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Teaching girls how to fail and retry for the joy of learning and not for the marks

| December 3, 2018 | 0 Comments


At St Mary’s School, Waverley, in Johannesburg, to keep up with the trends regarding girls learning about coding, programming and ‘making’, we wanted a task that would encourage girls to fail and experience trial and error, but not be such a large project that they could not hope to complete it.

Girls struggle with failure,1 and this is an important theme that we at St Mary’s endeavour to tackle. Over the past two years, our Grade 9s have spent four weeks building and programming robots as part of their natural sciences final examination. Late in 2015, we approached a Johannesburg-based robotics company, Ryonic Robotics,2 to put together a ‘kit’ for us to enable the girls to experience some robotics. We wanted to intrigue our students and hopefully spark some interest in robotics in them. The brief that we gave the company was that we wanted working parts, but we did not want something that the girls had merely to construct. It also had to be cost-effective, because we have approximately 110 Grade 9s and we wanted them to work in pairs to gain maximum benefit from collaboration comprised of planning, building and programming activities.

Revving up for robotics

Girls like to design and ‘make pretty’, so we did not want the task to be too prescriptive. There was a rubric for guidance, but essentially the girls were given a custom-made circuit board, two motors and a programme design using MPLAB X by Ryonic Robotics installed on laptops in the science laboratories. Not all of the girls can code, so while the programme does have this functionality, Ryonic’s design enabled the girls to use simple programming buttons. It is also not like a Lego Mindstorm,3 where the buttons have to be sequenced in a code so that the robot moves. This was much simpler, and the girls would have to input forwards/backwards and the distance in metres and ask the robot to turn left or right by inputting degrees into the command box. The computer programme was designed using a specific wheel circumference that was unknown by the girls. So, not only did they have to attach the motors correctly so that the robots moved as instructed, they had to work out the ratio of wheel circumference to the pre-programmed instruction.

Figure 1: The Ryonic interface on the laptop screen

The challenge

The girls’ brief was that they had to design a chassis, wheels for the motors, a holder for the battery and circuit board, and make their robot move in a 1m-by-1m square. Their robot also had to have a ‘purpose’ – such as to fetch the remote control when you are too lazy to get up, or to mop up spills in the kitchen. The kits cost R600 each and we were able to order 60 of them, so that each pair could keep their designated circuit boards and motors for the duration of the project. Some of the challenges that the girls had to overcome included:

• attaching the wheels to the motors

• attaching the motors in the correct orientation, so the robot does not just move in circles

• making a hole in the exact centre of the material used for the wheels

• making holders that allow the battery and the circuit board to be easily accessible

• calibrating the robot to move a metre, bearing in mind the circumference of their wheels they have made

• too much or too little friction between the wheels and the chassis and between the wheels and the floor

• making the robot too heavy

• adjusting the angle carefully on the computer programme so that the robot turns 90 degrees. The surface the robot is on designates how efficient it is at turning.

The project was designed as an iTunesU course.4 The students were taken through the scientific process first using a simple flow diagram:

Figure 2: Flow diagram

The next task was for each student to have a conversation with their partner about their fears and their expectations:

Figure 3: The discussion

The process

The girls were guided through the process via a series of rubrics, with the ultimate mark not depending whether their robot worked, but whether they learned from their failures. Most of the girls do not do building projects where they design and construct their own designs. Many have never used a screwdriver or a glue gun and struggle to foresee the problems they may have with placing wheels on a chassis. It was a doing, failing, redoing and learning task, and it was performed exclusively in class time. Other important skills that this project was designed to address were patience, coping with multiple failures, perseverance, disappointment, the joy that comes with a working robot, time management, reliance on one’s partner, prioritising tasks, and learning and exploring without focussing exclusively on marks.

The pride

Finding a company that will make solderless breadboard layouts for you and controllers so that pupils can program robots without clear coding knowledge is not hard, it just takes some perseverance and some time. This project was so worthwhile for developing our Grade 9 girls in so many ways, and I am so proud of how maturely they tackled it. The teachers also learned to be brave and fail. We also enjoyed the collaboration and team teaching. I thank my science department and natural sciences team at St Mary’s (Carolyn Huysamer, Caroline Adelaar, Kim Jacobs, Gail Andrew, Sarah Rogans, Candice Ellis and Lucy Strydom) for always being open to new ideas, and grappling with technology and different pedagogies with a positive ‘can do’ attitude.

Melanie Blair is head of department: physical and natural sciences at St Mary’s School, Waverley. Carolyn Huysamer is one of her teaching colleagues.

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Category: Summer 2018

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