Knowledge Building in Competitive Robotics

The context of competitive robotics teams (such as in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC)) provides concrete examples of knowledge building as described by Scardamalia & Bereiter in Knowledge Building and Knowledge Creation: Theory, Pedagogy, and Technology. Classically, the knowledge being collectively built by a team could be viewed as being the conceptual understandings of the various systems within a single robot (electrical, mechanical, pneumatic, programming, etc) distributed across the team. More interestingly though, these understandings are made physical by the team members’ implementation in the creation of their robot. The machine exists not simply as evidence, or an artifact, of the team’s skills and knowledge, but is itself an embodiment of their skills and knowledge; a “Knowledge Forum” made corporeal. It is through the physical and collaborative acts of design, creation, and continuous improvement of their robot that the team’s knowledge is co-constructed, not before, and not after.


In FRC, successful teams embrace a culture of continuous improvement, a ‘how can we make it better’ attitude. Though teams are given only 6 weeks from the release of the challenge to design and build their robot, which is sealed away until tournaments, they often spend their weeks between “Bag and Tag” and the regional tournaments designing upgrades and tweaks to implement during the tournaments themselves. Right up to their last match, changes and upgrades are made. As the team’s knowledge grows through the experience of competing in the events and talking with other teams, so to does its manifestation in the robot grow.

I’m interested in engaging the FRC team I mentor in some exercises to make explicit the nature of their distributed knowledge, and the robot as a manifestation of this knowledge. Now that build season is over, I’ve begun planning an activity for the team to generate a detailed ‘map’ of the robot, an exploded annotated diagram of the entire complex system that is this year’s competition bot: Basilisk. This would not only serve to help the team be more aware of the distributed nature of their knowledge, and to potentially discover new links or possibilities between the disciplinary teams, but also as a teaching tool for future iterations of the team as well as other, newer teams.