Tag Team Tech October 2016

Out of the Box Robotics

Kelly Czarnecki

Various forms of robotics programs including coding workshops, weekly or monthly clubs, and even tournaments and competitions, have been part of activities for young adults in many libraries for quite some time. 

It’s no secret that robots can be a fun and collaborative way to learn more about STEM principles. They can be a powerful gateway to connecting with the community that might already have resources and a well-developed infrastructure for activities and goals. 

Not knowing a lot about computer programming, much less, robots themselves, doesn’t have to be a barrier to getting started. Many teens have the expertise and would like the opportunity to show off their skills to their peers and their favorite librarian! Whichever robot kit you decide to implement at your library, obviously take some time to become familiar with it. But don’t get so caught up in knowing all the details that you find yourself continually putting off its debut. 

Robotics kits are great additions to most any library or makerspace. Learn about a variety of programming techniques and how teens can interact with these fun tools!

Programming Kits

Programming kits can be used in different ways. They might stay at your branch and circulate within your department. Visitors may be able to check them out and take them off the premises. If you’re part of a larger system of branches, you may want to make them available to ship, particularly to pool together resources and spend less money. 

If programming kits are to travel outside of the library system or to other branches, you’ll want to have a scheduling tool in place. If it’s internal, a calendar on your Intranet should do the job or the ability for visitors to use the same software to check out a kit that they would check out a book or a movie. 

A plastic tub that can withstand travel and meets the requirements of your delivery department (i.e. not too heavy or large) will be needed. 

The content of the kit would obviously include the robot itself. 

Many robots might require a mobile device such as a laptop or tablet to run the software or activate the app to learn more complex uses such as programming games or having it complete a set of challenges . Whether or not those laptops or tablets are able to be provided in the kit will need to be noted. 

If a robot comes with small or many pieces,  inventory the major ones that would be easier to replace so you know exactly what might be missing and include them on a “send/received” check sheet to again help narrow down where in the process something became missing.  While most robots come with their own set of instructions, whether through a manual or software which would likely be included, think of ways that make the robot more of a teen-friendly and include those materials and instructions as well. Creating an online form is also a great way for others to contribute their programming experiences with the kit and share with others. 

A feedback form on how the kit worked for an intended program can give valuable information as to any additional materials you might want include in the kit in the future. Was there information on the programming instructions that wasn’t included (i.e. time to prepare the program, number of teens it could serve, etc.). Acting on helpful feedback can help continue to grow the program and make everyone’s experience even better than the previous one. 

Robots to Use as Programming Kits

Now we get to the fun part! Here we get to take a look at which robots make great programming kit experiences, depending on your needs. 

These robots were chosen in part because their size and accessories easily lend themselves to travel by kit or being checked out and used within the building. The number of pieces aren’t tremendous and thus makes it easier to inventory and send when needed.  They were also selected as they are in many of the current classroom and library scenes that integrate what is important to learning today; collaboration, programming, and inspiring interest in further technology pursuits. The robots mentioned below have been used as kits at my library with success and hopefully will be in yours too.

Ozobot (http://www.ozobot.com) $50-$120
Sometimes it might feel intimidating when you see new technology and know you need to learn how to use it just by looking at it. There’s not much to be afraid of with an Ozobot–in fact, it’s almost cute (if a robot could be assigned such an adjective). It’s very small but not too small and it even has custom skins that can give it even more personality.  Don’t let the cuteness factor fool you into thinking it’s not a powerful tool for learning some advanced programming principles.   

The learning curve for basic functions of the Ozobot is pretty simple. This makes it practical for a wide range of ages including teens teaching younger and older people how to interact with it. The Ozobot responds by moving to color codes and the kit even comes with a set of markers. More advanced techniques come into play with the programming language OzoBlocky that can be accessed on the web. The app is compatible with most iOS and Android devices. 

The first time I used an Ozobot for a teen program–my library had two at the time–I set out large butcher paper for participants to draw their color coded tracks and showed them how to get started. A short time later they were working together and had some enormous plans for a whole city they were creating for Ozobot to take over. They didn’t want the program to end. 

The site has helpful tutorials and further resources for teachers to share activities and get additional ideas from their Lesson Library. 

Cubelets (http://www.modrobotics.com/cubelets/) $160-$500
While these are on the higher end of the price scale than the other robots mentioned in this article, they have come a long way since they were first available several years ago. They are also available as educator packs for classrooms, museums, makerspaces and other similar group settings at an increased price range. 

Cubelets are great for a wide range of ages and the learning curve for basic functions is very low. Cubelets are colorful magnetic cubes that snap together to perform different functions including moving, making sound, turning on a light, etc. The sequence in which they are put together, along with the function of the block (battery, action, sense, and think), determines the action(s) that will follow. 

The Cubelets app is free and available through the App Store or Google Play. Lesson plans by grade are accessible on their site as well as suggested challenges on their blog. Cubelets can connect to LEGO®bricks  with an adapter pack to add a bit of flair and familiarity to the robots. 

When I introduced teens at my library to our Cubelets, they took to them right away. They experimented a lot with different combinations to make their robot perform desired actions. They easily came up with challenges for each other and, most of all, enjoyed seeing the robot move around the library where others, not in the program, became curious about what they were doing.

Sphero SPRK+( http://www.sphero.com/) $100-$130
I was excited when our SPRK+ first arrived because I had seen other libraries do what appeared to be engaging activities with their teens and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The SPRK+ is one of several app enabled robots designed by Sphero.  Like the Ozobot, it is round in shape and the interior gears are visible as it performs its actions. The learning curve is low to get the SPRK+ started. Simply steering the ball and changing it’s color can be easily and quickly achieved. The Lightning Lab app is where the programming takes place. If youth are familiar with Scratch and other block programming languages, they will quickly pick up how to string commands for the SPRK+ with the language on the blocks using the same words. 

Video tutorials that have you practice the basics of programming the SPRK+  with instant results are part of the package. An active online community has a host of activities for your classroom or library available. 

When I introduced the SPRK+ at my library, teens were curious how to make the robot move. We also recently acquired an Aquos board which only enhanced the viewing experience and made it easier for passers-by to see that something extraordinary was going on. I also thought it’d be great to have the SPRK+ get messy by rolling around in washable paint and coloring large sheets of butcher paper to make abstract designs. The teens loved it and the paint washed off easily.

Whichever robot you decide is the right fit for your library and how you determine the rules and function governing the kit will be some decisions to make. It’s a great way to experiment and help teens develop their STEM skills more than before!

Further Resources

ALA: Library of the Future
Gives a useful overview of why robots in libraries as well as examples of libraries working with them

Create, Collaborate, Innovate
Gives highly engaging activity ideas (with photos!) for robots 

Exploring Robots
Gives an overview of robots in this article and more for the classroom

School Library Journal
Solid reviews of robots and other technologies

czarnecki-headshot-used-with-permissionKelly Czarnecki is a teen services librarian in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has written extensively on teens and technology in libraries and teaches online classes for American Library Association. In her spare time, she enjoys learning how to grill, watching the Chicago Bulls, and training for her next triathlon.



  1. […] the hottest of the hot in STEAM skills being supported by school libraries across the nation (http://voyamagazine.com/2016/09/22/tag-team-tech-october-2016/). This article reviewed several robotic and programming kits with a reasonable price point that […]

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