Tag: robotics

Introduction to Robotics, Semester 2 Plans

Our first middle school robotics courses got rolling back in August. It has been a learning experience, but it has mostly been very positive. The curriculum from Carnegie Mellon University via  Robomatter has been very successful. Teachers have sorted out management of robots, charging, etc. Assessment was a concern at first, as our district requires a minimum number of daily and major grades. Those concerns have been addressed by having students complete the curriculum lessons/quizzes, complete frequent reflection tasks in engineering journals, and assessment of completed projects. As for students , they have struggled nicely at times, but for the most part have fought through glitches and design errors to create a variety of successful robots.

A surprise was sprung upon us when we learned that students who are currently enrolled in the course will be allowed to take it for another semester. While this is exciting, it is a challenge, because we don’t have a year’s worth of curriculum materials. So we are having to do a little scrambling. What we are planning to do is to make the class more of a project based, independent learning course for the students who took it in the first semester. I am working to prepare a list of resources and project prompts, with students also having the flexibility to design their own projects. Embedded below is the working document, which will see lots of updates in the coming weeks. Feel free to borrow, and any suggestions are very welcome. I anticipate projects will last anywhere from a couple of days to a month or more, depending upon complexity.

Imagine: Seguin ISD Technology and Innovation Celebration 2015

Imagine: SISD Technology & Innovation Celebration by randyrodgers on GoAnimate

Growing Genius

I had the great pleasure of working at and attending the 2015 TCEA convention last week in Austin. The week was something of a blur, but it was and always has been such a re-charger for me. The professional conversations, in particular, always leave me flush with new ideas and possibilities.

A wonderful highlight was the closing speaker for the week, Arizona educator Fredi Lajvardi. Fredi and his students are the subject of a movie, Spare Parts, and a documentary, Underwater Dreams. The films both tell the story of a group of students that in 2004 approached Fredi about starting a robotics team. The team goes on to shockingly knock off college teams in national robotics competitions, including powerhouse MIT. The best part of the story is that these students are not the types of kids most people would look at as technological and engineering wonderkids. Students at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, where Fredi teaches, are predominantly poor, hispanic, and often cannot speak fluent English. Many are the children of undocumented immigrants. Fredi’s talk was raw and authentic. He passionately described the challenges his kids and team faced and proudly shared their moments of triumph. He was especially proud of the incredible list of achievements his former students had compiled and the legacies they were creating.

UNDERWATER DREAMS – Trailer – 2-2014 from 50EGGS on Vimeo.

Fredi hit on so many critical points, and his students’ experiences spoke volumes about what we do and do not do in our schools. A few of the points that stuck out most vividly to me are:

1. Students drive. The original idea for the robotics team came not from administrative mandates or Fredi himself, but from students. The results were levels of engagement and dedication rarely seen in classrooms.

2. Failure is a step. Students encountered many, many struggles and failures, such as a leaking robot on competition day. They rallied around these problems, though, and turned them into productive failures through re-design, creativity, and innovative solutions (such as using a tampon’s absorbent materials to solve the problem of the leak).

3. Aim higher. Fredi stated that his team decided to compete against college teams, because they wanted to learn from the best. This is an example of setting genuinely high expectations in a powerful and meaningful context, and it motivated students to achieve. Simply tossing around terms like “higher standards”, “rigor”, etc. can and will NEVER accomplish this drive to succeed.

4. Thinking beats memorizing. Fredi stated, “Focus should be on process, not content. Google has all the content we need.” Memorizing facts is great for standardized tests, but thinking is great for real life tests. We continue to languish under a system that is a relic from the 19th century, when it was dictated that memorizing certain facts in 5 core areas made a person successful. Clearly we still aren’t thinking, or we would have seen the folly of this decades ago. As Roger Schank writes in Teaching Minds, “Memorization has nothing to do with learning, unless you want to become a singer.”

The most beautiful thing about hearing stories like that of Fredi and his students is how vividly they illustrate just what our kids can do when the opportunity is presented to them. When they can be in control of real, exciting, challenging learning experiences, barriers like poverty, language, ethnicity, family situations, etc. can be smashed as students rocket skyward. This is a useful reminder of what needs to drive me daily.

One last point. I noticed that Fredi never once mentioned his students’ test scores. Instead, he talked about his former kids’ engineering degrees, non-profit foundations, startup companies, and new families. He talked like a proud dad or friend. While it is practically impossible to precisely quantify the effects of the robotics program and Fredi on these student outcomes, it is reasonable to assume that the impact was far more significant than even the best test prep program has ever achieved. If we must have standards (The talking heads all say we do.), isn’t this the type of standard we should be judged by–the legacy and life-impact our classes have on our students?

10 Robot Challenges

The following are suggested activities for robotics programs. They range from the fairly simple to surprisingly complex. I like these because they all can be related to some type of real-world problem situation where robots might be employed as a solution. For example, the dark navigation problem: robots might be used to navigate dark, inhospitable environments where sensors beyond visual must be relied upon. I think most of them will be great opportunities for students to “fail forward”, too, as they progress through designs and programs to solve each problem.

  1. Create a robotic trash compactor.

  2. Double the speed of the robot over a given distance.

  3. Use the robot to clean solid or liquid spills.

  4. Navigate through an obstacle course in the dark.

  5. Climb inclines that are as near to vertical as possible.

  6. Create a robot that can jump.

  7. Navigate a maze using sensors, not simply programming the path.

  8. Teach a robot to play a musical instrument.

  9. Teach the robot to construct the tallest stack of blocks.

  10. Start/stop a video camera upon a sound or other trigger.

I am always on the lookout for more activities of this nature, so please don’t hold back–share yours in the comments.

Summer Tech Camp Report and Reflections

photo10

Creating video game controllers using MakeyMakey.

Last week wrapped up 3 weeks of summer technology camps. These are the first for our district, and summer tech camps are something I’ve wanted to do for years. We offered students who are entering 2nd through 8th grades the choice between 2 robotics-focused camps or a week focusing on programming and innovation. Each week of camp ran from Monday through Thursday from 8:00 a.m. until noon. Camps were offered free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. Approximately 80 students attended. Each camp had 3-5 adult counselors and 1-4 high school student CITs (<–callback for anyone who is a fellow Meatballs fan).

Campers build their first robot.

Campers build their first robot.

For the first attempt, each camp went off as smoothly as I could have hoped, primarily due to my phenomenal camp staff. Students were eager and engaged, and discipline issues were few and far between (Amazing how engagement solves so many of those issues, isn’t it?). Each day started with a quick debrief, then counselors either gave a mini-lesson or simply helped facilitate as students got to work. Robotics camp students initially completed a task involving creating a zip line with Legos. They next built their first, basic Mindstorms NXT robots. By the 2nd day, students were using their robots to complete tasks such as navigating a predetermined path on a Twister game mat. Local firefighters specializing in hazardous substance removal visited students to discuss how robots might be used to assist in their work, setting the stage for campers’ final project. Campers created and programmed robots to navigate a mock city (created by our CITs) and carry out specific tasks, such as obtaining simulated radiation measurements or moving hazardous cargo to a safe area.

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SISD Robotics Camp

The final week of camp focused on programming, digital media, and inventing using MakeyMakey and a variety of household items. Students started this week by creating digital movies based upon the book Zoom by Istvan Banyai. They next created short stop motion videos using a free software tool called JellyCam, which I highly recommend. Next, campers explored MakeyMakey and invented their own video game controllers by pairing the devices with a variety of items, from limes and bananas to wires and nails to Play-Do. Finally, students learned the basics of Scratch and created their own video games. An example game by one of our campers is seen below.

I wanted to share a few lessons and observations from this experience, in hopes that they might be beneficial to others planning similar events in the future. I’ve also included a few student and parent comments shared in camp evaluations. I’ve attached both the student survey and parent survey we used.

  • Plan far enough in advance to ensure a smooth, simple registration process. We faced time constraints that made this process very cumbersome. Next year, we’ll be using some form of online registration to streamline things. I’m really intrigued by the Active Networks Camp Manager, which is feature-rich and FREE for organizations whose camps are free.

    photo7

    Campers created robots to complete challenges, such as detecting/removing hazardous cargo.

  • There should be a balance between structured activity and creative, explorative play. As an example, I thought that the initial robotics activities were great, but I was never satisfied with the hazardous waste project. I think I’d make that much more open-ended in the future. As one camper stated, “Make challenges more broad, less specific tasks–more thinking.
  • photo3I’m not sure about the age appropriateness of robotics activities for the youngest attendees. I felt as if many of the tasks eluded some of them, and we ended up separating older/younger campers and assigning slightly different tasks. However, one older camper requested that they “be a little more interactive with the younger kids,” and a younger camper asserted, “Little kids can do what the big kids are doing.” Even so, I’m leaning toward creating a very different, separate robotics experience for kids in 1st through 3rd grades next year.
  • I would really like to involve community members as volunteer camp counselors next year, particularly if they have relevant experience with technology (but not excluding those who do not).
  • We needed to create separate Scratch accounts for each student. My thinking was to use a single, camp login, which would put every project conveniently on the same page. Unfortunately, this resulted in chaos due to campers being constantly, unexpectedly logged off. Lesson learned.
  • Efforts should be made to contact families and remind them of camps when registration occurred weeks prior. The further from the registration date a camp was, the lower the percentage of attendance.

Parent comments:

  • “He was challenged and learned more about what computers can do.”
  • “He learned how to make anything control a computer and he’s happy with learning some programming.”
  • “I have been wanting to get my son started on tech knowledge, but I didn’t know where to start. This is a good launching point.”
  • “…make it a full week or 2 weeks at least”
  • “My child came home every day very excited about what she learned daily at camp. It’s great to hear that this camp sparked such an interest with her. Thanks!”

Overall, I was very pleased, and the many requests from parents for another opportunity next summer were very gratifying, as were the requests to incorporate more, similar experiences into the curriculum. Ultimately, I think this gave our students some valuable experiences, and we’ll hopefully see the fruits of the seeds we planted down the line.

ISTE13: Fostering Creativity and Innovation Through Technology

The Prezi and links below are from my presentation at the 2013 ISTE conference in San Antonio on June 26th.

 

Links/resources:

Scratch

Tynker

Makey Makey

LittleBits

Picoboard

Lego Robotics for Education

Sylvia’s Super Awesome Mini Maker Show

Wikiseat

Squishy Circuits

DIY

Hopscotch App

 

 

 

 

Matador Innovators Team

MIT

Put 17 or 18 very bright, energetic, and creative students into a room with a variety of technology tools, give them some real-world (or out-of-the world) challenges, and watch their minds get to working. That is the basic idea behind a group I’ve started in our district, the Matador Innovators Team, or MIT. And, yes, the acronym was intentional. Could there be a better school for our students to want to emulate when it comes to technology and innovation? Also, there is zero reason why students from Seguin, Texas can’t or shouldn’t put prestigious schools like MIT on their radars for the future. Sometimes, a little subliminal messaging is a good thing.

Goals

My goals in starting this club are:

  • to provide students with opportunities to have hands-on experiences with technologies that go beyond the computer lab station.
  • to develop students’ collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and innovation skills.
  • to foster interest in STEM activities and, possibly, careers.

Participants

The team consists primarily of 6th grade students, with one 3rd and one 4th grade student participating. 6th grade was selected as the focus age group because students are old enough to be able to take on some more advanced technology tasks, but too young to typically have such tech available as a part of the regular or elective curricula. One thing that was very surprising was that we only had a single girl applicant for this first season. Without any actual research, it can’t be definitively said what the reason for this is, but it is clear that I’ve got some work to do selling the program to our girls. Students had to pay a $20 fee to participate, which will be used to purchase team t-shirts, snacks, and consumables. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have several teachers and technology staff members volunteer their time to act as group mentors.

Timeline

MIT has been in the planning stages since last fall. A grant from Allstate was secured to help with the initial purchase of materials. Information about the program was disseminated through the local paper in January, and applications made available at k-6 campuses. Applications were due the first week of February, and invitations sent the following week. We had our first workshop this Monday, February 25th. Workshops will take place after school each Monday through the remainder of the school year, and are 2 hours each.

Resources

MIT technology resourcesI’ve assembled what I hope will be a good variety of technology resources for allowing students to take some inventive, creative routes to problem solving. Here is a list of the primary resources:

  • Scratch
  • Makey Makey
  • PicoBoard
  • Raspberry Pi
  • Lego Mindstorms
  • Little Things
  • Computer components

As I learned from the very first workshop, it doesn’t appear as if the traditional teacher role will be the main task for me or my other mentors, either. It became very evident as we started working with Scratch, a brief introduction was followed rapidly by students taking the software in a myriad of directions, as they explored its capabilities. Our primary responsibility then becomes providing the questions and problems to focus all of that eager energy.

The Plan

For the rest of the semester, workshop time will focus on learning the basics of the new technologies, such as how a Picoboard can be used with Scratch, practicing, inventing, and solving problems. An example project might be to create a new version of an existing title, such as Space Invaders or PacMan or creating a device that alerts when a lightbulb is left on. Much of the planning for projects will take place as we proceed, in part because the open-ended nature I’m hoping we’ll achieve makes flexibility important.

I do plan on providing updates later in the semester, including sharing student projects. Even in the first meeting, I was honestly very stunned at the complexity of some of the students’ first attempts at Scratch, so I feel as if we’re off to a great start. To get some discussion going…

  • If you had (or do have) a similar program starting (participants, technologies), what kinds of questions would you ask? What kinds of problems would your students tackle? 
  • What technologies am I neglecting to include?
  • What are you already doing to give kids similar experiences?
  • How can we do it better?

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