NYC FIRST’s 'Robot in a Box' Program Brings Robotics Home

Posted on Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

In 2020, SFE grantee NYC FIRST faced a challenge experienced during the pandemic by most organizations that provide direct services to students and young learners: how to translate highly nuanced, experiential educational programming to a remote context.

NYC FIRST is an organization that provides in-person programming, through its own robotics classrooms, in-school and out of school programs, and camps that are predicated on hands-on learning, interaction and exchange among team leaders, teachers, and peers, and friendly competition between teams. The organization’s work bridges the digital and physical worlds, and is designed to help students apply robotics-driven systems thinking and design skills to real world situations. This philosophy is most clearly distilled in the organization’s STEM Centers, which are maker spaces and educational robotics labs in the Washington Heights branch of the New York Public Library as well as a flagship location at Cornell Tech. But without access to these gathering places during the pandemic, how could NYC FIRST replicate the experience of its in-person summer camps and after school programming? 

The solution lay in developing a way to deliver the maker space experience directly to students. Enter, Robot in a Box™, which included an ultra-low cost computer, prototyping materials, and robotics activities that high school and middle school students could use to experience the STEM Center fundamentals from home. Each Robot in a Box kit contains a motor, chassis, wheels, power circulatory system, and a micro:Bit controller. Students are taught to make five different robots, but the materials can also be combined to make whatever type of robot a kid can imagine.

The contents of a NYC FIRST Robot in a Box kit

Over the course of three lesson modules, students become acquainted with basic circuitry principles, learn different programming languages that can manipulate the robots, and add on functional mechanisms, including gears, grabbers, and wheels. Throughout the lessons students build different types of robots, switching back and forth between building in real life and using software such as TinkerCad and MakeCode. 

Meg Groome, Vice President of Programs at NYC FIRST, described the Robot in a Box program as “not just an opportunity to translate the organization’s educational programs to new, distributed contexts, but also a chance to scale its reach far beyond the walls of individual STEM Centers.” Through a partnership with the Brooklyn Public Library, NYC FIRST will start giving out Robot in a Box kits to dozens of students in July and, as the program continues to mature, will take advantage of the libraries’ geographic reach in order to distribute hundreds more kits.

By reducing the STEM Center experience to its most essential components, NYC FIRST has developed a creative way to extend its educational programming to more students, and through the partnership with the Brooklyn Public Library system, the organization will be able to continue growing the program at scale. Now, the STEM Center experience isn’t tied exclusively to a student’s ability to access a specific space, and can be experienced anywhere so long as you’ve got access to a fun-size cereal box.