Lessons from Seventeen Years of Teaching Robotics

In 2002, Chris Odom taught George School's first robotics class. Over the past seventeen years, Chris developed an original curriculum and wrote several textbooks for the thriving program. (Photo by Bruce Weller)

In 2002, physics teacher Chris Odom taught George School’s first robotics class with a curriculum of his own invention. In the ensuing seventeen years, Chris authored several robotics textbooks and developed a curriculum taught not only at George School, but also at high schools and colleges around the world.

For Chris, a former NASA-funded rocket scientist, building a physical computing and robotics curriculum from scratch has been a long process of trial-and-error. Chris shared the most important lessons he learned over the last seventeen years:

To save money, go DIY.

Since the advent of the program, Chris has worked with Patton Robotics LLC, a company created by George School science teacher Brian Patton that provides educators and researchers with robots and parts.

When working with a tight budget, Chris highly recommends working with a company like Patton Robotics over larger proprietary programs such as LEGO and VEX Robotics. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these programs, the custom parts required for these robots often have inflated prices.

“A LEGO temperature sensor costs about $50, and the temperature sensors that we use—which real-world researchers use—cost 50 cents each,” said Chris. “I want our students to have a real-world understanding of electronics and robotics.”

By taking a do-it-yourself approach, a robotics program can flourish even on a modest budget. Additional yearly costs are minimal after the initial investment in robots, particularly if you avoid proprietary machines. “Our thriving program of fifty students per year can be maintained for an annual cost of less than $100 per student,” said Chris.

Each student needs their own robot.

In the earlier years of George School’s robotics program, the growing number of students outpaced the number of robots. Chris soon encountered the complexity of having students share machines.

If possible, each student should have their own robot, and Chris said that making an initial investment in a sufficient number of machines will be worth it in the long run. “We still have and use many of the robots we purchased sixteen or seventeen years ago,” he said.

Additional resources enrich the program.

Access to additional technology such as a 3D printer, laser cutter, or soldering iron can greatly expand learning opportunities for robotics students.

Over the years, the George School Science Department has acquired a 100-watt laser cutter, numerous 3D printers, and computer-aided design (CAD) software. “George School has done a wonderful job of supporting the program,” said Chris.

Don’t lecture.

Chris used to lecture in his Physical Computing and Robotics classes, but quickly realized that traditional lectures only served a small number of students. Students who wanted to move faster felt bored, and students who were struggling with the material felt frustrated.

Chris acknowledged that the balance between instruction and exploration can be tricky to master. “It’s a fine line between giving them the raw materials to work with and the opportunity to explore,” he said. “Where do I turn off my spigot and let them continue in their learning?”

After a couple of years, Chris came to a solution:

Curriculum is key.

In 2005, Chris wrote a textbook for his robotics class. “Once the students had their textbooks, they could go at their own pace, although we have a minimum speed limit,” said Chris.

During class time, students follow along with the textbook and complete assignments. Once they finish with a chapter, they are free to move on to the next.

Chris has since written several more textbooks containing complete curricula. His textbooks are available online for purchase.

Integrate your curriculum.

Initially, Chris structured the curriculum sequentially: students first learned to code, then learned electronics, then robotics. Chris learned the material this way when he was a student, so this seemed a natural way to teach it. However, over the past two years Chris and Brian have experimented with an integrated curriculum, which meshes disciplines, helping students make connections between ideas earlier.

Chris has already seen the benefits of toggling back and forth between coding, robotics, and electronics. “Students can get right into the ‘fun stuff,’” said Chris, who explained that this method allows students to get a taste of the end result sooner in the process. “We introduced robot motion, lighting, building circuit boards, and mechanical material earlier in the year, and that has been great. Those used to be things we learned in the middle of the year.”

Leave plenty of time for projects.

Students move through the textbooks during the first two terms of the year, and in the third term, they are required to work on an independent project of their choice.

“The project does not have to be a traditional robot,” said Chris, who added that the freedom was empowering for students. Students have created robots that write poetry, graph mathematical functions, play soccer, water the garden, and fly.

Chris and Brian finish off the school year with an opportunity for students to show their creations to the community. “The third term culminates in this big, informal Robotics Open House,” said Chris. “We’ve done it for almost a decade, and the projects are incredible, especially for first-year students. It changes people’s perspectives on the types of projects that can be created in a robotics classroom.”

Robotics is not just for techies.

Chris stressed that some of the best robotics students are the ones who, on paper, would not ordinarily elect to take robotics. While robotics is naturally appealing for math and science enthusiasts, Chris stressed that out-of-the-box thinkers and artists also thrive in the class.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of enticing students who wouldn’t normally take robotics to take it, and these students have made the program so much richer,” said Chris.

Robotics is a subject within reach for students with varying academic backgrounds and interests. “The accessibility of this material is wonderful. Even now, it’s still accessible for students who are starting off at zero, which is the vast majority of our students,” said Chris.

Chris’s curriculum and Brian’s robots are designed to lay a foundation for first-time robotics students. “Then we can cut them loose and they can go off on their own,” he said.

Homework is not helpful.

Chris’s robotics class has never had homework.

“Because this was an extra class back in the day, we wanted students to be able to take it without overloading them,” said Chris. “I promised I wouldn’t give homework, and it turns out, that was the way to go. Not having homework at night frees up their minds to engage in critical- and design-thinking, and allows them to become more focused and creative during class time.”

Take advantage of interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

Physical Computing and Robotics helps bridge the gaps between science and art, computer science and design. The interdisciplinary nature of robotics lays a fertile ground for collaborations between academic departments.

“The collaborations that we’ve done with the Visual and Performing Arts Departments have been some of my favorite parts of this,” said Chris. “I love it when a dedicated art student engages in robotics because I learn so much from them; they take me places I would never go myself.”

Don’t try to create students in your own image. Let them follow their own desires.

Chris urged teachers to let students follow their own desires.

“Nothing kills innovation like going up to a student and saying, ‘That’s great, but if you do it this way, it’s even better,’” said Chris. “Offer suggestions if they’re looking for it. But if they come to you and they’re excited about it, then you’re done.”

Learning one computer programming language prepares you to learn another.

Chris teaches the popular programming language Arduino-C, which he says is not too difficult for students to learn.

“It’s much easier to learn Arduino than to learn Spanish,” said Chris. “And once you learn one language, you can learn another even more easily. That’s why I think what we learn in robotics moves on so well to AP Computer Science, which uses a completely different language, but it’s based on the same principles.”

Be willing to re-define your program.

“Brian and I are fortunate that our Physical Computing and Robotics course is not tied to an external exam or outside curriculum that must be rigidly followed. There’s no timeline with our curriculum except what material we want to cover, and there’s complete freedom to change it however we want,” said Chris. “Every year we redefine what the curriculum is like and what the students need to get out of it. Our students are unbelievably talented and motivated, and they deserve a program that grows with them.”

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