Lesson 6: Programming Unplugged: My Robotic Friends

Algorithms | Debugging | Unplugged


Using a predefined symbol key, your students will figure out how to guide one another to accomplish specific tasks without using any verbal commands. This segment teaches students the connection between symbols and actions, the difference between an algorithm and a program, and the valuable skill of debugging.


This unplugged lesson brings the class together as a team with a simple task to complete: get a "robot" to stack cups in a specific design. Students will work to recognize real world actions as potential instructions in code. The designing of precise instructions will also be practiced, as students work to translate worded instructions into the symbols provided. If problems arise in the code, students should work together to recognize bugs and build solutions.


Warm Up (5 min)

Main Activity (45 min)

Wrap Up (10 min)


Students will be able to:

  • Gain understanding of the need for precision in coding.
  • Learn how to recognize a bug and how to debug the malfunctioning code.



Heads Up! Please make a copy of any documents you plan to share with students.

For the Teacher


  • Algorithm - A precise sequence of instructions for processes that can be executed by a computer
  • Bug - Part of a program that does not work correctly.
  • Debugging - Finding and fixing problems in an algorithm or program.
  • Program - An algorithm that has been coded into something that can be run by a machine.


Report a Bug

Teaching Guide

Warm Up (5 min)


Start by asking the class if anyone has heard of robotics. Has anyone seen a robot or touched one? Does a robot really “hear” you speak? Does it really “understand” what you say? The answer to the last question is: “Not the same way that a person does.”

Robots operate off of instructions, specific sets of things that they have been preprogrammed to do. In order to accomplish a task, a robot needs to have a series of instructions (sometimes called an algorithm) that it can read. Today, we are going to learn what it takes to make that happen.

If you feel that there is time, it might be helpful to do a quick example. Page 6 and 7 of My Robotic Friends - Teacher Prep Guide describe how to do a simple example before the main activity. This example could be up to 10 minutes in length.

Main Activity (45 min)

My Robotic Friends

Lesson Tip:

While the robot is working on the stack make sure that the class knows:

  • Programmers are not allowed to talk when the robot is working. This includes blurting out answers or pointing out when the robot has done something wrong.
  • Programmers should raise their hand if they see a bug.

Display a copy of the My Robotic Friends - Symbol Key (or write the symbols on the board). Step to the side and tell the class that these will be the only six symbols that they will be using for this exercise. For this task, they will instruct their “robot” friend to build a specific cup stack using only the arrows listed on the My Robotic Friends - Symbol Key.

  1. Pick a "robot" for the class (try to choose a student that feels confident after the warm-up.) Ask this "robot" to leave the classroom until they are called back in.

  2. Display Stacking Cups Ideas - Manipulatives to the rest of the class. Have the class vote and choose which idea they would like the robot to do. Try to push for an easier idea for the first time, then choose a more complex design later on.

  3. Let the class discuss how the stack should be built, then ask the class to translate the algorithm into the symbols. Write down the symbol algorithm somewhere for the robot to use later.

  4. When the class has decided on the algorithm, ask the robot to come back in. We recommend continuing to display the My Robotic Friends - Symbol Key while the robot is building the stack so the student robot remembers what each command means.

Lesson Tip:

This activity can be done in small groups, once your class feels comfortable.

If a student sees a bug and raises their hand, have the robot finish the instructions to the best of their ability. Afterward, have the students discuss the potential bug and come up with a solution. Continue repeating until the stack is built properly.

Once the stack is built, you can choose to repeat the activity again with another student robot.

Wrap Up (10 min)


Having students write about what they learned, why it’s useful, and how they feel about it can help solidify any knowledge they obtained today and build a review sheet for them to look to in the future.

Journal Prompts:

  • What was today’s lesson about?
  • How did you feel during today’s lesson?
  • Draw a stack of cups that the robot made today.
  • Draw a stack of cups that you would like a robot to make someday!

Standards Alignment

View full course alignment

CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards

AP - Algorithms & Programming
  • 1A-AP-09 - Model the way programs store and manipulate data by using numbers or other symbols to represent information.