The Powerful Learning in Making a LEGO Duck

One of the activities I have used time and time again is building a LEGO duck to showcase the power of hands on learning, thinking with parameters, and to revisit the power of being a kid again. This simple activity is a quick and yet powerful way to engage the brain into thinking and learning. I have used it to serve several purposes that I would like to share with you in hopes that it inspires you to give it a try.

Teaching Moment #1: Makerspace Workshop


When I run a makerspace workshop I always start with a making challenge right away. Before I even introduce myself or anything else I toss out whatever the materials are needed for the day and we build. The goal is to model the way and not just talk about making. I want to break the traditional PD/session routine. So we build. We build quick. Here is how it works.


I used to have hundreds of these small duck kits of six pieces. If you can find these kits go for it. However, they are not required at all. I also know that is not practical so just give everyone the same pieces from the LEGO pieces you own. Pull random ones. Take the image above and try to find these type of pieces. Less is more to challenge the brain. If not, then grab some of the same pieces and don’t worry about the color.

If you don’t have LEGO pieces sitting around, then you have a few options

  1. Send out an email blast to parents. It is amazing how many middle school and high school parents will donate LEGO bins as they just sit and collect dust in their homes.
  2. Buy some. I recommend
    1. LEGO Classic Creative Supplement 10693 by LEGO 
    2. 500 Random Lego Pieces Washed Sanitized and… by LEGO
    3. Check Ebay, Craigslist, or Facebook Community Swaps

How It Works

We are jumping in right away. You will be thinking with your hands. Are you ready because here we go. No time to ease into things. We are getting after it right now. Put on your thinking caps boys and girls because this maker train is about to take off.

Here is your challenge: 

You will be given 60 seconds to make the best duck you can. Are you ready to do some thinking with your hands?

Get the timer ready. Put on your thinking hat and…….


It is amazing what they will come up with. Here are some examples of ducks created by students and my own kids when I was piloting and testing out the idea to make sure it was successful.

Post Duck Reflection

It is always good to reflect so I pose these questions for conversation with the whole group.


What did you make? Go ahead and snap a picture and email it to so I can add it to our collection page.

  1. What skills are used to make a LEGO duck?
  2. Are any ducks the same?
  3. What lessons did you learn?
  4. What would you try next time?
  5. How else could we document this process?

Wrap Up

I go on to show them how my daughter who was 4 at the time did the same challenge. My son even jumps in towards the end. I show this video because it is a good reminder how quickly the adult brain puts in parameters and sometimes limits creativity. She is not timed as she was only 4, but watching the process is pretty cool and a magical moment of being a kid. I apologize for her crazy hair.

LEGO Duck Challenge Part 2: Group Collaboration

Once we do this quick 3 minute activity you will witness the audience(adults, students, whoever) continue to build. Their eyes are down. They are tinkering with the pieces. What if I do this….. Or what if I change this piece…….What if I start all over…….

It is awesome. Instead of moving into the ho hum lecture style teaching and presenting we move quickly into another challenge. They have a bit of confidence. They have smiles. They are laughing.

So we go again


I remind them of the following essential elements to making

  • Just start building. Trust your hands.
  • Let them pick the bricks they want.
  • If you are not sure where to start, then just let your hands do the work. The brain will catch up.

The Challenge

They will now be working as a team. No longer can they just think alone. They have to communicate, collaborate, and process how to make it work. Pay close attention to how the groups work. There are so many methods it is amazing and a great conversational piece.


Post Team Duck Reflection


Next Steps

By now they are good. They are content and ready to move on into substance. They have their fix. Theirs brains have been primed and juiced, but now they are ready for more. They want content. Connections. Proof of application.

You have them hooked. I quickly jump into a short discussion about play with the following ideas.

Play Allows Us To…..

  • Team build
  • Unleash creative thinking for accelerated innovation
  • Work out a solution to a shared problem
  • Create a shared mindset about something
  • Constructive discussions where everybody is heard
  • Build a shared vision
  • Leadership development
  • One-on-one coaching and team coaching
  • Use with your children, family, school, …


At this point you can move into your next activity. If you are in the classroom, then where would you go? If you are teaching teachers, then where would you go? I am interested in your next steps.

What do you think? I will be sharing part 2 next week with some other school wide building challenges, but for now I would love to know how you can incorporate this idea into your classroom and school?



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LEGO EV3 Tutorial 8 UPDATE: Data and Loop Line Follow Program

This is an update to a previous video I created a few weeks back. I have been pushing out a wide variety of line following programs. The video  I shared previously covered how to use data blocks, data wires, and a loop block to line follow. One of the great questions that came from the video was how to move the robot back to being straight when it kicks out of the loop interrupt. At the end of the run there is a perpendicular black line that kicks the robot out of the line follow program. However, originally the robot would swivel at the end which would not be ideal if you are doing FLL or other programs outside of the line follow program.

This update includes one way to solve this problem. Thanks to those who have left comments. It has been great to share my learning and then learn more from the questions and ideas left behind.

Finally, I have a new line follow program coming out next week that has become my favorite of all the programs so far. Stay tuned!



For previous tutorials and more that will come each week during FLL season please subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

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LEGO EV3 Tutorial 9: Data Wires

Are you ready to learn more about programming in the LEGO Ev3 software? Have you come to understand how to program motors and sensors, but want to move things to the next level?

In this episode we explore data wires and how you can begin to program your robot to to use data wires to create more precise programming.

A data wire is used to send information between programming blocks. In this tutorial we will be sending information from an output plug to an input plug by having a robot slow down as it moves closer to a wall.

For previous tutorials and more that will come each week during FLL season please subscribe to my YouTube Channel. You can also check things out here as well

  1. Coffee For The Brain: LEGO EV3 page
  2. Coffee For The Brain: LEGO EV3 Tutorial page
  3. OneNote Resource Guide
  4. LEGO EV3 Youtube Playlist
  5. Symbaloo

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment here on on YouTube and if you have a question let me know and I will address it in upcoming videos.

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First Lego League: Where Do I Start?

Are you new to First Lego League? Are you looking to make sense of all that you have to do as a coach to have a team prepared to run a robot in a 2:30 timed mat run, present a 5 minute innovative research presentation, get judged on core values, and prove you know what your robot can actually do?

Last night I hosted an online session for people wanting to learn more about the season and how we operate our three Robodog teams. This is one method and style and not THE answer, but the hope is that it helps out those looking for suggestions and advice.

In this session I talk about how to manage months September through December, resources, how to apply computational thinking, and more.

I would love it if you have experience and have suggestions, tips, and/or ideas. Please leave a comment so others can benefit.


Here are the resources from the session

  1. Symbaloo

  1. Coffee For The Brain: LEGO EV3 page
  2. Coffee For The Brain: LEGO EV3 Tutorial page
  3. OneNote Resource Guide
  4. LEGO EV3 Youtube Playlist

My goal is to provide at least two tutorials a week for the next few months. If there is something you would like to learn please let me know. I won’t showcase how to solve specific missions, but will help cover programming in general.

I am willing to do another session on programming so if interested please let me know by choosing yes on this form. If form below is not working you can access it here.

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Make Writing with LEGO Instead of Writing Old School

If you really stop to think about writing and the process it sure looks an awful like the process we use in Makerspaces.

You have an idea, you draft, you revise, you tweak, you try new things, and keep working through the process until you end up with a finished product that you feel good about.

Last week I worked with an 8th grade language arts teacher to revamp the writing process. Students in this class have been hard at work on a new writing project. At the point of this activity students already had a main character in mind and minor characters. Their goal with this writing project is to pick a well known character and turn the personality so it’s different than what everyone thinks. As a baseline students have been reading Dorothy Must Die and looking at how she is portrayed so differently than in the original Wizard of Oz.

Before the students entered my room for the writing challenge they had already discussed characterization and they had a basic plot outline in mind for their story. The goal of my activity was to help them visualize and really see the story come to life.
For days I struggled. I had all sorts of ideas for brainstorming writing ideas, but these students were coming mildly prepared. I had to go a different route. I also knew that just a wide open free build would lead to disaster with 8th graders. Students need parameters and goals in order to build something of value. However, I did not want it to feel like school.
In the end I came up with an activity I simply called Make Writing that is based on book I recently read called Make Writing by Angela Stockman(yes, very clever title to my lesson :))
Here is what I used:
LEGO Build To Express four question framework
Keep in mind you can do all of this without these specific materials. Base plates are nice to keep things within a specified space. LEGO pieces can be pulled from anywhere so you don’t need StoryStarter. You can create your sets easily and for cheap. Ask for donations or pick up bins of LEGO from online or garage sales.
Time: 40 minutes
# of Students: 12-15 at a time as we split kids during the block.
Step 1: Students entered the room and I had them sit at a table. The max number of students were 5. At each table there were baseplates for each student and one StoryStarter kit for all the kids to use and share collectively at their table.
Step 2: I opened up the lesson by telling the students that we were going to create their stories by NOT writing. We were going to MAKE their writing. I challenged them to draw out their inner child of when they were 4-5 years old when we built things without consequence, without worrying about judgment, and just built for ourselves.
Step 3: Here is what I shared for structure
1. Don’t think like you do in school. Think like a kid who is playing.
2. Your builds only have to make sense to you.
3. There are any right or wrong answers. Build for you.
4. Don’t worry if you don’t finish in the timeframe as all the builds build upon one another.
5. Less talk from the bald ugly guy so lets build!
Step 4: Build #1: Foundation and Warm Up Build
Students were asked to build models of their main character and any other key characters to their story they have crafted in their mind. They were given 4 minutes to open the kit, examine the pieces, and start building.
After the build they had 2 minutes to go around the table and explain their builds.
Step 5: Build #2: Abstract Thought
Students were now asked to think about the characters they just built. What are their character traits/personality traits? They were asked to build models of these traits. Students were given five minutes as this was tough for them. How do you bring simple words like evil, funny, sweet, etc. into tangible builds? During this build pieces start to slowly become limited so students now have to learn how to work together, share pieces, and rethink how they want to build. I observed so many moments of students sharing and helping one another. This was not a goal of the activity, but was an inspirational byproduct.
After the build they had 2 minutes to go around the table and explain their builds.
Step 6: Build #3: Story Development
Students were given another five minutes to build the obstacles and challenges their main character would be facing in the story. Not only did they have to build the obstacles, but they also had to build a model showcasing how their main character would undergo change due to the obstacles. All great stories have main characters that change in the story.
After the build they had 2 minutes to go around the table and explain their builds
Step 7: Build #4: Story Bits
This final build was more of a conclusion build. Students were given four minutes to build more of their story to complete the whole story on their baseplate. They could work through a part of their story they were struggling to conceive or just clean up any final builds.
After the build they had 2 minutes to go around the table and explain their builds
1. I had zero behavior or off tasks behaviors. Each student was fully engaged and participated the entire time. I did not even have a student ask to go the restroom.
2. I had students asking and begging to make this a class and to do this more.
3. I witnessed students embarassed by their builds and they had to work through embracing their creative sides.
4. I observed builds that did not look like much, but when the students explained their builds I was blown away.
Take this for an example. The build of a black section with the one red piece does not look like much, but it represents a character from Beauty and the Beast remixed where the black represents the evil the character shows on the outside, but the red showcases that the character has a soft part inside beneath the layers. This red will eventually take over all black through the storyline.
5. There were students who I know hate writing and would not embrace rough drafts, but through this activity their stories came alive.
6. By asking them to build and to physically build models of their stories they become so engrained in their story. When you have to think about pieces and how you want to showcase your story you fully understand the content.
7. I was given hope that my message of bringing the makerspace mindset and culture into all classrooms is not only needed, but can actually be done.
This was a wonderful day of learning. I was so inspired by these students and it gives me great hope for the future.
Coming soon will be a video of a class that I recorded.
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Robodogs Robotics Camp Day 5: Team Challenge

It is hard to believe that camp is over. These last five days flew by. I was continually impressed and challenged by all 60 of these amazing students who came every single day excited to learn, eager to learn, wanting to learn, and improving as people along the way.

For the first four days of camp students worked in pairs to allow optimal learning about coding and design. We wanted to ensure everyone had plenty of time with the robot and programming.

The last day we mixed things up. We wanted to see how the students worked in a larger group setting. We also wanted to create a challenge that would allow us to watch students emerge as leaders, understand and apply what they learned throughout the week, and do so in an environment where it was fun and exciting.

As you can see in the slides the challenge was to take five robots and create either a wave sequence, a dance, follow the leader, a mix of these ideas, or something entirely new. We left it wide open to see what they would come up with.

After giving a few tips, emphasizing the need to diagram and draw out plans before building, and programming hints we set them on their way to give them about two hours to create something from scratch.

Two hours may seem like a lot of time but when you think about

  • Merging together and working with kids you have never worked with before until now
  • Sharing out ideas
  • Deciding on an idea to execute
  • Build five robots
  • Program five robots
  • Test all the variables
  • Prepare for speaking
  • Presentation

You can see that two hours is not much time.

Like each day of camp leading up to day five, the kids blew us away. I was reminded how powerful their brains are when it comes to creativity and completing a task.

Check out the video. See the images of them working by themselves. Check out the group presentations and finally their robot work. It is sometimes easy to forget that these kids will be entering 5th grade through 8th grade. The majority of students are entering 5th and 6th grade so for them to complete what they did gives me great hope for the future.

I have been running robotic camp for seven years and this year was hands down the best. Kids were great. Space was wonderful. Challenges were exciting. Everything made for a great week where I left excited and not exhausted.

Thank you everyone who made camp a success!

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Robodogs Robotic Camp Day 3: Bowling

Well, today was another outstanding day. These last few days have been so good that we actually have to go back to the drawing board and change our plans for challenges because the kids are really creating, building, designing, and developing some amazing solutions to the challenges we are posing each day.

I have stopped several times and reflected on what is allowing for the awesomeness to happen? Here are a few ideas

1. The kids are just plain great kids. They come eager to learn every single day. They are now embracing the challenges and want to do the best they can. They are inspiring to say the least.

2. We changed our camp to a three hour block compared to the years past when students had 75-90 minutes to work. This gives them more time to work and build. We also knocked it down to one week instead of nine days, but they are actually gaining a few hours of build time.

3. We are giving more explicit instruction on how to program and how to think through problems. We are not giving any answers, but with more direct instruction on how to do things and why things work students are building a base foundation that allows them to take the ideas and spin it to meet their ideas they are creating.

4. We moved to the cafeteria to allow for more space which is working out very nice.

5. Students are in pairs this year instead of larger groups. We have more robots that allow us to do this so that has been very helpful.

Alright, so going back to the day three challenge. Today we challenged students to design and build a robot that could go bowling. We built Robodog Bowling Alley where we had four lanes open for operation. Students could choose between a small wooden ball or a pool ball to knock the pins down. Both had advantages and disadvantages that students had to process based on what type of robot they were going to build. They were given zero build instructions so we challenged them to really showcase their design skills.

Here is what they came up with on their own. Check out all the amazing designs.

In closing we were really happy with the day. I hope the next two days continue to build because I am learning more than ever before and by them meeting all the challenges we as coaches have to step up our game to make sure we keep these kids thinking and problem solving.

Until tomorrow……


The video is a bit longer than the previous two, but we wanted to capture the thinking in design so we added some short interviews with some of the groups so you can hear and see how they start from scratch, develop an idea in their mind, and then bring it to life. Scoring results are posted in the slidedeck if interested in how they scored.
All kids are awesome. Never forget that!
Here are the posts from the first two days in cased you missed them
Robodogs Robotics Camp Day 2 
Robodogs Robotic Camp Day 1
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Robodogs Robotics Camp Day 2

Line Following For Days!

Wow! What a fantastic second day of robotics camp today. I am not exaggerarting when I state how proud I am of these amazing 60 kids. Today we started off with a few changes.

1. We had them change partners today. We want to see how they work with a variety of different people. Each day we have them work with someone new so they can experience different roles, different personalities, and to keep things fresh for everyone. This also allows us to see what each kid is capable of achieving.

2. We recapped with things that went well and not so well from the first day. We helped those who struggled with robot design by provided a very simple 10 piece build as well as three other simple suggestions(see slidedeck)

3. We built upon what we learned from the first day and dove into greater detail about HOW the program works. We really want students to understand the functions and all the available options.

Today we challenged them with Line Following. We had them think about robot body design as they had to build a new bot that would allow for color sensor accuracy, ultrasonic placement for the challenge, touch sensor use, and overall smooth line following.

Once we gave them a few pointers we sent them off to build with their new partner. After about 20 minutes we stopped and I taught them how to line follow using light reflection. This is much more accurate than simply reading color because not all of them understand sensor placement and sometimes the lighting can throw the color readings off.

So, we documented how to take five light reflection readings using Port View. We then divide the sum by five and that becomes your light threshold for the switch block. Once they learn this they can now dial in their robots no matter the light conditions. We had a variety of course with different light settings so they had to practice adjusting the threshold to show us their understanding.

You can see the slides for the challenges and lessons to learn more. What I most impressed with was how many groups picked up the concept of line follow. We had six challenges and over 75% of the groups conquered them all. We allowed them to work at their own pace, choose the missions they wanted to do, and leave it up to them to chart their own course.

It was a great day. I could not believe how much the learned today. They did a much better job problem solving, listening, and asking quality questions. I cannot wait for tomorrow.

The challenge tomorrow is to build a robot that bowl. We have the lanes ready to go so we will see who can score the most.

Here is a recap of day one if you missed it.
Robodogs Robotic Camp Day 1

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Robodogs Robotic Camp Day 1

Challenging Students Without Instructions

Today we had our first day of our Robodog Robotics Camp. We had two sessions of 30 students each for each of our three hour blocks of time. We started off camp explaining our goals and that we want them to think beyond following a how-to guide. We want them to design on their own or at least without copying step by step. One thing we have learned over the years is that when students simply copy they don’t learn.

After talking about the skills we were looking for(gracious professionalism, treating others right, staying positive when things don’t work, teamwork, collaboration) we explained the first challenge.

We jumped right into a big a challenge. We have students from grades 5-8 so we have students who have never seen a robot to those who have had several years. This challenge was to design the fastest dragster down a 14 foot runway.

Students worked in pairs. Each pair was given a computer and one EV3 kit. We told them we wanted them to build their own robot design. We did not want them building the drive base as we get the exact same style for all 30 robots. We wanted to see what students could do. We gave them some simple tips and building ideas, but I was amazed by all the awesome designs. I loved launching camp this way because I was able to learn so much about the kids as well as learn some very creative ways of building.

At the end of the day I was so happy with the results. Our fastest robot was 2.51 seconds. That is moving considering the robot could not start until the touch sensor was suppressed. You can see some of the results in the video below.

Not all groups had success with finishing the dragster. I do not view that as failure. They learned so much through their problem solving skills. One thing I realized today is that students need more opportunities where they are not given step by step instruction, but parameters and support to make their own ideas come alive. Students had to learn to overcome frustration when their ideas did not work. I firmly believe in the fact that they learn so much from these moments compared to simply being told the answer.

I am so excited to come back for day 2. What I witnessed today was 60 amazing kids doing amazing things in the summer. All of this hard work will pay off for them. I could not be more proud as a coach and instructor of this camp. These kids amaze me and provide me such motivation to continue teaching.

**Thank you to Ian Chow-Miller and Damien Kee for tips they have shared that I have used in preparing as well as everyone that is part of Lego Engineering who have all taught me quite a bit in becoming a better teacher.**

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