STEAMing things up with Artbots

Each Monday, my library has Open Art Studio, a two hour arts and crafts drop-in program, in which children ages 3-10 are invited to come and make stuff with us. Every week has a different theme. The first week was Animals in Art, so we made things like paper plate snakes, clothespin animals, and paper bag jellyfish. We also had a few “animal products” on hand (feathers, sheep’s wool, sea sponges) for the kids to dip in paint and utilize as tools.

This week, the theme was Robots. I got really excited when we started planning for this theme, not because I’m a crazy robot fanatic or anything, but because it provided the opportunity to try out something I had seen at the PLA Conference back in March – Artbots! What better way to combine Science, Technology, Engineering, and Art than to build robots that create art? And just look at how adorable they are…

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There are lots of different ways to make artbots, but the way they described it at the “Tinker with Technology” session at PLA was to cut down a pool noodle, shove the motor from an electric toothbrush inside, attach some markers for legs, and voila! A moving, breathing (okay, not really) artbot! Click here for a PDF of the handout from that session if you are interested. See p. 4 for info on Artbots, but definitely peruse the rest of the doc for lots of creative tech-based programs to try with kiddos.

Because this was a drop-in program that we do not require registration for, I unfortunately was not able to set it up as a “create your own” type project as we had no idea how many people would show up (and probably not a big enough budget to supply 100+ kids with electric toothbrushes, even though they are from the dollar store). So instead, I pre-made several artbots for the kids to experiment with, and provided a half-sheet handout for instructions on making their own at home.

The toothbrushes I found happened to be battery operated, so instead of ripping out a motor I just shoved the entire toothbrush into the center of the noodle. It worked out pretty well, and the on/off switch was on the bottom of the toothbrush, so it was perfect placement for turning the robot on and off.

The kids enjoyed playing with them, and several expressed interest in making them at home. The parents were on board with it, too, especially when I mentioned that the toothbrushes were only a dollar a piece (No expensive Sonicares were harmed in the making of these robots).

Things I learned from this project:

  • Have extra toothbrushes (and batteries that have proven to be compatible) on hand. $1 toothbrushes are CHEAP–not only monetarily, but quality-wise too. The battery life on these babies started pooping out about a half hour into the program and I tried replacing them with the extra batteries we had on hand, but somehow they required “special” AA batteries? The AA Energizer batteries I tried were not the right fit. Not exactly sure how that works, but I ended up having to rush out for a few more toothbrushes during the program so I could have at least one or two working robots, as they were dying fast.
  • Don’t over-accessorize your bots. Although they look adorable, the more stuff I loaded onto the artbots, the heavier they became. As the battery life wore down, I had to start stripping the costumes off my robots for the sake of weight.
  • Attach markers with rubberbands instead of tape. This makes for easier swap-outs if the markers start to die (which they did).

This is a fun, easy, inexpensive project to do with kids and I definitely plan on doing another Artbots program sometime in the future. Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to have a registration-required program so we can purchase enough supplies for everyone to build and decorate their own artbot to take home.


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