Monday, December 15, 2014

Family BristleBot Challenge

On Saturday, I collaborated with my new coworker Amy Holcomb on our first family mission/challenge program offered in conjunction with our new STEAM space at the library. More on that later, but for now, a recap of this excellent, hands-on STEAM program!

Family BristleBot Challenge

Amy, one of our program assistants, and I got school-age kids and their caregivers in our multipurpose program room, which boasted plenty of space for one supply table and four building tables. As part of our introduction, I started to get kids thinking about the components that a robot, like a BristleBot, might require. We talked about power sources, circuitry, motor, and body, with lots of good participatory guesses from kids as I posed questions. Then Amy led the kids through a visualization of how circuits work, allowing attendees to really grasp the concept.

After that introductory info, we set families loose to build, test, and tinker with their BristleBots. We had created two large (2'x3') posters explaining the component parts and assembly steps for the BristleBots, which provided clear visual instructions as families got to work. Kids came through to collect their supplies, then headed for one of the four building tables to do their work.

To make a BristleBot, you need the following supplies:
  • a toothbrush head (we left part of the neck on many of ours to allow for easier grasping for hands with still-developing motor skills)
  • battery
  • vibrating motor with attached wires
  • double-sided sticky tape (2 pieces)
  • permanent markers to decorate the bots

To build a BristleBot, follow the following steps:
  • Gather your equipment.
  • Decorate the toothbrush head.
  • Place a piece of the sticky tape on the head of the toothbrush.
  • Attach the battery to the sticky tape, ideally with one of the wires touching the bottom of the battery (this will be more secure than adding the wire after the fact).
  • Use another piece of sticky tape to attach the motor to the top of the battery, ideally with the remaining wire touching the top of the battery (again, for simplicity's sake).
  • The motor should now be vibrating; if it is not vibrating, check to make sure that a) one of the motor wires is touching the bottom of the battery while the other is touching the top, completing the circuit; and b) the moving part of the motor is not obstructed.
  • Set the BristleBot on a flat surface, bristles down, and watch it move!
  • Tinker with the design to make the bot behave how you want it to--race in a line, turn in circles, etc. Intentionally manipulating the bot's design is a simple form of programming!

Families spent about 40 minutes building and tinkering with their BristleBots before we lined all the tables into one massive line and let all the bots loose at once. What a great creative challenge!

Kids (and their caregivers) got really into the task of tinkering with their bots over the course of our hour-long program, testing new designs and helping one another troubleshoot. That's the perfect type of STEAM thinking we're aiming to promote with these types of programs--the wonders of building, creation, tinkering. And knowing that science is so much more than something you encounter in a textbook.

If you're interested in another take on a BristleBot program, check out Anne's at sotomorrow--she used a kit to supply all her program materials, making the maker program process even more straightforward.

Also, as an aside, it feels so great to be offering programs again. The past few months, while gratifying and filled with lots of new-job learning, were definitely marked by the fact that I wasn't programming.


  1. Are the bristlebots reusable? Can you take them apart and put them back together more than once? Considering them for one of my teen programs :)

    1. In theory, yes, you could reuse parts, although you would need to replace the coin batteries when they die. You'd also need to refrain from having the kids decorate the bots or twist and modify the motors too much.

    2. Hi Amy,
      Do you remember how much the program supplies were? I've never done an official STEM program before, and I'm looking for something fairly simple and inexpensive, preferably for K-5th. I'm wondering if this might still work for the early elementary age kids or if you gear it more for upper elementary. Thanks in advance for your help!

    3. Heather, if I recall correctly, our largest expense was in purchasing the vibrating motors for the bots--I think they were somewhere around $40 from Radio Shack? We already had the toothbrushes, coin batteries, and sticky tape on hand, so we didn't have to purchase those. You might, though, depending what you have available.

  2. I found many types of vibrating motors. Which specific motors are needed?

    1. The type of motor you get should be determined by the power and size of the bots you want to create. Explore one that seems like the best fit for your project.


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