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Robot Wars and Combined STEM curriculum

Brentwood School’s Design & Technology teacher and STEM Co-ordinator, Thomas Welland, shares how BBC’s Robot Wars can be used to inspire students and support the teaching of a combined STEM curriculum.

crowd of people at robot convention

When the BBC announced that it was reviving the programme ‘Robot Wars’ after a 12-year break, a young Design and Technology teacher at a school in Essex was cheering.

Thomas Walland had watched the series as a child. He knew that his students were ready for a challenge – and he saw immediately that this was a way of combining all the STEM subjects in a truly cross-curricular endeavour.  Not to mention battling it out in a futuristic bullet-proof arena, surrounded by hundreds of screaming fans, subsequent opportunity to travel across the world and, well, international fame.

The revival of Robot Wars is timely – some would say, overdue. We are surrounded by robots now: they make our cars, mass-produce our goods as well as pack them for transit, clean our buildings, assist in surgery, help to produce our food, and perform a wide range of tasks previously done by humans. It’s clear that we need robots. All kinds of robots.

“I was excited by the idea of our students taking part in the programme because it’s such a brilliant way to support a combined STEM curriculum – and have great fun at the same time,” Thomas explains. “We started straight away to look at all of the competing robots we knew about, the different types of designs and how we could defend against them, and the strategies we would need if we were to have a chance of winning.”

Spoiler alert – not only did they not win, their robot ‘Expulsion’ went out of the competition in Series 9 in the first round (unfortunately its name proved prophetic). But they came back in Series 10 with Expulsion 2, which finished in third place in its heat and qualified for the thrilling 10-Robot Rumble.  Team captain Georgina Henwood explained their choice of a spinner as a weapon (it can be manufactured quickly) and commented : “We like to make the sparks fly!”


Integrated Curriculum

The Brentwood team was captained by a female student and girls at the school are heavily involved in the Robot Wars project. The centrality of the learning process and the idea that it is a school curriculum activity was the reason for the name ‘Expulsion’, with an associated mini-bot being named ‘Detention’ and a further robot which competes outside of the TV programme named ‘Suspension’.

Thomas again: “As teachers, we are often reluctant to let our students fail and it’s tempting to help them to find solutions to problems rather than leave them to make mistakes. On Robot Wars, they are the ones fighting the robot and it’s the result of their decision-making. Any mistakes are pretty obvious!”

Now the school’s STEM Co-ordinator, Thomas would like to see a more integrated curriculum and one which enables students to use their knowledge progressively across different STEM subjects. “In the real world, we need to use these subjects in a practical, applied way. If we integrate topics more, this could help motivate students and enable them to understand the practical application of what they are learning.”

But how much of each actual subject does the Robot Wars school project cover?

Thomas has an example.  “Two female students were tasked with working out how much shock-absorbing material we needed for packing round the robot’s batteries. They went off to work it out and came back with a sheet of calculations. Maths is central to the work, but so is design, engineering skills, and so on.”

He goes on to describe this in more detail.

“Programming in computer lessons is used to control the motors and  the team is considering using Arduino programming in order to make their robot semi-autonomous.

“A Level Mathematics is also involved. Whilst maths students may be used to working with ‘inclined planes’ and ‘dynamic particles’ they may not realise that the wedge on suspension is the inclined plane and the other robots weapon the ‘dynamic particle’.

“Torque is something else they have to calculate which is something learnt in their physics lesson along with calculating the weapons tip speed and the centrifugal force.

“There are also strong links with art as the machine needs to look as good as well as work well.”

Building a Robot

So how do you build a robot? Using a lot of STEM skills, obviously!

The process starts with research and then moves on to rough sketches of ideas for the build. Students create plywood models as well as use computer-aided design programs and 3-D modelling before they begin on working with the metal parts and the components used.

“Competing in Robot Wars involves a huge range of skills,” comments Thomas. “It’s not just the STEM skills – it’s the life skills that we often find it hard to teach.”

We work out between us what some of these are, and it’s an impressive list: strategic, analytical, diagnostic, planning, negotiation, communication and problem-solving, to name a few. For example:

Students have to learn to analyse what makes the successful – and famous – robots into winners and work out how to emulate this, as well as defend against them.  They have recognised that an essential factor in winning a bout is to remain mobile and this is one of their strategic aims.

They have to work within a tight budget, calculate costs and improvise as necessary.

They have to plan and prepare for a competition and take responsibility for having the right equipment with them, and be ready for any contingency – if they can’t mend a broken part after a fight, they are out.

They have to have good presentation and communication skills, especially on camera –  and it helps to be able to negotiate with other roboteers if you need to borrow parts!

They have to be able to work under pressure and solve problems that arise at short notice.

All of this adds up to an impressive skillset.

Year 10 students Poppy and Jasmine were left to patch up Expulsion after one bout of fighting in a competition, when more senior students had to go back to the school. “We had to somehow get the top back on even though it wasn’t fitting properly…and there wasn’t much time to work out how we were going to do it.” They managed it, though, and have an air of quiet confidence that seems very mature for their years.

Team captain Georgina is now studying architecture at university but is still in touch with the team and plans to build her own robot. The school recently were on TV in China in a version of Robot Wars watched by millions and won their bout, to rapturous applause.

And a new robot is taking shape at Brentwood – the design is top-secret, but ERA is looking forward to its debut in that bullet-proof arena!