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Make A Robot and Learn About Math | Arts & Activities
Sep 2018

Make A Robot and Learn About Math

Make A Robot and Learn About Math

Don’t look for the word “netbots” in your dictionary, it won’t be there. We made up the word to describe our sculptures, which are made of folded paper nets to form our robots.

Integrating art with academic subjects can sometimes feel like a burden to art teachers. Shouldn’t art be a stand-alone subject, after all? Maybe not all the time. A case can be made for experiences in cross-curricular learning where students connect their learning much the way they might in their future workplaces.

Through a federal grant (Arts in Education–Model Development and Dissemination, administered under the Assistance for Arts Education Program) to Studio Institute in New York City, I have been working with teaching artist Chris Williams and classroom teacher Ayanna McCullough, developing this unit, which engages fifth-grade students by combining art with math. This lesson is a streamlined version from a unit that contains seven art periods and seven math periods, taught at P.S. 359x in the Bronx.

Ayanna introduced students to “nets”: flat, foldable shapes that form cubes and prisms. The fifth-graders learned that a cube or prism must have six sides to make a solid, and how to compute the surface area and, eventually the volume, of a solid.

In the art room, Chris showed students examples of geometric, figurative sculptures by such artists as Joel Shapiro and Nam June Paik. Observing concepts such as balance and positive and negative space reinforced vocabulary and encouraged deep looking.

Students were then challenged to think about, and design, their robots. What function did they want their robots to have? Helping with chores? Something that improves the world? Something a bit silly? More than one function?

The students were set loose to brainstorm and sketch ideas for their robots with the understanding that they would eventually be folding cubes and prisms to construct them. (Cylinders and spheres would not be foldable from nets!)

Using the free downloaded nets copied on bright card stock, students chose their colors and practiced accurate cutting and folding techniques. Most students folded their nets with the grid lines on the inside, but a few liked the look of the grids on the exteriors. Tabs were folded back and carefully glued with white glue to make clean-looking edges.

Referring to their final sketches, students spent two periods constructing the nets they needed to build their robots. Gluing the nets together on a base to form their figures, students investigated concepts of balance, proportion and scale. Meanwhile in math, the students worked on word problems that related to their individual sculptures.

Once completely built, the students had the option to draw or collage details on their robots. We used some metallic paper and also pre-printed images depicting controls and gears (Gizmos by Roylco), which we reduced in size on a copier.

The end of each lesson often had a peer-to-peer formative assessment or reflection component using individual iPads. At the end of the unit, students displayed their work and learned about aspects of mounting an exhibition for others to view and share.

One fifth-grader worked with a partner and made a robot that, “was a dragon, but had style. His purpose was to teach basketball.” Did he enjoy the unit? “Honestly, I did enjoy it because it was fun, but at the same time we were learning math about volume and we were also making a robot out of shapes. Whatever was in your creative mind, you could make.” 

As a group, the final robots made an amazing display, but the real joy was in the humor, creativity and shear brilliance students brought to the making of their sculptures. 



Finished “netbots.”



Finished sculptures from P.S. 359x. All above photos by Chris Williams.



Folded net with related math work.  All photos below by Mindy Best.


Student working out some math on the smart board.


Sketch with sculpture.


Student with detailed sketch for his robot.


Student assembling his robot.


Elementary students will …
find creative solutions while working with restrictions.
understand the difference between positive and negative space in a sculpture.
understand that artists often need to use math in order to make their work.
be able to sketch their ideas and transfer their sketches into three-dimensional sculptures made of folded nets.

Creating: Combine ideas to generate an innovative idea for art-making.
Identify and demonstrate diverse methods of artistic investigation to choose an approach for beginning a work of art.
Experiment and develop skills in multiple art-making techniques and approaches through practice.
Demonstrate quality craftsmanship through care for and use of materials, tools, and equipment.
Presenting: Cite evidence about how an exhibition in a museum or other venue presents ideas and provides information about a specific concept or topic.
Responding: Compare one’s own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.
Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form andstructure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

What is a sculpture and how does a sculpture differ from a painting or drawing?
What are some ways we can use paper to make it three-dimensional?
How can parts be put together to form a sculpture?
How do individual artworks come together in an exhibition to make a powerful statement?

Sketch paper, pencils
Card stock (for printing nets), printer
Scissors, white glue
Chipboard (for bases)
Metallic paper
Pictures of tech-inspired gadgets (we used Roylco’s Gizmo Paper, reduced on a copier)

Negative shape

aa-finalbitton60ONLINE EXTRAS
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Julia Healy taught public school art for 25 years in New York before becoming project manager of Expanding the Frame at the Studio Institute. Visit studioinstitute.org/expandingtheframe to learn more about this project, the various units, and download complete unit and associated classroom materials.


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