Battle Bots!

Are you looking for an easy way to fire up your student’s imaginations and give them a real-life design experience?  Battle Bots is the perfect way to do both!

If you’ve never seen the TV show Battle Bots, do yourself a favor and check out some of the highlights:

What could be more fun?  Robots, sparks, danger all are sure to grab kids attention right? I knew my students would love a similar experience.  So last year I decided to have my student’s experience their very own version of Battle Bots.  I decided it would be best to start with some tools they were familiar with and build on their experience.  We used Spheros as our ‘motor’ and used the Sphero app to control them.  The frame that surrounds the Sphero is called a Sphero Chariot.  A handful of Legos, balloon and a bamboo skewer were all the additional bits they needed to make their Battle Bot.  I made this fun video to get them fired up:

Once the stage was set, I laid out the very basic rules.  Each team received a Sphero, a Sphero Chariot, a balloon, a bamboo skewer and as many Legos as they wanted.  The key item here was the time.  They only had ten minutes to design and build their bot.

Then we set the timer and our engineers went to work!

We battled in two rounds and had the winners battle it off in the final round.  You can see just how excited the kids were in the first round:

We continued the tradition and had our students battle it out again this year.  We even invited their teacher to participate!

The biggest take away from this experience was that the kids loved it.  Their enthusiasm was contagious!  They cheered on their classmates just as enthusiastically as they did their own and begged me to have rematch after rematch.  I think that having the kids use the same materials and giving them very little time to design amplified the experience. It also helped them believe that it was fair. They observed one another’s designs carefully and reconfigured for round two.

Once students have had this basic experience, the challenge level could be upped in several ways.  They could build their own chariot.  Students could try using different robotic platforms.  In our IDEA Lab, we have Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot.  Dash, like the Sphero chariot, has Lego connectors that allow designers to build an infinite number of designs.  I didn’t allow kids to use tape in our initial experience, this challenged them to use the Lego bricks to attach their balloon and skewer.

Before branching out to other materials, it would be helpful to have the kids set ‘ground rules.’  These videos are a bit over the top, but they would be great to get kids thinking about designs and how to ‘win.’

There are lots of fantastic examples of other educators doing great things with Sphero Battle Bots:

Spheros are waterproof.  Have your students design an amphibious battle bot.  Borrow a children’s pool and you have a whole new level of awesomeness!

Have you tried Battle Bots?  Share your experience in the comments.  I hope this encourages you and your kids to battle it out.  Start small.  Have fun!

Three Reasons Why You Should Let Kids Get Splinters at School!

Let me preface this post by saying, if I got you to find your way here, I want you to know that I don’t necessarily favor letting kids get splinters.  However, if they get them in the act of doing something super meaningful and fun, I think it’s definitely worth it!

Several weeks ago my colleague, Gary Wendt, shared with me that he had found some benches on Amazon to fit in the music room hallway.  We need benches there because students wait in that hall during the switching of classes several times a day.  Almost impulsively I blurted out, “Don’t buy them!  Let’s have the kids build them!”  Gary is one of the most progressive educators I’ve ever worked with.  He immediately said yes and my mind started thinking about how we could get a bunch of elementary age students to research, prototype and build benches in the few short weeks that remained of the school year.

“We only think when we are confronted with problems.” John Dewey

The very idea might sound odd to some educators, but not at Hubbard Woods School.  We have a long history of kids constructing and solving real world problems like this.

 Last year, the second grade built custom wagons over the course of a couple of weeks to transport book sets that the teachers had received a grant for.  It turned out that the second-grade students were ready for another challenge.

Reason Number One: By Solving a Real World Challenge, the Students Became Invested in Both the Process and the Final Result.

We started by talking about why Mr. Wendt saw the need for benches.  The kids all agreed and were very enthusiastic about being given the chance to research and build the benches themselves.  Friday’s Mr. Wendt is at one of our other elementary schools teaching Kindergarten music, but he agreed to Facetime the students in each of the second-grade classes so that they could interview him and find out what he was hoping to put in that space.

We Facetimed Mr. Wendt to ask him questions about what he was hoping to have us build for the hallway.

 After about 20 minutes, the classes were broken up into teams and we set off to analyze the space.  Each team had: a measurer who brought along a measuring tape; a recorder, who was going to record all of their measurements and observations as well as drawings; a documentarian who brought along an iPad logged into our digital portfolio platform Seesaw, and a ‘builder.’  The builder assisted the other students as well and knew that their real chance to shine would be when we started prototyping.  We reviewed how to safely use a tape measure and some key terms: bird’s eye view, length, width, and depth.  

In addition to measuring the space where we wanted to build the benches, we also found some other benches we had in our school already and drew and measured them as a reference for our build.  After gathering all of this information, we came together as a group and reflected on the process so far.  We discussed that the following week we would begin building prototypes using one of our favorite resources, Rigamajig!

The teams were excited to build their prototypes.  They referred to their notes from the previous week and got to work right away.  Rigamajig was not ‘exactly’ the right size for the benches, but we talked about the idea that prototypes are not the final design, they are a step along the way.  After building their prototypes, the teams came together and evaluated the different designs.  What was similar or different.  Again, the students used the measuring tape, clipboard, and iPad to document the process.  Finally, after evaluating the designs, we took them down to see how they worked in the actual space.  

Reason Number Two:  Measuring and Documenting Took On a Whole New Meaning When the End Result Was Something That They Will Use Every Day.

Prior to the actual session when we built our benches, I did a little research and found a bench design that was almost perfect for our application.  Everything about the design fit our parameters.  After double checking the measurements, I set out to visit Home Depot.  I bought all the materials and brought them out to the parking lot.  I drive a Honda Civic.  I can fit boards that are about 4’ long in it.  


I had planned ahead and brought my battery operated circular saw along.  I was hoping to cut the lumber down to size and transport it all in my car.  What I didn’t count on was the batteries not being fully charged.  I got about one-third of the lumber cut before the batteries died.  I had to go back to the store and buy a hand saw to finish the job.  It worked.  

The day of the build arrived.  It was the Friday before Memorial Day; a half day.  I knew that I was going to struggle to find volunteers so I decided that I wouldn’t worry about that.  Instead, I had the kids work through three rotations.  One station was a sanding station.  Another was a pre-drilling and assembly station.  The last was one of their favorite options during the year: Osmo Pizza Co.  Ideally, I would have had all the students participating in some part of the construction project.  

Last year, I had nearly a dozen parent volunteers and all 75 of the second graders working at the same time.  This year, given the situation and timing, I decided to pre-cut the lumber and have the kids focus on finishing.  It was the right decision.  The students LOVED sanding and each student had the chance to use a power drill.  For many of them, this was the first time they had ever done something like this.  I was able to ‘teach’ them some of the tips and tricks that come along with a construction project like this.  I showed them how to use a ‘square,’ mark holes for pre-drilling and more.  

Our entrance monitor was giving a tour to some incoming parents.  She came in and saw the entire library abuzz with activity.  She had seen the students measuring and recording the two weeks prior and so she began to explain the process the kids were completing.  Standing in the center of the library, the floor completely covered in sawdust while several students noisily sanded the planks for the bench, one of the new parents said to me, “You need a workshop.” Without even thinking, I said, “This IS my workshop!”

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

As the school cleared out for the holiday weekend, I cleaned up the saw dust with our shop vac.  I placed the completed bench next to the prototypes the students had created.


 They had done it.  They had analyzed the need, interviewed those who were impacted, prototyped and adapted their designs and then completed the process by building the benches.  I couldn’t have been prouder of the students, or happier to work in a district that supports and encourages learning in this way.   

Reason Number Three:  The Students Beamed With Pride As They Looked at Their Finished Projects; Even If They Had Picked Up a Few Splinters in the Process!

One of the three benches the students created.

WGST: The World’s Greatest Student Television (Season 15)

Rocky, our mascot!

With each new school year at Hubbard Woods comes a new iteration of our school’s very own television studio.  We call it WGST: The World’s Greatest Student Television!  After a decade and a half of service, we’ve seen entire families come through our studio.  Many of those students have gone on to work in the profession.  The vast majority of our students have shared when they come back to visit as high school seniors that the opportunity to prepare for and share their stories to be liberating.  There are dozens of stories of how students have pushed beyond their comfort zone to become Anchor One, Two or the Meteorologist for the day.  Imagine the pride a student feels when they have struggled day by day to write fluently and then, after several practice runs, deliver a flawless, poised and eloquent presentation!


Students both behind and in front of the scenes.  Students read from a telempronpter to help them gain confidence in public speaking.

We’ve come a long way from our basement studio where we recorded the daily show on VHS tapes and played them through our closed circuit television system.

The biggest challenge we’ve experienced over the years is keeping the focus on the students.  The technology has increased in so many ways that essentially one person with a powerful Mac computer could run the whole show.  In some ways we’ve had to downgrade tech systems to continue to have students working behind the scenes.

One of our four cameras capturing the action.

This year we are once again making some pretty big changes.  There are of course a few technological changes.  The biggest one is that rather than use an expensive program to produce the news, we are going back to iMovie.  Our new technology associate helped us know that it pretty much does EVERYTHING the production software did for us and it is a program that is included on every Mac and supported by Apple.

Truly behind the scenes.  Lights, camera, action!

The biggest changes this year though are behind the scenes.  For years we’ve worked to have students develop a sense of journalistic integrity through the writing of their stories. We’ve striven to make sure they are school appropriate, balanced and up to date.  The truth is we’ve really not had the time to help students craft their stories or work to establish balance.

This year, we are having students come in a few minutes earlier and rather than crafting their stories at home, we are developing them at school in our ‘newsroom.’

This is the brainstorming sheet that our first crew is starting with to help them come up with ideas for stories.

In fact, the students will be helping one another through the process of researching, writing, documenting and finding appropriate images to go along with their stories.  We are creating a permanent green screen location for our meteorology reports and any other creative elements the kids cane explore!

This helps the students develop their stories being sure to include the 5 W’s.

Most importantly, we are adding two new jobs that we previewed last year: Student Director and Student Producer.  They were phenomenal in our trials last spring.  We are eager to have the students take control of the broadcast.  It was exciting to watch the student director and producer step up and ‘run’ the broadcast.  It was everything I’m sure my colleagues dreamed of when they started the program a decade and a half ago.

This is their planning sheet.  They write the story here and then have a few choices to input it into our teleprompter.  We can type it for them or they can use a headset microphone to dictate the story into the teleprompter!

We are so excited to have students of multiple grade levels working together to produce stories and other audio compositions.  We think that the shared exploration will beneifit us in ways we haven’t even begun to understand.

Mrs. Burleson removing the tape and prepping the board for both magnetic and green screen paint so that the board can serve multiple purposes!

It’s going to be another fantastic year of the World’s Greatest Student Television!  We can’t wait to see what our students come up with this year!


Henry Ford Learning Institute

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a Design Thinking Workshop with two dozen teachers from around the world in Detroit.


This deep dive gave us all opportunities to feel uncomfortable and successful.  I’m a painfully introverted guy, so when the facilitators shared that first day that we were going ‘out into the field’ to interview people, I froze.  A few deep breaths later, I had reprocessed the instructions.  We were going in teams into public spaces: Secretary of State’s Office, The Amtrak Station, and The Post Office.  Our intent couldn’t be simpler.  We were going to encounter individuals in those spaces, interview them, develop empathy for what they were experiencing.   And just like that, we were off; some vague questions guiding us and a few intrepid ‘locals’ who guided us to the spaces.


The more outgoing folks started up conversations, those like me carefully observed and made notes.  I ‘created’ a found poem made up of phrases I heard or read while in the Secretary of State’s Office:


After we reconvened, it was pretty obvious, all three spaces could use an overhaul.  And so, we began to ideate on possible ways to enhance and improve the experiences for the users.

It was this rich jumping off point that got us moving toward a better understanding of how we can integrate Design Thinking into our work with students, teachers, and parents.


I feel like if you can walk away from an all day workshop with one solid takeaway then you’ve been successful.  Mine is a group of activities collectively called ‘stoking.’  No inappropriate comments here, just motivating.  My favorite stoking activity is a full room rock, papers scissors.  Here’s how it works; your mileage may vary.  You can divide the class into small groups.  You do rock, paper scissors best of three.  Here’s the catch.  If you win, the person you beat now becomes your ‘greatest fan.’  This continues until you end up with the entire class cheering two final players on.  We did it with 24 and it took 3-5 minutes and we were ALL fired up when it was over.  A super fun way to re-motivate when energy is low.

IMG_3676I was also inspired by the physical space of the school.  Finding the giant steel sculpture in the center of the school is just the type of playful integration


It was fantastic to spend time among fellow passionate educators working to bring joy into their work.  This was my first workshop with HFLI, but it won’t be my last!