Let's Make Robots!

Ideas for a Children's Museum Exhibit

There's a very small children's museum near me, and I've talked to them about putting together a robot exhibit. They've shown some interest, so I'm going to put together some ideas. Here's where you come in...

The 'museum' is basically just a large room at a community center. They don't have a dedicated space, so this is not to be a permanent exhibit. They can set up tables for different kids' activities. The events I've seen at the place had to be pretty open to accomodate a range of ages. Also, I would expect that most activities would be manned by volutneers. A demonstration or video presentation could be scheduled, but other activities would just have to be available throughout the day or weekend.

My idea is to have a bunch of tables where kids could learn and experiment with different aspects of robotics. For example:

  • Gears: Kids free play with pegboards and build gear systems. Two pre-set displays show how different gear ratios affect the ability to lift a weight.
  • Motors and Generators: Two identical gear motors are electrically connected so that one acts as a generator to power the other. A switch would allow the generator to power a light bulb or LED instead. Kids can crank the generator to power the light or turn the other motor.
  • Batteries: A fixed display of batteries of different types shows kids something familiar. A supply of potatos, zinc and copper allow them to build their own batteries and power an LED.
  • Motion: A comparison of different methods of motion. Kids can play with platforms that have wheels, tracks, legs, etc. and see how they compare over flat ground, bumps, ramps, and other terrain.
  • Turning: Example platforms the kids can play with that show differential steering Vs. front and/or rear wheel steering.

You get the idea, I think.

For the demo/video portion, I thought about showing a variety of commerial robot toys, and asking the kids to identify how some of them work, based on their experience at the tables. Then I'd show fun videos of various robots (hobby, industrial, toys, etc.) in use.

There's a potential for a more focused workshop with older kids who would sign up for a 2-3 day class that includes building and programming a robot.

So, I need thoughts on the structure of the program, ideas for activity tables, demo/video thoughts, and build a robot workshop thoughts.


Update: 2011-06-19

I got the go-ahead from the local children's museum for a robotics exhibit this fall. Now it gets real.

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My boss did book me to give a presentation at ASPAC 2011 which was ASian/PACific Museums and Science centers. They were discussing ways to interact with schools.

We did a class at the GuangZhou science center. A very simple robot, just a breadboard mounted on a CD base with 2 geared motors and 2x DPST micro switches with antenna attached.

When an antenna hit an obstacle it would change the direction of the opposite motor causing the robot to turn away from the object.

We then did a second lesson where students could make polymorph bodies for their robots.

The kids had fun but the lessons ended due to funding issues.

Thanks, OB. Good thoughts. CDs are great and cheap building material.

Solar bots !!! You could make some really cheap as a build it yourself kit or make an exhibit that is completely self sustainable.

Also there is nothing for programming. Perhaps some kind of track/maze/Goldberg device where a marble rolls around. Before the "game" starts the kids have to program some actuators with buttons/potentiometers (basically get the order/timing right). If they do it right the marble makes it all the way through. If they don't it get's stuck somewhere on it's path and they have to restart.

Also maybe something about history? Like an exhibit of how first came the switch, then relays, then transistors. Basically showing the evolution of logic?

Or perhaps some display where kids can arrange logic gates to complete some task? (ie having a candy dispensed to them)

From my experience kid's do better when they get to interact with an exhibit. Traditional museums largley fail at this. Now a days with youtube and google I can see 100 things in 20 minutes without having to move - but I can't always interact with them.

For a presentation you could always show cool stuff people did here on LMR - hopefully inspire the youngins.

I like the build it yourself workshop idea. A simple robot using a bare bones arduino would have a reasonable price range and be fun! 

All the best in this endeavor!

Yes, great ideas. I agree completely with the interactivity bit. The S&S museum does a good job with that. Even though they demonstrate simple principles, the kids really get into it. They almost seem to be trying wear the exhibit out.

I'm always fond of solar bots but they are really dependent on intense light. It can put a cramp in plans destined for a dimly lit conference room. I also like the second idea you mentioned. Perhaps a partially completed Rube machine (Mousetrap game style?) that needs to have certain subsections assembled, ie logic gates, relays, lights for optosensors. I like the idea of an actual goody as a victory prize at the end. Maybe something relavent. Hey, candy works for me, but some people aren't really motivated by simple concentrated carbohydrates ;) Great idea, G. This would make the education part not such a dismal, esoteric, unapplied exercise cut out of a textbook.

You got my mind churning, Gonzik, well done. You sound as if you've done something like this before, yes?

Hey, Gonzik! Nice ideas. I was planning on some programming for the workshop, but the idea of having them practice logic-based problem solving with switches and pots is great!

I also like your progression of the logic gate, although you left out the vacuum tube!

I totally agree on the interactivity bit. I would love to build a robotic arm and have the kids control it to pick up objects and drop them in a bucket.

Sadly, I don't have much to add but I would like to hear input on this subject as well. I've been considering a workshop like you describe. We have a science and space museum that I think would be receptive to such a thing. They actually have a lot of hands-on stuff for the young but it involves similar things that you've outlined; activities geared more for the neophytes. I was hoping to add something for the more savvy youth but I can't wrap my head around not using a soldering iron. I guess I'm scheming something more like the "more focused workshop" you mentioned. 

I had considered making a mostly pre-fab/solderless bristlebot but I would need to find vendors with cheaper small-quantity prices. I also considered the ever-popular sumobot but the parts for even a simple mini sumo make my incurred charges increase geometrically. Plus I'd like to build a sumo first before acting like I know how to guide other people through the build process hehe

I was thinking of asking the fine fellows at Sparkfun for advice on how to conduct beginner classes. I need to figure out exactly what I want to ask them first. They seem to have their "intro-to" events figured out pretty well. What I fear is people will start saying the word "insurance" if I point out the possibilities of young human flesh being seared. Regardless, I'm thinking about it too.


You'll need a lot of supervision if you go with soldering, and it cuts out the really young kids. If size isn't an issue, Snap Circuits kits let you build some pretty cool stuff, and it just snaps together.

Breadboards would be an easy way to go too, and then the class equipment is resuable.