May 15, 2024

Robots, Basketball and Lifelong Learning

With theBasicBot (tBB), educator Keith Christensen is making robotics accessible to young learners everywhere.
Keith Banner

For most of us, the extent of our robotics knowledge stops with our robot vacuum. Or perhaps we know that the automations used to manufacture cars and trucks are robots. Maybe you have even heard of the “Wakamaru,” a robot developed by Mitsubishi to provide companionship and safety for elderly people who live alone. In our dreams and on the big screen, we see a future in which robots aid us in our everyday lives and help us advance society (only to inevitably turn on humankind, of course).

Educator Keith Christensen, BEd’99, MEd’18, hopes we can educate ourselves and the next generation about robotics to take these steps forward (minus the robot apocalypse, of course). 

The education field's initial skepticism towards embracing robots in many ways mirrors the early doubts about the internet and its use in schools. Both were initially seen as niche until their larger potential became clear. Just as the internet completely transformed learning, robots are now recognized for their role in engaging students and enhancing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education. Yet, challenges persist and, like the internet of the late ’90s, robots are poised to become full-spectrum tools in education.

Christensen is a double University of Calgary grad with a basketball background, as well as two post-degree continuous learning diplomas under his belt. It would be easy to think of him running a team, a general manager with unrivalled knowledge. Christensen’s career is indeed as a player/coach — only in the innovation game. Like a point guard, he continues to move the ball up the floor and set others up for success in this game of innovation and discovery. Now an assistant principal with a Calgary charter school, he spent many years with the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) as a career and technology studies specialist. He doesn’t just teach to pass on knowledge; he's looking to help students ignite their imaginations with robotics and technology in education, training students for success in a game where technological fluency will become key in unlocking their limitless possibilities.

Scott Keith portrait

Continuous Learning

After graduating as a generalist in 1999, Christensen’s career began and continues in Calgary, starting with teaching Grade 4 at Ogden Elementary. Over time, his interest shifted towards construction, leading him to explore teaching more hands-on work. He transitioned to teaching Grade 6 at Valley Creek Middle School, where he continued dabbling in construction and CTS projects before he moved to a new school, Arbour Lake Middle School, which had an Amatrol Lab, which was focused on tech-based learning like mechanical hydraulics and pneumatics. 

This marked the start of Christensen’s foray into blending technology, innovation and education, eventually bringing 3D printing technology to the CBE nearly 20 years ago. His journey continued, culminating in a role as the learning leader for technology studies at Robert Thirsk High School. It was there he established an innovation tech space emphasizing 3D printing, laser cutting, electronics and robotics. Despite encountering some initial challenges with the curriculum, he remained committed to fostering innovation in education.

"I believe in empowering students with practical skills that prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow," says Christensen. "It's not just about imparting knowledge; it's about equipping them with the tools to shape their own futures."

For more than a decade, Christensen has been at the forefront of tech innovation in the school system in Calgary, shaping the minds of students from grades 4 to 12. He sees himself as more than a person giving step-by-step instructions; he is showing students the way, teaching them the basics, but then allowing the students to be creative and experiment with whatever they want. 

"The primary objective at the junior high or high school level is to introduce students to various skills, such as 3D printing, laser cutting, electronics and robotics,” Christensen explains. “These provide a foundational structure, but the ultimate goal is to empower students to apply these skills independently. So, instead of a remote-controlled robot, they may think, 'I want to build a thumbprint scanner for my garage door or a light sensor for a cabinet.' This mindset encourages them to see such projects as achievable things they can attempt and do."

Looking to expand his knowledge and contribute to curriculum updates, Christensen returned UCalgary for graduate studies. By 2017, he had authored and developed a course for the CBE titled Design Thinking for Innovation, laying the groundwork for students to cultivate creativity and problem-solving skills. In 2018, he graduated with his Master of Education in design thinking. It was an interdisciplinary program and among the most influential courses he took was a class on design thinking for innovation in education with author, artist and associate professor Dr. Robert Kelly, PhD’05.

“That class really changed the way I thought about design,” says Christensen. “I was doing design thinking in many ways, but that class gave me the voice and the framing of what it is to design with empathy and with the end user in mind.”

Christensen co-authored the book, Collaborative Creativity: Idea Book for Educators, in 2020, inspiring educators worldwide to foster innovation in their classrooms. His fascination with robotics and education stems from a deep-seated desire to democratize access to technology. 

"Robots are more than just gadgets; they're catalysts for learning," he emphasizes, gesturing animatedly. "Through initiatives like the educational robotics platform, TBB, we are making robotics education accessible to students of all backgrounds, sparking their curiosity and igniting their imaginations."


Enter theBasicBot

Leveraging his expertise and entrepreneurial spirit from his education career, ongoing learning and leadership, Christensen has now embarked on a new venture: theBasicBot (tBB). Born from a fusion of educational insight and technological ingenuity, tBB represents a paradigm shift in educational robotics.

At its core, tBB is more than just a robot; it's a catalyst for STEAM learning. Crafted from affordable 3D-printed parts, a laser-cut chassis and open-source electronics, tBB is a versatile platform designed to nurture future-focused skills in students from elementary to high school. With its reconfigurable design and expandable capabilities, tBB empowers students to explore a myriad of disciplines, including coding, design, electronics and fabrication.

"My goal is to get this out into the world, accessible for any educational school or institution that is interested and that wants to invest in something that is not only dynamic, engaging and interesting, but cost-effective and really gives them control over the production," says Christensen.

Looking back, he says, the Design Thinking for Innovation course was all about students engaging in “long-term innovation projects with increasing complexity.” Christensen adds that students would, for example, develop a home-automation cube using Raspberry Pi and Arduino do-it-yourself computer kits. Which is a lot of tech talk, but most importantly, he says, “they were building and designing from scratch.”

A deep dive into robotics revealed that commercial educational robotic platforms were very limiting due to cost, citing the $1,000 cost for kits and expensive replacement parts. From there he started to investigate open-source electronics and came to the conclusion that he and his students could build a better robot. They wrote the first code and built their first mini Basic Bot with the help of longtime friend and colleague of Christensen’s, Scott Blenkhorne, BA’05, BEdP’07Blenkhorne, a technology specialist with CBE, worked well with Christensen, acting as a sounding board and always bringing the coding expertise and supporting the concept of tBB. Since tBB was fully established in 2020 , 30 different schools in the CBE have used the platform.

“We have a local company that's bringing in all the open-source electronic parts and what makes it unique is that the entire robot is laser-cut and 3D-printed,” says Christensen. “Now we can put the production in the hands of the schools and, instead of paying hundreds of dollars for parts, they 3D-print them for pennies on the dollar.” 

What sets tBB apart in the educational landscape is its accessibility and versatility. With no prior coding experience required, educators can seamlessly integrate tBB into their curriculums, unlocking a world of experiential learning for their students. Moreover, its online learning portal provides a treasure trove of resources, from video tutorials to competition plans, coding and user guides, all catering to diverse learning styles and preferences.

Another remarkable aspect of tBB is its inclusivity: regardless of a school’s geographical or financial constraints, students from rural or urban settings can still partake in this educational revolution. By harnessing readily available tools like 3D printers and laser cutters, tBB democratizes access to cutting-edge technology, bridging the gap between educational aspiration and reality.

"We're overcoming challenges, from costs to privacy concerns to ensuring equitable access to unlock the full potential of robotics in education,” says Christensen. “It's really about empowering students to become creators — not just consumers — of technology."

The impact of this initiative extends beyond mere technical proficiency, inspiring students to pursue diverse avenues of creativity in robotics, with examples including a geodesic dome equipped with temperature and moisture sensors, automated sprinklers, and more. In Christensen's vision, education is not merely about imparting knowledge, but igniting a spark of curiosity and innovation in every student. With initiatives like tBB, he is paving the way for a future where students are not just passive recipients of information, but active creators of knowledge, equipped with the skills to thrive in an ever-evolving world.

Josh Matt Wylie

Students Teaching the Master

Christensen says he knew from Day 1 that he had a special group of students when he met Matthew Allwright, Joshua Rasmussen and Wylee McAndrews at Robert Thirsk High School in 2014 . What he didn’t know was that the spark ignited in that high school lab would inspire Allwright, BSc’22, to go on to finish a computer science degree at UCalgary and, along with Rasmussen and McAndrews, go on to work for Garmin, a multinational technology company known for its specialization in GPS technology and wearable devices. Allwright, Rasmussen and McAndrews were among the students who helped develop the first mini tBB. 

Christensen reached out to the group about a year and half ago with a problem he was encountering with a third-party app that tBB was using to control the robots wirelessly with a cellphone. “It lacked some functionality that I wanted,” says Christensen, so he asked his former students if they could look to develop a physical Bluetooth controller. In just a few months, the trio designed a circuit board and the code, printed the circuit board, brought in the parts, and have now even started a spinoff company, Bleebletech, to sell controllers to schools in partnership with tBB. 

“It's a full circle,” says Christensen. “I met these three students in high school and I knew they were going to start something because they had the skillset, the mindset, they’re innovative and they're risk-takers.” Being mostly self-taught himself, with his strengths lying in construction and 3D design, parts and components, Christensen is quick to point out that certain aspects of tBB are not in his area of expertise. But, like any project in design thinking, there is room for collaboration and amplification based on individual’s skills. 

“I had an idea, we started develop it and prototype it (and) then I reached out to people that are more skilled in different areas and just said, is there any chance you can give me a hand with this?” says Christensen. “And … right away they were like, ‘We're in! What do you need?’ It speaks to their passion and their skill set, but it also speaks to the relationship that you build with students over time that they see it as an opportunity to give back.”

What’s Next?

The next steps for Christensen and tBB are to move beyond the CBE; tBB is being piloted in one school in Edmonton with more expansion expected as tBB becomes more marketable. Moreover, the aim of expansion ensures that students and institutions learn that 3D-printing and laser-cutting is not just for making toys and trinkets, but it can actually be used to create and design real solutions to real problems.

“That learning process of designing it from scratch, testing it, prototyping, iterating it, making it work, putting it into the system: that's what I think education should be about and I think there's an opportunity for this in any school that's interested in these types of innovations,” says Christensen.

As the recently appointed assistant principal of the STEM Innovation Academy Charter School, he will be using his experience and passion for education to inspire a new staff and students to become inventors, innovators and problem-solvers. Like any good coach, Christensen continues to direct the play, move the ball forward and up the court, and push the boundaries of educational innovation. In a tech-obsessed world where change is inevitable, one thing remains constant: the transformative power of education will shape a brighter tomorrow.

"This is why I to continue to work in education,” he says. “I just see so much opportunity for kids to do things that really matter."