littleBits First Lesson – A Success with Digital and Analog Circuits


Hi! I’m pretty psyched about this lesson I did using littleBits with my 6th grade class. We had finished a few weeks of coding and scratching and they were getting antsy to get away from computers because I had been on jury duty for three weeks so there were a lot of “at desk” assignments. I had wanted to use littleBits for a while in class, but had never gotten beyond offering them as a reward to play with for those who finished early with other assignments.

Let me back up right here, if you don’t know what littleBits are, please check out their website linked above and watch this video if you like:

If you do (or you do now) know about littleBits, you know they are pretty amazing. Their ability to let kids – and adults – be creative is unlike anything I have seen since I started teaching with robots. There are many projects I have wanted to have students  do with littleBits and so many great things they could create but I was stuck with two major questions: 1) How do I get started? and 2) How do I make sure I teach basic circuitry concepts w/o stifling their imagination? Plus I was keenly aware of this quote from the Educator’s Guide:

Free play with littleBits has its definite advantages, but students will sometimes disengage after a time . Having a goal or design challenge to help structure the play engages students  for a longer period of time and helps meet specific learning standards.

After toying with many ideas I finally put together a two day lesson which worked pretty well.  Here’s how it went:

The day before the lesson I allowed a few students to play with littleBits after finishing their work early so there was some buzz about the items and curiosity about what was going in the back of the classroom with the noise and lights.

On the first day I had the students gather outside of my classroom and I handed each one of them a card. Eleven of them received blue power cards, eleven of them received green output cards, and eleven of them received pink input cards. The cards corresponded to the colors and specific types of bits littleBits makes. Here’s examples of the input and output cards:

These cards come in the packages when you order individual bits but they also  are available en masse in a .pdf provided by littleBits and available on the educators’ page linked to above. I had our school’s print service print them out back to back and laminate them.

When all the students had the cards, I had them gather at the back by my whiteboard tables and proceeded to share with them the learning target for the day:

I can create and describe a circuit with an input and output using littleBits.

Then I showed them the cart full of drawers where I have the littleBits sorted. Each drawer has either blue, green, pink, or orange tape on it for easy location of bits.


I pointed them to the blue tape drawer and asked all students with blue power cards to retrieve a 9v battery, cable, and power bit and go take a seat. Then I had them connect the battery to the power bit and turn them on.

At this point I shared three definitions with the class on the board:

  1. circuit – A closed path through which an electric current flows or may flow
  2. digital – digital signals have two positions: on or off
  3. analog – analog signals have a varying range from a low point to a high point

I asked the class to discuss with the person next to them if we had created a circuit already and a great discussion ensued amongst the students. Though no output was attached yet, there is a small red led that comes on to indicate power is working and some thought this meant we had created a circuit, while some felt that you had to have something happen for a circuit to be made. I didn’t give them a definitive answer as I like to keep their minds interested and open.

Once the discussion died down I pointed out the green drawer where the outputs are and asked each student holding a green card to find their output and take it to a table and join a power bit holder. Next I told them to connect the power bit to the output bit and record what happened. Please note that I did not tell them how to connect the bits. littleBits are made with magnets whose poles line up so that there is only one correct way you can align the bits. All my students figured it out intuitively without me telling them how to do it. Here’s some of their work:

I even had one group go the next step and draw their circuit even though I had not asked them to do so:

CircuitDiagramAfter the observations of the power and output circuits I (finally!) gave the pink input card holders the same directions as the green output card holders. If I have a criticism of this lesson it is that it takes a while for this last group to to get into the lesson, though they were watching intently. Once the pink card holders grabbed their inputs from the drawer they joined the teams and created new circuits, again writing down their observations on the table:

Notice that first group in the pictures above kept their pre-input observation and compared it to their post-input observation. I though this was pretty cool of them.

And that was it for the first day. It takes a while to safely and correctly put all the pieces back, erase the tables, collect the cards and so forth, so this is as far as we got with the first day lesson.

The second day the students came in I presented them with the learning target:

I can create an analog or digital light circuit using power, inputs, and outputs from littleBits.

This time instead of handing them cards I counted the class off from 1-10 and had them gather together with their like numbers in the back of the room (all ones with ones, all twos with twos, etc.) This way I had ten groups of three each, with two leftover who formed a smaller group.

After reviewing our definitions from the previous day (circuit, analog, and digital) I asked each group to discuss whether the light switch in the classroom was analog or digital. We shared and discussed answers and then I had each group come up with an example of an analog circuit. While most mentioned light dimmers as I had started off with lights, a lot of them talked about volume on their phones or tablets.

I instructed them that they had to create a circuit that output some type of light and was either digital or analog. Due to having a large class I counted my bar graph bits as lights so combined with leds, bright leds, light wires, uv leds and a few others I had over ten light outputs.

To make sure each student participated I had the student with the shortest hair in each group retrieve and set up the power bit, the student with the longest hair come up and choose the type of light output, and the remaining student choose they type of input. One unexpected outcome that I should have anticipated is almost all the students went for dimmers or pressure sensors as they were more fun. So I had more analog than digital circuits in the end. But either way if they can create and describe a circuit successfully, they have met the learning target.

Here is a slideshow of their circuits, observations, and diagrams:

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One group described their circuit as analog because they chose the dimmer, while the other groups were all able to describe the action of the input, for example “…because you can change the brightness of the light by sliding the dimmer.” You can also see that I’m not worried about spelling or grammar in these quick observations as they get in the way of the students directly relating their thought process. They will adjust their mechanics when it comes time to present projects.

In summary I think I answered my two concerns in the beginning. I was able to insert some specific vocabulary and have the students understand they were creating different types of circuits. At the same time I kept them interested because littleBits are cool and they had a lot of choice in how they created their circuits. Finally their observations where their own. As long as they described the circuit accurately I wasn’t worried about how the format they chose to describe their circuit.

I feel like I have built a proper foundation with this 6th grade class that they will be able to tackle their first littleBits project successfully.

Using the EV3App with First Time ipads in the Classroom

ev3ipadI am one of four teachers at my middle school who are part of the ipad Digital Pilot program. What this means is that we are the guinnea pigs. Our high schools are 1:1, our middle schools will get there in a year or two, I’m here to work out the kinks. :) Below is a chronicle of the first two or three days of ipad use in my Robotics’ classes with the official EV3 LEGO Mindstorms app.

This was the starting point on day 1:


And here’s a screenshot of the tweet I sent out after that day:

frustrateAs you can see I wasn’t a happy camper yesterday. I had to stay after school and download the app on each ipad one at a time. This is more a limitation of my district’s technology than it is a reflection on ipads or the EV3 app itself. I will tell you that once the app was downloaded it was a snap to type in the code and get it to start working.

On day two we spent most of our time working on pairing our ipads with the robots through bluetooth. **WARNING** Please make sure your students have changed the name of their robot before connecting.You can do this through the app, but then they are all connecting to a robot named EV3 and they’ll have to do it one at a time. If they change the names on their robots using the desktop software they can find their robot through the ipad Bluetooth settings and it’s pretty easy to connect.

I wanted to trouble shoot those who were having problems so I told the rest of them to figure out how the app worked and then to program their robot to drive around my entire classroom. This is where it got great and I accidentally deleted the video from my youtube page. :(

What you would have seen is students walking around the class making instant connections with their robots as they followed them around the room. I was able to easily show them corrections and help with with problems as they brought their ipads to me. No more running over to desktops that are stationary.

I had time to debrief the 2nd of my two Robotics’ classes at the end and asked them what they were able to do or figure out. First responses were how easy the app was to use. “I really liked it,” was very common to hear. One student had no idea they could play music on their robot and another discovered he could record his voice and play it back. These feature are available in EV3 desktop version, but something about the app made them readily discoverable. The students were really excited.

Day 3 – Prior to deploying the iPad’s I had been on jury duty for three weeks so my classes were behind where they should be. Now that we had the iPad’s connected to theEV3s via Bluetooth and my students were somewhat aware of how to use the EV3 app, I decided to do things differently. I wrote the whole program (in my EV3 shorthand) on the whiteboard for them and challenged the classes to program the entire thing using the ipads.


They got pretty far this day and it was clear that they enjoyed the ipads and had a much quicker learning curve than if they had been on the desktops. The following video is just a quick snapshot at one period, not a well put together or edited video. But the two students I interviewed at the end are genuine in their comments and of interest I think.

One thing we learned pretty quickly is that there is no support for the NXT Sound sensor, even though this is available on the desktop/laptop version of EV3. This was a problem because we always use sound to trigger our robots. At first we tried to have everyone push the “download and run” button which works both by pushing the start icon (green arrow at the beginning of your code) or the solid arrow in the top right of the screen. We discovered that there was a little bit of a delay with some when using this method so not all robots started at the same time. Not sure why. so we went back to pushing the start button on the robot and we added a one second wait time so they wouldn’t move under the starter’s finger and possible veer off course.

The video above shows how far one group in my class got in just three days of ipad use, having never seen the EV3 app before. By the middle of the fourth day here’s where they were:

So while the class was able to be successful, what I found even cooler was the stuff they taught me and taught themselves that I would normally have to show them. One group learned to add sound to their robot. I think that by having the icons up close and personal on a device they’re all used to really helped. On the desktop they weren’t able to see or notice or recognize the sound icon. And additionally our class computers were locked down so you couldn’t use the microphone to create sound whereas with the ipads they can record their voices and play them through the robots. They also showed me how to pull down wires to do parallel programming. I hadn’t looked for this feature and would have kept trying to move icons apart to look for a wire I could pull just like you would on the desktop version of EV3, but instead it just needs a well placed tap. This was something my 13 year old students figured out before me.

Overall I’d say they ipads will be a real boon in my class. The positives are: ease of use, quick to learn, no back and forth to your computer, no USB cables. The negatives are: connecting to bluetooth is still a problem since I’m using them with multiple classes with different robots, saving and sharing programs via Google Drive is a bit difficult; with multiple accounts on one ipad you can’t log out of yours, you have to put a passkey on so others can’t get into your always open account. I didn’t know this at first. Finally the lack of sound sensor really bums me out.

Some people may bemoan the lack of advanced features, but right now I teach a 13 week exploratory course and I think we’ll be fine with just the icons we have.

Jury Duty Blues – or – A First Week Activity to Keep them Busy While I’m Gone

Nifty title, huh? Yes, I have jury duty during the 2nd full week of school this year and it’s driving me crazy! I have a great guest teacher taking my spot, but you all know how hard it is to give up your Robotics’ class for more than a few days, especially in the beginning.

After my students build their first robots I usually have them go through the four basic tutorials in EV3 Robot Educator. I’m not sure if this is the best idea. I love the way the tutorials are laid out with their five slide format. I love that they’re self-paced. I do worry that they are confusing.

EV3StartUpThe Straight Move and Curved Move tutorials use the Move Steering icon, while the Tank Move tutorial uses the Move Tank icon. To me it’s vitally important that students learn the difference between Move Steering and Move Tank: the first controls both motors and distributes power based on a curve you give the robot while adjusting the slider on the arrow, while the latter allows you to control power to each motor yourself and design your own turn.

MoveSteeringvMoveTankI like to ask my students what the difference between these two programming blocks is after they’ve done the first three tutorials. Only a few get it instinctively and only a few more get it after a bit of prodding/explaining. Most are just lost and I’m not sure I blame them as there’s no need to understand what you’re doing when you’re just copying tutorials.

This trimester I was a bit more explicit in explaining to the students that there were two different blocks they would be using and those blocks’ names were similar but not the same as the names on the tutorial programs they’ll be going through in a moment. This helped a bit and took a bit of explanation.

As you can see in the video compilation below, most students were able to understand and choose which block they thought was better. Some students used Move Steering to create a curved turn around the track, while others use Move Tank to execute a pivot or point turn depending on their choice.

I was happy with this activity because it’s quick and easy and gets the students doing something right away. As jury duty has kept me out three days this week (so far) here’s how I extended the activity for my guest teacher:

Challenge 1 was to drive in-between the black lines (not too bothered if they go over a bit, the lines were hastily made with electrical tape) and knock cuboid off the table without going over yourself.

That one they started while I was in class. The next two challenges were totally presented by the guest teacher:

Challenge Two – Using the building tutorial in EV3>Robot Educator>Building Instructions>Medium Motor, add the medium motor and lift arm. Program your robot to drive around the track and use the medium motor (hint you’ll need to use a new type of block that controls a single motor – look for it in green) “grab” cuboid and then drive it back to the start.

Challenge Three – If you are successful with the second challenge, program your robot to do a victory dance that includes sounds and pictures on its screen. Figure out how to do this by looking at the blocks in the green action palette.

My question to you dear reader of this blog is this:

Do you use the EV3 tutorials to teach beginning programming? Do you think they confuse students as to what Move Tank and Move Steering do? What other methods do you use to teach beginning programming? Please answer in the comments if you like.

Pull It!

The Owl

The Owl

This one was so cool I’ve wanted to write it up for a while, just haven’t had the time.

My 8th grade class is Gateway to Technology, part of the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) courses.  PLTW has some great projects but I’m on a trimester schedule so I have trouble fitting them all in.  This is my first time doing the VEX Pull Toy and I wish I’d done it earlier!

Chinese Dragon

Chinese Dragon

As an introduction to VEX building materials I’ve always had the class split into groups and assigned each group a gear mechanism to build, present, and if time, motorize and program using Robot C.  Cool, but not very fun.  Now that I’ve added this project, it’s way cooler and much much more funner! (sic)

After the students have learned how gear mechanisms work (because they payed really close attention to each others’ presentations) I tell them they are going to make a child’s pull toy using at least one of the gear mechanisms that they have learned in class.  As a way to present the project we will do a parade through the main office with administration, counselors, secretaries, and available staff as the audience.  At the end I asked the staff to vote on their favorite toy.

Here’s a few of the toys as they appeared in class:

Helicopters were a favorite as they looked simple, though as several students found out, lining up bevel gears perfectly was not easy.

I love this Ferris wheel because as often happens, the seats are rigid and turn upside down as it goes around.

One of the cool things about this project is the students can use design skills to make a project look really cool.  While this Pacman Arcade is a simple bevel gear and belt drive, it looks a thousand times cooler because of the decorations.

Pacman was a clear staff favorite, the other three most popular ones ( Chinese Dragon, Low Rider, and Owl) are each below:

Finally, here’s an extended play of all the parade videos:

What I like about this particular project is that it reinforced what gear mechanisms do: change direction of travel, speed or torque.  The students sort of get this when they build the gear mechanisms, but when they make their pull toys, it really hits home.

What I would do differently next time is not show too many examples (youtube videos) of other classes.  Pacman, race cars, boxers, and helicopters, were all videos my students saw.  I’d like to push them towards a bit more originality.  Or I may just add that to the rubric next time to make it implicit in the grade.


First Day

image Been a while since I posted… Thought I’d share some pics and vids from the first lesson I do in Robotics each year.  I have the students examine the Grey and black (friction) pins and to write down the differences.   Then I add in some beams and tell them to play and see what the functional  difference between the two is. image image image image image And finally I ask them to show the differences:




IMG_4028After my class completes the Wave I like to challenge them to come up with their own project.  This has turned out great for me because the students are choosing what they want to do and if there’s something new they need to learn they are (usually) eager to learn it.
My recent class chose to make the number “4” because they are my period 4 class.  So we began by mapping out our original concept on one of my whiteboard walls:
IMG_4030 This is a little messy because it’s a collaborative effort between myself and my class and like all good projects we made many corrections and revisions.  First we drew the number and decided how many of our 15 robots would make up each part of the “4.”  Then we wrote the number of each robot (my robots are all numbered in permanent marker) in the space where they would end up.

Then students measured the length of my green rectangle and located a starting point and end point for our line of 15 robots.  They divided this distance so that each robot would be placed equidistant from each other and we made marks on the floor to indicated where to line up.

We agreed to use the sound sensor to start and to drive at power level 50, then students had a few days to work on their own robot’s movement with their partners, without worrying about timing.  It took a few days for most students to get their robots to end in the correct place.  If you’ve dealt with older NXTs, you know precision and consistency are not their hallmarks, especially since this was a beginning project and we were not using PID or sensors.

Then the hard part began.  We had to figure out timing for our robots so that they wouldn’t hit each other but also so they would look cool executing the shape.  We went through several iterations on this and at several times we had to just run a few robots at a time to get them to work properly.

As I stated before, getting the timing right was the hardest part, one robot too fast or too slow could make all the difference.

In the video below you can see how just one or two robots with poor timing or a bad turn can throw the whole thing off:

The next two videos show just how close we were getting after a few days.  Frustratingly, tantalizingly, close.

And in this one a student picked up her robot when I think it would have made it:

Finally when we were as close as we felt we were going to get (and with teacher imposed time constraints) it was time to do the last run.  The green rectangle was actually painted with chalkboard paint, so it was easy to erase the chalk “#4” and yell at our robots one last time.

For those of you who are interested, this is a 7th grade Introduction to Robotics class using LEGO Mindstorms NXTs.  Next year we’ll have EV3s (I’ve seen the purchasing invoice!).  I have this class for 13 weeks (which teachers know really means 12) and this project took place during the 3rd and 4th week of the class.



Move Without Wheels – Take Two

IMG_3679This past weekend I gave a presentation at the Washington Industrial Teachers’ Education Association spring conference.  I chose to build off of LEGO Education’s Move Without Wheels challenge which is part of their Engineering and Design curriculum pack supporting the EV3 software.  I chose this idea because it ties in with the engineering components of the Next Generation Science standards which WA sate will be using soon.

The pictures and playlist (click once to play all vids) below should give you a good idea what this is all about.  A very fun and quick challenge to do with your students.


If you liked these I did a similar workshop at the NSTA Conference in Portland earlier this year.  There’s a playlist on my youtube channel and a short blog post about that on here as well.