Introduction

The purpose of this article is to lay out the road map for beginning to build with VEX GO. This article is intended for those who are very much new and unfamiliar with their Kits, and will offer vital information in navigating the VEX GO System. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to build freely. There is an almost infinite combination of parts in the Kit, so why would there only be one solution? This article hopes to give you a way into this intimidating topic, and make it less scary.

The road map for building has basically three points of interest in heading to the final destination of building freely:

  • Build Instructions
  • Modifications
  • Free Building

We suggest exploring each stop thoroughly before moving on in your building journey. The first stop on our itinerary is Build Instructions.

Build Instructions

To begin, it is suggested to navigate through the VEX GO Build Instructions found at builds.vex.com. Build Instructions are predetermined step-by-step instructions that walk a user through constructing a particular build. Some of the builds are construction only, meaning they are not powered at all, such as the Unpowered Super Car. Others are powered using motors and switches (forward, reverse, and off), such as the Spirograph. While others are powered and coded using a VEX GO Brain, such as the Code Base. These predetermined builds are used in a variety of VEX GO STEM Labs. These Labs offer teachers highly scaffolded activities to do with each build, giving them a starting point for how to use the builds and build instructions with students. By beginning with build instructions and STEM Lab activities, teachers can lay a foundation for students so they are prepared to tackle more complex challenges later on.

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Pictured here (in order left to right): Unpowered Super Car (construction only); Spirograph (powered); Code Base (powered and coded)

Build Instructions Support Students' Learning

Following a discrete set of build instructions to begin is an excellent way to not only get familiar with the Kit and the pieces contained in it, but also see examples of how certain pieces function and why they are used in certain builds. Following these introductory builds can lessen the cognitive load and allow you to go further on your building journey. Cognitive load theory attempts to explain how a student’s ability to process new information can be affected by the load of information that must be used to complete the task.1 For instance, during a problem solving process, like designing and building an object to complete a task, students need to have so many things readily available in their working memory from the goal, the plan, the constraints, to the actual process of being able to connect two pieces together. To help students manage a large task like this, breaking it down into smaller components helps make the load more manageable. Building from build instructions enables students to focus on just how the pieces connect together in order to create a larger object. The more students practice this, the actions involved in a building task do not require the same amount of thought; thus freeing up cognitive capacity for concepts like designing or iterating on a build.

There are also a lot of other skills that are utilized and developed when following discrete build instructions, such as spatial reasoning. Spatial skills are a foundational component of learning, and are an umbrella term for a number of cognitive processes that are used to notice and work with spatial information.2 How we make sense of objects and their properties and movement in space, the ability to create a mental model of an object or a problem, or to transform that object in our minds are all part of spatial reasoning. Thinking about what this looks like in practice, orienting your build or pieces in the same way it is shown in the Build Instructions can develop spatial reasoning, an important skill to have later on in more advanced building.

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This strategy for building can help students understand the many different types of connections as they build, and to see that all builds are just a special sequence of these connections. Over time they can develop an understanding that every piece going into a build should have a specific function, whether it be for shape, structure, motion, intelligence, or decoration!

Not only are these skills useful when building, but by building and strengthening these skills, students can support their mathematical thinking as well.3 Much of mathematical thinking draws on students’ ability to create a mental model of a problem. By practicing building, students not only flex their spatial reasoning muscles, but build their mental modeling abilities that can support later math learning.4 To learn more about using VEX GO to support mathematical thinking, see this article.

Modifications

Think of it this way; “Modifications” will be your bridge between structured building (using the Build Instructions) and free building. In structured building, you basically have all the answers to why am I building, how am I building, and what am I building. In free building, you have to find out all the answers for yourself. Modifications are a great way to ease into answering these questions without having to answer them all at once.

For example, in the Ramp Racers activity, the students will make slight modifications to the Inclined Plane build. This allows the students some choice in how they would like to edit the build, without the lack of structure that free building has. This allows students to focus on fewer variables to change at a time, until they learn more about the pieces in the GO Kit, how they function, as well as how to build certain mechanisms.

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Other examples utilizing this include the Super Car, Robot Arm, Code Base, and the modifications to the claw in Lab 2 of the adaptation claw STEM Lab.

Certain build series, like the Super Car (pictured below), offer another way to explore building with modifications. The build progresses as the need for the robot changes. Sequences of builds like the Super Car offer an opportunity to explore the connection between a modification and a need. Whether the ‘need’ is defined by a STEM Lab activity or the students themselves, being able to connect the changes in the build to the capabilities of the build is important.

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One strategy to help scaffold from modifications to free building is to think of modifications that you can make that would improve the current builds you have already finished. This is the next step towards free building, as it will engage you to think, plan, and create your revision to a build.

Free Building

Beginning

Building a design from scratch can at first seem overwhelming. However, drawing on building techniques like those introduced in the Intro to Building STEM Lab Unit and the Key Ideas for Building with VEX GO article can be applied to all types of building to make this task more manageable.

Think about it this way; there is almost an infinite combination of the parts and connection patterns provided in your VEX GO Kits. With that statement being true, mathematically, anything is possible. You just have to find that exact formula to answer all your problems. The question that arises with that is this, “Where do I start?”

Starting Line

This question is a hard one. When beginning to freely-build, it is definitely worth your while to state why and for what purpose you are freely-building. It is often helpful to document your thinking and design constraints before you begin to build.

  • You could make a chart with the goals you want your design to achieve.
    • Some examples of goals you may want to achieve include:
      • I want the design to go fast
      • I want the design to reach high
      • I want the design to weigh very little
      • I want the design to be very small
      • I want the design to drive and turn
      • I want the design to pick up and move objects
  • You could also make a chart with the constraints on your design. For instance, a GO Kit has a set number of pieces. You may have a design in mind, but do not have enough of a certain piece to build it. 
    • Some examples of constraints you may have to consider include:
      • Only can use GO parts
      • Only can use structural components (no motors or other electrical power)
      • Only can use less than 50 pieces
      • Only can use the four wheels that come in the Kit
      • Has to be built in a specific time frame

It is important to lay these questions out, not only for the sake of remembering them, but also to stay on track. With infinite combinations of connections, it can be hard to remember exactly why you started once you have started. Listing your goal and all the limiting factors can help to ensure you create what you originally wanted.

Design, Create, and Iterate

Knowing your goal and constraints sets the stage for designing your solution. Before building, it is important to have a plan. Build Instructions offer a very specific and detailed plan for a build. When free building, students’ plans can be looser, but should involve some kind of sketch of what it is that they are trying to build. This means they practice creating a mental model of their idea, transferring that to paper, then matching their drawing to actual pieces from the Kit.

Once you have laid out what you want to achieve with your build and the factors directly in between you and that goal, it is then a balancing act. You must find the perfect balance between your constraints and your goals to create what exactly you set out to achieve.

Do not be afraid to try new things! It is important as you experiment with these possible solutions and builds that you do not follow one specific path. With an almost infinite combination of parts in the Kit, there is definitely more than one approach to your problem! Test and iterate on your build to make sure it achieves your goal and still meets your constraints. The entire free building process is loads of fun as it places you in the driver’s seat!


1 Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educ Psychol Rev 31, 261–292 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09465-5

2 Cameron, Claire E. Interview by Jason McKenna. Interview with Claire Cameron Part 1: School Readiness, 2022, https://pd.vex.com/videos/interview-with-claire-cameron-pt-1-school-readiness.

3 Cameron, Claire E. Hands on, minds on: How executive function, motor, and spatial skills foster school readiness. Teachers College Press, 2018.

4 Ibid.

For more information, help, and tips, check out the many resources at VEX Professional Development Plus