Designing Robotics Instructions for Solution Diversity

Sep 30, 2020

By Sara Willner-Giwerc, Doctoral Student in Mechanical Engineering

Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) are excited to share a project that CEEO Ph.D. Candidate, Sara Willner-Giwerc, has been working on to give students and teachers access to documents called, “Placemats” that encourage open-ended robotics challenges. Read below as Sara goes into more detail on the project.

This summer, I worked with an amazing team of undergraduate and high school interns to create a library of placemat instructions. Placemat instructions are printable 1-page resources that inspire students with open-ended robotics challenges. The two-sided paper resources are designed to be part of the student workspace (similar to the paper rectangles, or “placemats” that restaurants use). That paper rectangle under your meal at a restaurant is great for a quick game of tic-tac-toe, doodling while you wait, or just keeping messy eaters from staining the table below. The placemats instructions are similarly meant to be part of the classroom experience and used in multiple ways in order to scaffold student and teacher participation throughout a robotics challenge. Placemat instructions give students three images of example builds and some samples of code but do not give step-by-step instructions or dictate the creation of one “correct” solution. Placemat instructions are intentionally designed with the goal of helping facilitate solution diversity in classrooms while simultaneously supporting students and teachers alike throughout the problem-solving process. These instructions have been iterated on with the help of CEEO faculty and students over the course of the last two years and have been tested in both teacher workshops and in classroom settings with students. Our goal for placemat instructions as a resource is to help support students and teachers in learning to think like engineers using robotics.

Example Placemat Instruction

This summer, our goal was to generate a library of placemat instructions for LEGO Education SPIKE Prime, LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3, and other educational robotics platforms such as Arduino and micro:bit. These placemats are available with text-based and graphical programming options where applicable. The home of this placemats library is called the Robotics Playground – hosted on the CEEOInnovations website: This site is designed to allow teachers and students to easily search for placemat instructions which meet their needs regarding platform, learning goals, subject area, and experience level. Placemats are provided in a Google Slides format, which enables teachers to copy and modify placemats if they wish to best align with their specific learning goals if they wish. They can also be downloaded as PDFs and used as is.

Robotics Playground Placemat Instructions Library

We are also creating playlists of placemat instructions – which are curated 2sequences designed by educators. The motivation behind these playlists is to show how placemats instructions can be used to achieve specific learning outcomes.

The placemat instructions hosted on the Robotics Playground website are currently being used around the world. For example, students at the International School in Billund, Denmark are using placemats in their after school robotics club, and students in New South Wales, Australia have been exploring ocean cleanup with one of our playlists. 

Additionally, I am conducting several research studies investigating what kinds of engineering practices students engage in when using a placemat instruction. Early analysis of pilot data shows that students engage in increased iteration, collaboration, and critical thinking when they use a placemat instruction compared to when they build from step-by-step instructions. Our research also shows that in many cases students and teachers prefer to use step-by-step instructions because there is a clear end of the experience and the process/what is expected is well defined. We are conducting more research with elementary, middle, and highschool students over Zoom using SPIKE Prime placemats as well as step-by-step instructions and no instructions to better understand how the learning experience changes depending on the kind of instructions being used. I am also conducting interviews with teachers who have used/are using placemat instructions in their classrooms to understand how placemat instructions impact the educator experience.

Left: Remote SPIKE Prime Robotics Session using Placemat Instructions
Right: SPIKE Prime set with 10 Placemats ready to be used at home by students in MA

Through a collaboration with LEGO Education – some of our placemat instructions were co-branded by LEGO Education and the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach and highlighted as a resource for Hybrid learning on the LEGO Education website. 
You can find these co-branded activity briefs here:


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