PSEA Learning Lessons: Robotics in the Classroom

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Learning Lessons: Robotics in the Classroom

Voice: November 2017

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to

When educators think of creating robots, the subjects of art, literature, and history don’t often come to mind. But at Case Avenue Elementary in western Pennsylvania, students are learning in these areas while designing and building robots.

It’s a cross-curricular program that’s proven an enjoyable success for Dave Tomko’s sixth-grade students in Sharon City School District.

A dream come true

The Hummingbird Robo “Art” Program began in the 2015-16 school year.

The district was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Center for Creativity Initiative at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and a local grant of $3,000 from the Sharon Lifelong Learning Charitable Trust. This funding allowed the school to build the Tiger Teach Robotics/STEAM Lab, where the program takes place.

Students in the Hummingbird Robo “Art” Program make literary characters come to life. They are creating robots from characters found in the literature they’re reading, combining English and STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, and math – for a cross-curricular learning experience.

The Hummingbird name comes from the kits used to produce the robots.

“At the onset of the project, students read historical fiction in book clubs with three to four classmates as part of a reading workshop,” Tomko said. “They learn to question and analyze the author’s purpose, understand characters through a different perspective, and understand problems and events throughout history.”

A parent workshop is held at the beginning of the program to introduce families to the overall concept, goals, and objectives.

“Through an evening parent/child workshop, parents learn the basic concepts of robotics and programming to increase their conversations with their children about their learning,” Tomko said. “Through the course of open houses with parents, the students share concepts that are being covered in class, using programs to operate their robots.”

While learning about their characters, students begin to learn the concepts needed to bring the characters to life.

“In science class, students become inspired to create a character from their historical fiction book through the use of Hummingbird Robotics Kits,” he said. “Working as a small group, students use the Hummingbird to make a robot using a combination of Hummingbird kit parts, recycled materials, and arts and crafts materials.”

Students use facial tissue boxes, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, and empty milk and egg cartons to build their characters. “The Hummingbird provides a great way to continue to foster robotics and engineering skills through construction materials with which the students are already familiar,”  Tomko added.

Benefits abound

The cross-curricular program brings many added benefits for the young learners.

“Students are introduced to technology, particularly beginning concepts in programming,” Tomko said. “Students learn about coding, sequence, and the use of sensors.”

Additionally, students learn some beginning concepts of engineering – designing their project, trying it out, and then analyzing what works and what doesn’t.

“The project also provides the opportunity for students to think creatively with a hands-on approach,” Tomko said. “Students design their project on paper, pre-plan materials they want to use, and then use a hands-on approach to bring their character to life.”

While working in teams, students have to problem-solve through the many steps it takes to complete their robots.

“Students are required to think critically to solve problems with the projects,” Tomko said. “Projects may have design flaws and often are not able to withstand the weight of the moving electronic parts.”

At the end of the unit in May, students display their creations at a STEAM Showcase. Parents and community members are invited to see the students’ hard work in action.

“The showcase celebrates the accomplishments of the students and allows the students to share their success with their families,” Tomko said.  

Tip Sheet

Sharon EA member Dave Tomko provides the following advice for those looking to build a robot program.

  • Visit Hummingbird Robot website. Found at, it features details on successful projects, free professional development videos, free downloads of programming software, and explanations of kit materials.
  • Collaborate. Share ideas with the art and science teachers as a means of cross-curricular development. Additional teachers in other subject areas would only expand opportunities for students.
  • Find space. Due to the large amount of supplies and creativity involved in designing the projects, a separate room is helpful for the amount of materials used.
  • Gather recycled materials. Students held a collection drive, asking peers to bring in recycled materials to use for robots. Items like empty facial tissue boxes, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, and empty milk and egg cartons are all helpful when building the robots.