Robosail: Connecting Sailing and Science

Robosail is a one-of-a-kind robotics for sailors class taught at Community Boating. It combines programmable Arduino controllers with remote controlled model sailboats to teach students how to program the boat to sail itself. The class covers several topics including computer programming, algorithm design, and electrical engineering. For several years, the class was only offered to kids, but in 2017 I adapted the class for a group of adults. This adaptation required a new application of modern adult learning theory, and a thorough gap analysis to serve learners with different levels of robotics experience.

Students set their boats to autonomous mode to test out the code they've written


Adapting this class presented two major challenges: aligning it to use the best principles of adult learning, and adding in enrichment and intervention opportunities for a wide range of students, some of whom were new to computer programming, and some who were professional electrical engineers. The first challenge I addressed by selecting two highly effective strategies for this type of learning: difficulty regulation and learner-directed pretraining. The second challenge of varying robotics experience required a gap analysis of where my students were and where I wanted them to be in order to be prepared for the class. The analysis told me how much additional support material some students would need, which took the form of an online prep module given prior to class.


Applying Current Learning Theory - The changes I made for the adult learner's version of Robosail were informed by both classic and modern learning theory, including Lev Vygtosky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Mayer’s pretraining principle, and several evidence-based practices recommended by Michelle Miller's Minds Online. In order to keep the difficulty curve shallow for learners, I added a pre-class online prep module to pretrain students in the basics of Arduino programming, so that by the time they arrived in class, the content would be within their ZPD. Both the in-person and online lessons used difficulty regulation strategies such as segmenting the lesson into asynchronous student-controlled sections, and providing extra lesson material based on the student's performance.

Analyzing and Addressing Gaps - One of the strongest tools for difficulty regulation in this case was the online prep module, which was born out of a gap analysis I conducted by surveying students enrolled in the Robosail class. The surveys identified a wide disparity in computer programming skills, which would need to be addressed before they could engage with the rest of the lessons. Without spending the time to perform this analysis, some learners would have been left behind, and perhaps would become discouraged enough to quit the class. This could mean that the class would need to be rebuilt or even cancelled, but by using technology combined with learning theory, the prep module could be created as a minimally disruptive, low cost way to address the gap.


The long-term impact of this project means that Community Boating now has a readily deployable version of Robosail available to adult learners. Beyond that, the project has informed my approach to learning design, emphasizing that by investing in a learner analysis early, and keeping abreast of research on adult learning, a designer can streamline the selection of teaching strategies to make a quick and effective lesson.

Students ponder their code before setting sail.

Work Samples

A lecture section introducing the programming environment:

An example of the adaptive feedback built into the mini-quizzes which engage the learners every few minutes:


ADDIE at work at America's largest Sailing School