Robots- The future, Technology, International Teachers Magazine

Cirque des Robots

IT and PE crossover project

Thomas Courcoux of the Atlanta International School (USA) reports how a Grade 4 interdisciplinary unit of inquiry based on “Circus” became a coding adventure  resulting in a live performance.  

The central idea behind our new interdisciplinary “Circus” unit was how Technology affects the way people communicate and express themselves in today’s World. Through the design of a circus performance in which robots and students were interacting in front of an audience, the aim was to develop an understanding of both the coding language and how technologies may impact communication, while still developing their physical “circus” skills.


I had been initially inspired by some activities with robots and drones developed by Julien Tixier, a French colleague at the Lycee International of Los Angeles.The alignment of my circus unit with the “How we express ourselves” classroom unit was an opportunity to embed both contexts and learning.

Teachers- Science, The future, Technology, International Teachers MagazineIt brought a wonderful collaboration with the classroom teachers, Frederique McGirt and Carine Bouton, who enriched and supported the project through meaningful activities in class.

The robots we used were two Dash robots from Wonder Workshop, one Sphero and two Parrot Jumping Sumo.


Educational Toys- Science, The future, Technology, International Teachers Magazine

Educational Toys- Science, The future, Technology, International Teachers Magazine

Educational Toys- Science, The future, Technology, International Teachers Magazine

Lesson 1: Let’s imagine what we could do . . . .

The first lesson was dedicated to presenting the project and to looking at the outcomes of this unit. In doing so the students were briefed about

  • The number of interactions between the robots and the group of students that were required
  • The number of circus stations to be used during the performance
  • The number of robots involved in each group
  • The length of each performance

Following this briefing, the students chose their partners and we came up with five groups within the class.

Group collaboration

Children and Technology- The future, Technology, International Teachers MagazineThe groups spent the next couple of lessons exploring the different circus stations available in order to identify opportunities and start developing their skills in specific circus-skill areas:

  • Stilts
  • Balance board
  • Hula-hoops
  • Juggling
  • Spinning plates
Introducing the robots

Afterwards, we introduced the different robots and gave the students an opportunity to explore the different features and possibilities that each robot offered.

Children and Technology- The future, Technology, International Teachers MagazineFrederique and Carine started this exploration in their classrooms using a Project Zero routine called “Parts, Purposes and Complexities”, which invites the students to look closely at the robots and explore their features.

After this first taster, each group chose the robot they wanted to include in their performance. We then put the robots aside and asked the students to start planning their performance using paper and pencil, with the following goal in mind: “How could the robot help us during the performance in order to achieve a greater impact on our audience?”

Obviously, it was quite frustrating for them to leave the robots! The students started to exchange various original ideas on paper. They drew the movement of the robots from a bird’s-eye view in the gym, as well as their own moves, circus skills and interactions with their new playmate. I also asked the students to plan and document each action on a spreadsheet (one row per action) so they will be able to report these lines of code on the dedicated app later.

Rethinking expectations

Robot cartoon- The future, Technology, International Teachers MagazineThe students were assigned different roles within their groups, such as:

  • the programmer: responsible for programming the robot according to the project design;
  • the reporter: responsible for documenting everything related to the project on a digital platform.

While transferring their code from paper to the app, students realized that though the robot could do it in theory, some successive actions were not as consistent as expected. For example, when the Jumping Sumo was making its jumps, the orientation after the landing was hard to predict and inconsistent. Therefore, each team had to review their scenario, rewrite the code by either removing or swapping some lines (e.g. putting the jumps at the end of the performance so the orientation after landing is less an issue).

Dancing with robots

After modifying and refining their code several times, the students became more precise in their interactions with the robot. We saw wonderful synchronisations, such as having a robot passing under the legs of a student walking on stilts; having a robot jumping inside a hoop held up in the air by a student; having the robot dancing with students before taking a bow together.

Invited audience

The students invited different classes and teachers from our community to attend the performances. These pieces of work, from the unfinished one to the most elaborate, were in total connection with the aim of this unit. Indeed, these performances were a great example of how the students enhanced the interactions with the robots in order to captivate their audience. And most of all, the process in which they were engaged during this project transformed their perspectives regarding coding.


Thomas Courcoux- Science, The future, Technology, International Teachers MagazineThomas Courcoux

Thomas Courcoux teaches PE at Atlanta International School. Educated in his native France, he has held several positions in France, India and now in the USA. 

He holds a Master’s of Learning Sciences, Comparative and International Education from the University of Paris-Descartes and has developed a real interest in curriculum comparisons. You can follow him on Twitter @TomCcx.



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