Sumo Bots Projects Reflect Gold Standard PBL


My students and I huddled around a “sumo mat” as two robots struggled to push each other off the mat. One robot eventually threw the other out of the ring. The robots, which were called “sumo bots,” were designed by teams of students in an afterschool robotics club I lead at a charter school. This afterschool program provided students with many challenges as the weeks progressed; these challenges invited students to learn how to build and program robots that could meet specific tasks. We used a Lego kit that included sensors, motors, programming software, and all the other tools needed for creating an array of diverse robotic creations. I would argue that this afterschool project could be categorized as a Gold Standard PBL program because I believe the seven essential design elements of an authentic PBL program were present at each session.

Challenging Question or Problem
To meet each week’s challenge, students had to ask themselves, “How can I use technology based problem solving in a group setting to meet a goal?” Sometimes, a challenge could involve the need to develop a bot that could independently navigate an obstacle course before knocking over a set of Lincoln Logs. Other times, it could involve the need to use a color sensor in a way that could guide a robot through an arena. At all times, students were encouraged to work together to meet these goals. The students who walked away from the project with key success skills were those who learned how to work together to critically think about how to solve challenges using a technological solution.

Sustained Inquiry
The students created the sumo bots as part of a sustained inquiry into the use of robotics and computer programming. It is important for students to inquire into a subject for multiple weeks because it takes time to explore any topic in depth. Topics that are researched on a topical level only produce a topical understanding. Especially with a subject such as robotics and computer programming, students need time to both learn and explore. A sustained inquiry allows students to gain a deeper and more full-bodied understanding of the subject they are studying. 

The afterschool robotics program challenged students to think critically about how to use technology to meet a goal. This is arguably one of the most important challenges a student could learn from in an age where technology is a centerpiece of modern life. In the real-world job scenarios students will one day encounter, the main job responsibility will often involve the need to solve a problem using a technological solution. Through my afterschool robotics program, students were given a hands-on opportunity to develop an authentic understanding of technology based problem solving. 

At the start of each afterschool lesson, I would provide students with a brief lesson in which I modeled a new way to build/program/use the robotic motors and sensors. The students would then begin to develop their understanding of the day’s lesson by experimenting with the ideas I presented through the creation of their robot. The students would design a new robot to meet each session’s new challenge. Students would also apply what they had learned from a previous week to their plans for meeting the following week’s goal. By reflecting on both their previous mistakes and successes, the students were able to build on their prior knowledge to form deeper conceptual knowledge of how to build and program technology. As the weeks went by, the teams of two and three would apply what they had learned from previous weeks to build and program more efficiently—they began to gain a more intuitive understanding of which designs were more likely to meet their goal. 



Critique & Revision
The type of critique and revision found in the robotics program deviated from the standard PBL model in that formal rubrics and written critiques were not included. The program did not purposely avoid formal forms of critique protocols, but instead found that the students did fairly well correcting and revising their own work without checklists and other documentation that normally works well in structuring a project. I believe the students’ genuine interest in building the robots to meet the challenges of the arena motivated them to build the best robots they could. 

Student Voice and Choice
Students had a voice in how their robots looked and performed. The freedom to create was an important part of this project, as it is with all well-structured class projects. Thought is at its highest level during a creative experience because creation involves all levels of the cognitive process hierarchy described by Bloom. For each robotics session, students had to first acquire information to begin to understand new ways of building and programming their robots. They then experimented with their robots in a student-centered learning approach to deepen their understanding of the information and begin applying their new understanding to the challenge at hand. They had to then analyze and evaluate their robots as they tested what worked and what didn’t before putting the finishing touches on the technology they had personally created to meet each session’s goal.

Public Product
Toward the end of every session, groups of students—and sometimes all of the students in the session—would gather around the arena set up for that week’s challenge as they watched their classmates’ robots attempt to meet the goals that had been issued that week.   Not only students, but also parents had a chance to watch the robots perform at times.  Both the robots and their performances in the arena served as the public product. A public product is important for students because they find it gratifying to see their hard work and imagination displayed.

Teachers who would like to know more about robotics programs will find ample information and materials online. Many educational robotics kits provide all the parts and information needed to begin an afterschool robotics club or even an in-school program. If your school does not yet have a robotics club, your students could soon be introducing their sumo bots to a challenge with your recommendation.


Paul Condello has worked in education as an English teacher, PBL coordinator, and elementary school teacher. He is currently enjoying his role teaching online ESL
classes to students from China through an educational company called Golden Voice English.