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BattleBots and Survival Skills

"The primary goal of education at all levels should be to expose students to a wide array of pursuits and help them find what they love spending time on." - Most Likely to Succeed; Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era - Tony Wagner & Ted Dintersmith, 2015


"This has been the best school experience EVER!" - overheard from a team of robot builders

Knowing how much time and energy our robotics students had put into their BattleBot, I gladly accepted their invitation to attend a competition at Rolling Meadows High School, my alma mater. I brought my son, Trevor, thinking we would both enjoy this experience.

We were unprepared for the size, excitement, and mechanical expertise of this spectacle. Aside from the throng of students and their coaches, we met school board members, teachers and their families, district administrators, young kids, and college recruiters. Yes, representatives from engineering schools were there to meet young innovators in a fun, competitive setting.

In between battles, we toured the pit area. I asked the PHS competitors how their day was going. "We lost in the second round, but this is still the best high school experience EVER!", said Colin. Teammates and competitors listening nearby nodded and fist-bumped in agreement. Seeing their enthusiasm with my own eyes, I asked the group for elaboration. They mentioned hands-on learning, problem-solving, teamwork, challenge, and an exhibition of the product. 

"Do you get a grade for this project?", I asked.

"You don't need a grade when you keep it real!", came the emphatic reply.

A BattleBot is a robotic assemblage of electric motors, gears, levers, aluminum, and Plexiglas designed to take extreme punishment from other bots. The BattleBot is operated by a driver with a remote control. To be competitive requires teamwork, mechanical fabrication, serious engineering, and a bit of luck. 

In his recent book, From Master Teacher to Master Learner, Will Richardson describes powerfully productive learning simply as "when the learner wants to learn more". These students frequently stayed after school to build their bot, they did their own research and design, established objectives, conducted tests, and found ways to collaborate on their project when they were away from the shop.


Because they wanted to be successful in the arena, these students learned as much about torque, rotation, force, and angles as they did in their more traditional, subject-based courses. Mr. Hardy, the Fremd High School Robotics coach said, "We make, we test, we battle, we win, we fix, and we win again - that's STEM!"

He told my son the cost of the parts to build a competitive bot was about $3000. 

I said, "It's worth every penny!" 

Trevor was wishing his school had this type of engineering program. We witnessed teams of students, boys and girls, challenging each other's thinking, analyzing video of their matches, reflecting on their performance, and planning future iterations of their bots.


Innovative schools are discussing. and implementing topics like standards-based grading, demonstrable competencies, and self-determined learning. In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner describes essential learning as "Seven Survival Skills". How many of them are included in this "best-ever" Robot Rumble experience?
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Collaboration
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective oral, written, and multimedia communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination
For those who are curious, Fremd High School's Sidewinder defeated Boston-based, Donkey Teeth, to win the 2016 Robot Rumble championship. However, from my vantage point, all of these kids were battle-tested learners, and winners today!


Shouldn't learners have many "best-ever" school experiences?

What can educators do to make them happen?

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