Category Archives: robotics

Robots robots robots

There’s not much that can compare with the joy students get when they build and program a robot. I’m currently using 2 platforms — the Dash robot from Wonder Workshop, and NXT LEGO Mindstorms. I use the Dash in 5th grade, and the NXT in 7th grade.

What’s the attraction with robots? Well, they can move, make noises, and respond to their environment. What’s cooler than that? Not only that, but we can make them do what we want them to do, so they can become our own little minions!

The secret sauce of robotics is that we can actually watch the results of our code manifest right in front of us! We know right away if the code is right or wrong, so there’s immediate feedback. I always tell students that it’s not like other classes, where they take a quiz or test and have to wait for their teacher to grade them and get them back to you. You know right away! Not only that, but then you can modify your code and run it again. And you can do it as many times as you like in order to get it right. Yes, there’s frustration along the way when your robot doesn’t do what you want, but oh the joy when it does! Happy dance time!

Along the way, students learn something really important about robots — they’re kind of dumb. They can only do exactly what we tell them. They can’t figure out what we mean. We humans can “fill in the blanks” when others try to communicate something with us. We can infer meaning. Robots can’t, at least not yet! So that means we have to be super careful about all the instructions we give them. Welcome to computer science! As a side note, what a great training ground for middle schoolers who have organizational challenges and need to pay attention to detail! And I always tell them when they complain about how their robot is “dumb”, they’re only as smart as the instructions we give them! Ouch.

What about how many students per robot? I realize there is a range of opinion on this, and I get the importance of collaboration. However, I’m a big believer in each student having her own technology, if at all possible. There’s something to be gained from knowing that the success or failure of your robot rests entirely on you! But that may not be feasible in your situation. So work with whatever you have, but be sure that all members of the teams take ownership of the robot’s success and share the challenges as equally as possible.

So how to structure a robotics unit? My approach is to have the robots simulate a real-world series of tasks. In 5th grade, with the Dash robots, we are currently doing the “Robot Olympics”. Most of these challenges mirror Olympic events, but I’ve also taken the liberty to make up my own events. I made a 3X3 grid on the floor with duct tape or gaffer tape, which is where the events take place. Right now I’ve got Olympic tic-tac-toe, diagonal racing, curling (well, kind of), and whatever else inspires me. Teams compete and I keep a scoreboard on my whiteboard to let teams know how they’re doing. Because the Dash robots come pre-built, it’s really a matter of coding. Wonder Workshop provides 3 different platforms for coding Dash (and Dot, his less useful sidekick), and I use Blockly in 5th grade. It’s Scratch-like and fairly easy to do the dragging and dropping, making the coding the harder work. Students generally are fully engaged and love the competition. Since this is my first year of using Dash, I fully expect to build this out further. Wonder Workshop has all kinds of challenges on their site which I have yet to explore, so I anticipate continued success with this platform.

In 7th grade, I use the NXT LEGO Mindstorms platform. I realize that the EV3 has replaced the NXT, but I honestly have not seen enough compelling change in the new platform to convince me to do a wholesale switch. At some point it will happen, as the NXT bricks get harder and harder to find, but for now we’re good.

I have each student build the basic Tribot model, then add sensors as needed. I use the ultrasonic sensor first, then mix in challenges with the touch and light sensors. The sound sensor is less useful for my purposes, possibly because of the volume level of my classes (did I mention that it can get loud?). So I hardly ever use the sound sensor.

In my current iteration of challenges, I model them all after a real-life robot used in hospitals around the world called the TUG robot (built by Atheon). This robot can navigate through the hospital autonomously, avoiding obstacles and making deliveries. It can even call an elevator and choose which floor to exit at! My challenges model some of these functions. I chose the medical robot for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it’s involved in helping people in a real way.

Some students find the building of the robot challenging, though I give them official LEGO building instructions printed out in official LEGO language (all pictures). Some students have spent much of their childhood playing with LEGO’s and are already “master builders”. Some have never connected any LEGO’s at all. Again, attention to detail is paramount. I tell them to make sure they double and triple check each part of the build, hold their robot up to the paper and be sure everything is correct. Why? In robot building, attention to detail is crucial, and if you find on step 22 that something’s wrong, you’ll have to “unbuild” your robot back to the point where you made the mistake, even if that’s on step 5! Ouch. Hard fun again.

So what does this look like in class? To be honest, sometimes it looks like complete pandemonium. Learning is messy. In one corner of the room, there are students moving a trash can in front of their robot, simulating a moving obstacle in a hospital hallway and trying to get their robot around it. In another corner, one student is helping another rebuild their robot so it works(though they have to follow my rule: don’t touch the other person’s bot!). In another corner, students are getting a mini-lesson from me on how to navigate the software and download it to the robot. On the board, I have my Help List, which determines in what order I answer questions. When students have tested their robot and know they have it working right on a particular challenge, they put their names on the Help List and excitedly demonstrate their bot meeting the challenge (or not. Sometimes it still doesn’t work, and they are back to coding and running the robot again, with some modifications on either the code or the bot). At another workstation, one student is helping another student with the code (again, following Mr I’s rule — don’t touch their keyboard or mouse), pointing to the screen and showing where their mistake is. 2 people are going through the bins in one corner of the room to find that special LEGO piece they’re missing, holding it up against the printout to make sure that axle’s the right size…

You get the picture.

What am I doing all this time? Trying to keep one eye on the Help List on the board, letting kids know they’re next for my help, circulating through the room, fending off questioners who want to skip the HelpList, listening and watching for frustration (not always a bad thing!), nabbing the odd student who isn’t focusing and getting him refocused, checking the clock so I don’t forget to give the 5-minute warning (time to clean up! LEGO sweep at your feet! turn off your robot and put it in the closet! hang up your programming cable and restart your computer!)… every class is a trip.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hard-earned lessons on hard fun

So I just finished teaching my Introduction to Robotics (IROB) course at the CTY camp in Baltimore. The students were rising 7th graders. For the last day, I asked the 14 students to write some advice to future students of this class. As I expected, their responses were fabulous. Here are some excerpts:

“Don’t feel down when you fail. It’s normal, it takes hard work to succeed. You feel awesome when you succeed. You’ll want to quit, but don’t. It’s worth the work.”

“In IROB, the classes aren’t just fun, they are HARD fun. If you learn to enjoy the hard parts as well as the fun parts, you will LOVE IROB. Do not get upset when you fail, learn from it. If a light sensor isn’t working check and see it is plugged in. As Thomas Edison said, ‘I didn’t fail. I found 10,000 ways it didn’t work.’ Don’t give up and do your best.”

“One important thing to remember is that Simple is always better. Also remembering that if you add a lot of things your robot will be less stable. I do think that it is fun to learn some lessons the hard way because you remember the lessons better.”

“IROB is a great course. However, I need to tell you few things to make it even better. First, learn the phrase ‘hard fun.’ You also need to learn to not get frustrated easily. If you are a type of person that gets frustrated easily, you may have a tough time.”

“If you like building with legos and Scratch without instructions, this will be twice the fun. For sumobots keep the center of gravity in the middle and low. For everything but dragbot and the mountain climber use at least 2 motors. Gear ratio is very important sometimes.”

“You have made a good decision to take IROB. The first few days are easy, but the rest is not difficult but frustrating. You will fail a lot, because getting a piece or program just so is extremely annoying. That makes getting it right all the more rewarding. Good luck, and build on.”

“During the course, it’s not completely difficult, but it’s not easy. Hard fun, one of Mr. Bob’s favorite terms, is true. But even if you find 10,000 ways that don’t work, not getting frustrated easily will help. Think of NAO, Stanley, Atlas, and Asimo. I guarantee the 1st versions all failed. As long as you don’t give up, the result is completely worth it.”

“In this course of IROB, you should take these next few statements very seriously. You must always make your robot stable, so it doesn’t fall over. You must program your robot exactly what you wanted it to do, step by step, because robots aren’t very bright. Finally, don’t get frustrated in this course if your robot doesn’t do what you want it to do right away. We have a saying in IROB: fail early and fail often.”

waving-robot-22623701“Always continue to improve your robot, but remember that simpler is always better. When designing your first robot, if it doesn’t work, keep trying before you come up with new ideas. Fix every problem one step at a time, so you can learn the causes of the problems and how to prevent them in the future. Most importantly, robotics is a perfect example of hard fun.”

“Within this course, building your own robots may be difficult, if not very difficult. Always make sure to never give up, as the solution to your problem may follow. Also, if you don’t contribute enough work and effort, a mediocre robot will inevitably follow. Also make sure to have hard fun, because it’s only three weeks. Make the best out of it!”

“IROB is a very fun class where you learn a lot about robots. You do a bunch of fun activities like sumobots and dragbots. In the last week you get to build a robot that does whatever you want, but remember to keep it as simple as possible.”

“I know sometimes, you feel like you want to rip your bot apart, LIMB from LIMB, but it’s okay. Things will get better, just because you failed doesn’t mean you can give up. Just keep swimmin’. Remember, it’s fun, but hard fun.”

“In IROB, you will encounter a lot of strenuous testing and failures. You will come close to fainting from exhaustion by thinking about how to fix or improve your bot. But there is so much fun also: the feeling of having accomplished something, the excitement of participating in competitions, the relaxation of watching a robot YouTube video for a break. But with persistence and hard work, you will enjoy IROB like no other class you’ve ever taken before. Just make sure you follow the rules.”

Robots robots robots

20140708_081720If you were a 12 year old with a techie bent, and someone offered you the chance to spend 3 weeks of the summer at a camp where you got to build and program robots pretty much all day, what would you say?

If you’re like the 14 students I have at just such a camp, you’d probably say, “Well, all right!” We are now in week two of Introduction to Robotics at a camp run by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (known colloquially as just CTY). This is my 8th rodeo, and I can tell you from the instructor’s perspective, it’s intense and intensive. We move fast.

I have three of my mantras on the board. The first two are standard. “Hard fun” is my mantra from my hero Seymour Papert, and I guarantee every student will have some of this. I don’t know where the second one came from (“Fail early, fail often”), but it’s a good way to set expectations. Students at this camp are bright (that’s where the “talented” comes in), and are often the top students in their respective classes. They are used to achieving academic success as defined by most schools. They are not used to failing: having their robots fall apart, not do what they wanted them to do, lose a race, or get pushed out of the sumobot ring. But that failure is an important part of the course, and life itself, of course. As Thomas Edison said “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways it wouldn’t work.”

The third is an acronym. HOLEF stands for “Hands Off Legos, Eyes Front”. It’s my magical word for focusing attention on something everyone needs to hear or see.

Twitter as a neurological extension of my brain

world_connectionsI was going to title this “Why Twitter is awesome” and then thought that sounded cheesy. Then I thought about what I love about Twitter and came up with the above title, which is the opposite of cheesy. Probably pretentious.

But there’s something about that scrolling feed of ideas, thoughts, lesson plans, jokes, pictures, movies, and questions that directly feeds into my own thought processes. Part of it is due to the people I follow. I try to surround myself with people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in: learning, making, coding, and thinking about the intersection of learning and technology. Then I curate my Scoop on Learning on the Digital Frontier and post those as Twitter feeds. People who think those are interesting retweet or follow. And I meet more interesting people. And I learn more.

It seems to fit my thirst for learning, my hyper-focused mind, my always-on curiosity. Now I can’t imagine life without it.

At the Faire

bots@lvI went to the Lehigh Valley Mini-Makers’ Faire yesterday, helping out Don Dagen do some robotics, Arduino, and Makey Makey demos. Don is a mechanical engineer with a passion for teaching kids. (If you’re a school looking to get this started on the primary level, you should hire him, btw)

It was held in the former Bethlehem Steel works, a cool repurposing of industrial space, called SteelStacks. I mainly held down the robot table, where we had a drawing bot, made from Knex pieces, an Arduino, a wireless shield, and 3 servo motors. We used S4A (Scratch for Arduino) to program it. Don also brought a Sparkiduino, a cool little self-contained Arduino robot. We basically had a steady stream of people all day who wanted to play with the bots, as well as play the Makey Makey pong game that Don had set up with a nerf sword, a giant fly swatter, a carrot, and an Angry Birds hat!

I didn’t have much time to see all the rest of the amazing stuff, though there was a laser harp near us, which is my own dream project. Long day, but fun!

Escaping the Echo Chamber…chamber….chamber…

It just feels like it’s time. I’ve been in edtech for over 15 years now. I applaud the efforts of those who are trying to reform the educational system and make it reflect the modern world. But truthfully, I yearn to do something more than retweet what others are saying. And a lot of what goes around is simply that. I hear very few contrarian voices (maybe Gary Stager is the most prominent exception). There’s an awful lot of preaching to the choir.

So I’m pruning my Twitter feeds,  my RSS feeds, my Zite reading, and concentrating on actual learning projects that are  jazzing me. At this point, I’m looking at the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, webmaking, and robotics. The common thread is that all of these are about doing something. I’d rather move into Mad Scientist Mode and see what students are coming along for the ride. My experience has been that nothing gains student involvement like passion, and they can inherit some of that passion from other passionate people, like their teachers.

Who’s with me?
echo chamber 7

Introducing the next generation Mindstorms: EV3

Whoa, am I out of touch. I didn’t even know this was coming out this soon.

The EV3 looks awfully awesome: content curation, compatibility with iPads and iPhones, expandable memory, gyro sensor… but wait, there’s more. Some of the little touches I have seen, like nicer wheels and an improved display screen, all say to me that LEGO has definitely been listening to its users. Kit will be around $350, but definitely worth it.




Robots etc.

I’m currently the coach of our First Lego League robotics team, the Cougarbots. Yesterday was the culmination of months if preparation, as we had our annual qualifying tournament. I’ll spare you the suspense– we didn’t qualify to go on. However, as I always tell my team, it’s about the journey and not the destination.

So what are my takeaways?FirstLegoLeagueLogo

  • Kids can always do more than we think they can
  • It’s so exciting to see the personal growth in those “intangibles”: leadership, responsibility, teamwork, creativity, problem solving.
  • It’s also exciting, of course, to see growth in the “tangibles”: engineering, programming, research, technology.
  • Robotics is, in my experience, the #1 gateway to advancing skills in STEM. It’s project or problem-based learning at its absolute finest.
  • I would love to expand not only our middle school program, but somehow make it available to our upper schoolers who are so inclined.

I was also very touched by my conversations with parents of my students, who expressed profound gratitude for the opportunities this afforded their children, and a willingness to help make our robotics program be everything it could and should be.

I don’t know what the future holds for robotics at my school, but I feel much more excited about the possibilities today than I did a week ago. Go Cougarbots!