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How do you get bots to bop?

Hamilton's primary school kids have been learning how to use coding to control robots. This week, they put their skills to the test in a final dance-off.

group photo

What do you get if you combine breakdancing, Star Wars, skateboarding and computer coding? A robot dance-off like no other!

Children from eight primary schools and kura in Waikato have been learning about how computers are coded, and then using this to make Sphero, Ollie and ‘Star Wars’ BB-8 robots dance.

The 7 to 11-year-olds are using coding apps on iPads to program the robots and make them spin, flash different colours and 'skate' down ramps as part of their school afternoon Roboshops project.

The students have all spent five weeks learning the basics of how computers work and then progressing to being able to create their own codes. This week, these projects all finish with a dance-off.  

Which spinner is the winner?

practicing ramps  BB8 bot

In each school, the students' robots are pitted against each other to see who has created the smoothest moves and winning spins.

At Puketaha School in northeastern Hamilton, the challenge was for the kids to work in pairs and code their robots’ dance within just 30 minutes before the dance-off.

The teams were judged on their creativity for different movements, using colours and special effects, how well they controlled their robot, and how closely their robot’s rhythm matched the music.

The competition was close, with the top three winning teams only having a one-point difference between them. The kids chose from a selection of Google-branded goodies to take home as their prizes.


“The hardest part was thinking about how to do the dance - and how to control the robot to make it do what we wanted,” Jason, 11, says.

Jack, 8, adds, “I loved using all the school electronic stuff and coding the robots.”

Samuel, 8, agrees: “I like learning how to program the robots and I just wanna keep on doing it!”

“I want to do this when I’m older too,” Mac, 9, tells us.

Getting girls to run the (tech) world

Garry Falloon, who co-leads the project with his friend and squash partner Nilesh Kanji, tells us that the project has exceeded their expectations. Garry is a professor in Digital Learning and Nilesh is a senior tutor in Computer Science at the University of Waikato.

“I’m gobsmacked at the kids’ capabilities and how quickly they learn these things – they are just so fast,” Garry tells us.

“We’re also really pleased to see that over half of these kids are girls. This is one of the things we’ve been aiming for because we know that women are massively underrepresented in IT,” he says.

“Nilesh and I have seen this first hand: only a fraction of computer science students at the University of Waikato are women. We want to try and change that.”


The girls’ robot dances were impressive, as were the boys’.

“It’s hard to figure out how to move the robots, but it’s still really fun,” says Leia, 9. “I would tell other girls to do this too. It’s good to try out new things and to be confident in doing that”.

Treisha, 9, agreed: “I want to do this in the future because it’s fun.”

Emily, 10, thanked Garry and Nilesh on behalf of all the students as the class wrapped up: “I feel really privileged to be here and it’s been really amazing to experience all these new things.”

Teachers just as keen

competitionA big part of the project is that the teachers get stuck in too.

At Puketaha School, teacher Natalie Smith told us that she saw how much the children grew throughout the process.

“It was great to see the determination, drive and focus these kids had when they were learning about how to code and how to control the robots,” she says.

“The best part is that they’ll be able to teach it back and share their knowledge with other kids – which they’ll probably do better than the teachers, actually!

“I also learnt lots of things myself – like how to teach something in a way that makes it relevant to everyday life rather than being just taught in isolation, which is different from how most science and technology is taught in schools.”

Over 30 schools wanted to take part but Garry and Nilesh told us that they could only do this for eight schools, and deciding which was a really difficult choice for them to make.

Most of the schools are from within the Hamilton region but in 2017 Garry and Nilesh are hoping to expand the project to include more rural schools, as well as some of the schools who missed out.


Read more about the Roboshops project here

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About the project

logoRoboshops logo
 is supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.



Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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