June is difficult. When I mentioned an extra assignment
to my students, one that was completely voluntary, I figured that a small
handful would want to participate.

I was wrong.

In mid June I showed students a Cubelets video that I had found on youtube.
The class freaked out. The kids started asking where they could buy some and
if we could “please, please, please” get some for our class. I told them we
had gotten some on loan from the, but there was
a catch (“nothing in life is free”). I told them that they could have time
to play with the Cubelets, but it would cost them a writing assignment.

I expected the majority of my students to lose interest when I mentioned work.

I should have known better.

My class is awesome. They are hard-working and committed learners with a zest
for trying new things. They are the kind of people that I want running the
world in twenty years.

They all volunteered.

Next step was finding a way for the students to get some small group time to
work with the Cubelets. Currently our school is very focused on oral language
development and the power of discourse. In short, our school is testing out
how meaningful conversations and human interaction have the power to push learning.
When I mentioned to my principal that I might need some support/extra
bit of supervision for this Cubelets assignment to take place, she quickly
arranged for it.

Watching the students work with the Cubelets was an amazing experience.
I promised to stay out of their way and let them play. At times it was
really challenging to not step out and “help”. They went through cycles
of frustration where they would blurt out things like
“what the heck does this thing do” and “this isn’t working”.
Not teaching them and guiding them through this was hard, but also a
very necessary part of the process. I wanted to see how they learned
together, not how well they could follow instructions.

As they worked, there were a few trends that I observed. Every group jumped
right in, fearlessly. At some point all groups connected all of the cubelets
together to see what would happen. Some did this systematically, others
randomly, but all groups tried it out. All groups really were the most
interested by the wheels and making creations that moved. The lights and
sound were cool, but movement was unanimously a measure of success.
When a group made a creature that could move, they cheered and did
some kind of victory dance.

I was most impressed with the groups that really sat down and tried to
figure out what each cube did before putting them together. Two girls,
Ashley and Kate, figured out that
“One of the black Cubelets uses light, one is a motor sensor, one is
for temperature, one controls the amount of power you’re using
(with a knob)”.

More importantly, they got the bigger idea that
“They all send information” of some kind. Another group of boys,
Daniel, Rakeem and Johnson, separated all of the cubes by colour
to figure out how each one worked. For example, they figured out
that “the red ones are like power on” so that they could build
their “spinning drill”.

While the students played, I recorded them. The following day in
class, we took a look at all of the videos and I gave them 15 minutes
to write as much as they could – less focus on quality, more focus
on quantity. At the end of the speed writing session they had to go
back and underline their best 3 ideas. These could be single words
or sentences. Some of the ideas that came out were:

  • “I recommend this item for anyone who likes to learn about how electricity works” – Thomas
  • “My group made a spinning drill that lights up” – Daniel
  • “It was fun to talk about what we learned and made” – Daniel
  • “It was so nice to get this kind of chance to use them” – Saranya
  • “Cubelets are something that you use to make inventions but they’re toys” – Thyra
  • “There’s only one thing that could get you frustrated (actually now that I think about it two things). The first thing is figuring out which one does what. The second thing is recharging the battery, but that’s not the point (right?).” – Breanna
  • “The red ones are like power on” – Johnson
  • “They are all awesome because there are endless possibilities” – Phillip
  • “They are robotic cubes that can light up, drive and make sounds” – Recshana (black cubes)
  • “They all send information” – Ashley
  • “They are like Lego, but they stick together with magnets” – Kate
  • “One of the black cubelets uses light, one is a motor sensor, one is for temperature, one controls the amount of power you’re using (with a knob)” – Kate
  • “I made a tank that looks like a dog” – Jules
  • “The problem is there’s only one battery” – Bezawit

The next step was to share their ideas. I set up a writing chain. Each student
had a piece of paper. He/she wrote his best idea on the top and passed it to the
next student. That student would add his/her best ides to the sheet and pass it
to the next student. And so on. In fifteen minutes the whole class had 25 really
good words, sentences on a piece of paper. This acted as an efficient brainstorming
session for the students.

Finally, students had to synthesize as many of those ideas as possible to write
about their Cubelets experience.

Looking at their writing and hearing their conversations while they worked with
the Cubelets was a fantastic experience. Students would have arguments about how
to improve how a creation worked. One group of boys was even able to create a
vehicle that used a motion sensor to steer their craft. As they worked, they kept
saying things like “this isn’t working because…” “we need to try….” this kind
of problem solving is difficult to create in an authentic way. Yet, Cubelets did it.
They made students think on a very deep level. The cubes forced them to analyze,
diagnose, fix and understand.

Such a wonderful experience. Thank you.

This is Stepans second post check out:
Cubelets and Inquiry Based Learning by Stepan Pruchnicky

Editors note:
Thank you to Stepan and all the students in the class for sharing your
Cubelets experience with us. This is exactly why I started the Cubelets
Competition. I am thrilled that the students liked it and that great
teachers like Stepan thinks they help children learn! The competition
is still open, and an expansion of this program is on the way, so if
you are a teacher or would like to get involved, do not hesitate to get
in touch! And, although I like the notion of a writing assignment as
payment, the loan of the Cubelets in this competition is absolutely free! 🙂

This post is the first winner in The Flexibility Envelope’s Spectacular Cubelets Competition
Check out the competition to win free tinkering time with the Cubelets and soon other Modular robotics systems!

This is a guest post by an external writer. For more guest posts and how you can contribute,
check out the guest posts page.

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