The Zoo is Open: Using LEGO EV3 Robotics to Explore the Wild World of Animals

Are you feeling wild?  Looking for meaningful ways to integrate LEGO® robotics seamlessly into your classroom?  Get rid of student slide show presentations and open a zoo!  Oftentimes, students have the content knowledge but are looking for new and creative ways to express their understanding.  LEGO® robotics not only challenges a student to engineer and program a robot but actually allows students to push their own understanding; designing robots to mimic what may already be found in nature.

So grab your pith helmet and let’s get wild as we show you how student learning can be transformed!

Mrs. Wouters, a grade six teacher, was looking for new ways to equip her students with the 21st-century competencies.  Her students, having experienced the EV3 LEGO® Learning Camp (a student-facilitated program that exposes students to the basics of EV3 robotics and the problem-solving growth mindset ethos needed to be successful), was ready for a real-world challenge.

In partners, students explored the wonderful world of vertebrate animals, discussing adaptations (both biological and behavioural), habitats, food sources, location and reproduction rates.  Each team researched a self-selected animal and recorded their findings in their notebooks.  With content knowledge in hand, students could now stretch their own learning through robotics.

These students test their tortoise to see how it handles on construction paper.

As a fan of Jim Henson and the Muppets growing up, I have always been fascinated by the wonders that were possible with simple crafting materials.  Why not bring that same spirit into the classroom?  Coupled with the creative potential of students and access to a simple animatronic system (LEGO® EV3 Robotics), the students were ready for the challenge briefing.

A beautifully crafted elephant is ready to meet zoo goers, in its habitat.

The Challenge:  Build a model that represents the animal you researched.  Your animal must be mobile (with wheels) and must make use of an additional motor that showcases one of its biological adaptations.  Your team must create a zoo enclosure for your animal, ensuring that its habitat contains everything it needs to thrive.  As your animal moves within its habitat, it must showcase some of its behavioural adaptations in its environment.  Finally, as a zookeeper, you must teach the visiting public all about your animal, pointing out key behavioural and biological adaptations, and any other interesting facts.

This ostrich is prepped to move about its habitat, represented by Phys. Ed pinnies.

Students then began the planning phase, or as we call it, mapping out the design criteria.  Students begin determining all of the features or characteristics the initial prototype must have to meet the challenge expectations.  From there, they assess each feature, determining the degree of difficulty, the amount of time required and its overall importance.  They determine the steps that they must follow, carefully prioritizing and ordering each step or goal.  Before students are allowed to move onto the building phase, each team presents their design criteria, along with engineering sketches, to the teacher for approval.  These interviews prove to be extremely important to the overall success of the student, allowing the teachers to ask questions about the design or the process they plan to follow.  Together, students and teachers are better able to identify potential failure points in the plan or design, in order to help teams to better prioritize goals or identify when new learning is required (use of sensors, alternate materials, more research in how the animal moves).

Design criteria is critical to ensure that all students are successful.  Although this team did not have the time to complete the crafting they wanted to do, both their attachment and program worked successfully.  The paper bag solution was an innovative quick fix in the time they had left to ensure they could present.

Although all students may not complete every aspect of their design criteria, they will have completed the most important aspects; always being able to refine or add to their goals.  Student-teacher conferencing and frequent check-ins allow teachers a meaningful opportunity to remediate teamwork, time management, goal setting and decision making skills.

The early stages of prototype construction.

With the planning phase complete, students begin the building and programming phase.  Students were tasked with constructing the skeleton of the animal, attaching a motorized mechanism that showcases a biological adaptation.  Flapping wings, closing jaws and swinging tails were just some of the solutions.  It is always fascinating to witness how many iterations it takes to move an idea from paper into a working model.  Frustration can quickly creep in; I always encourage students to explore the building elements, see what other students are using and make use of our LEGO simple machines ideas books.  Engineering challenges present child-sized adversity but also countless ways to succeed after plenty of trial and error.  As a teacher, don’t be quick to give an answer or solution.  Rather, ask the right questions or propose alternate perspectives where the student can discover a solution on their own!  With functioning attachments, students then programmed the behaviour of the animal, moving within its own habitat and how it reacts to other animals; both predator and prey.

With design criteria in hand, these students are playing with the pieces to discover how to construct their solution out of LEGO.

With working prototypes in hand, students were given two class periods to turn their bare bones robots into animatronic wonders.  With the addition of foam, fabric and other crafting materials, students had to further refine their engineering to ensure that their robot performed like the studied animal.

The same students with a completed prototype.  They have begun testing their skeleton with foam muscles firmly attached.

The pace was extremely frantic, students using a variety of materials to represent the habitat.  Well versed in LEGO metaphor speak, students used explanation to paint fantastic worlds.  For example, a piece of construction paper could represent a food source, or a coloured brick could be the prey.  Doing so reduces the build time for students, freeing them to explain away missing parts of pieces.

Simple habitats using construction paper and Phys. Ed. pinnies.  This tortoise takes a long trip through a pond to find a food source.
Paige Kosek, our school Library Technician, brings the Makerspace movement into the classroom with mixed media and expertise. Here, the students share their design criteria and blueprints with her before beginning construction.

Teams then moved their finished work to the gymnasium, completed final testing and habitat setup, in preparation for the grand opening of the zoo.  Many students got into character, using queue cards to help them along with their presentation.  Over a one hour period, kindergarten to grade five students rotated through the exhibits, learning all about animals and their habitats from our own grade 6 student experts.  During this time, both Mrs. Wouters and I rotated throughout the exhibits to assess the student work, listening carefully to how the zookeepers answered the questions from other students.  Such a format allows for pedagogical documentation of content knowledge, the learning process and the 21st Century Competencies being applied.  Students also submitted their design criteria’s regularly, with revisions being made throughout the student-teacher conferencing.

Students had prepared notes and rehearsed their performance to match that of their programmed animal.  Presenting their work multiple times allowed students to improve their showmanship; many abandoning prepared scripts, as they collectively grew in confidence.

All told, this exercise was extremely successful, students executed an engaging solution to a real-world challenge and shared their learning in a non-threatening and creative manner.  The school body was buzzing after the activity, with more students looking to create their own animatronic creatures.  Jim Henson continues to inspire, who knows what fantastic creatures our students will dream up next using LEGO!

A brief lull between zoo goers. With close to 150 K-5 students participating in the showing, these expert grade 6 students, along with their fantastic animals, were the stars of the day.







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