On a recent trip to Fir Grove Elementary School, we had the opportunity to do some deeper dives into Lego robotics. After a brief exploration and research session about the current flooding situation in California, upper elementary students learned how to build and program a working floodgate. We then displayed current weather data from the Oroville, California region, which was grappling with the prospect of a catastrophic failure of the Oroville Dam. For a number of students, it was this information that seemed to kick them into high gear. They were making plans to release some of the water behind the Dam before the next wave of rains hit. Questions and questions we overheard from students were:
“How much water do we need to keep for the farms? What about the fish?”
“What if we add a motion sensor, and let that trigger the gate?”
“How do we make our program to go by the hour? Maybe we can just make a second mean one hour?”
“What if the dam erodes?”
Students were more than just engaged, they were moving with intention and showed empathy in their decision making processes. We overheard many discussions about the people who had been evacuated, and how scary that must be to wonder if the dam would fail.
We were simulating real solutions to real problems, and beyond that, we were encouraging empathy as the first part of the design-thinking process. Who is this solution for? What are the trade-offs? What happens if we don’t act? How would we feel if we were there? Who decides what to do and when?
This build was more open-ended than the first robot builds, as students were able to adjust the programming to respond to weather data, or other inputs. However, the floodgate itself was a scripted process that looked basically the same for all students. This was a necessary step toward a much more open-ended design project to come. Now that the students have had the opportunity to learn how to use the lego robotics tools, they are ready to design every aspect of an original solution to a design challenge. Their solution with their unique voice. Open the floodgates!