Monday, October 24, 2016

And Another Year Begins!

The 2016-17 school year is off to a great start with our highest ever enrollment -- over 30 kids at Bath Middle School and 14 at Woolwich Central School. This year, robotics is being held for 90 minutes after school one day per week at each school. After some consideration, we realized that having a longer session just once a week had distinct advantages over two shorter (40 minute) sessions per week. There is a cumulative effect that takes place when one is designing and building creatively. It is literally painful for people to be forced to stop the creative process when they are "in the zone." We have already seen the benefits of the longer sessions play out.

We began the year talking about the different parts we use for building LEGO robots. We also delved into the functionality of the EV3 brick. A virtual scavenger hunt through the LEGO Mindstorms programming environment exposed everyone to the basics of the language.

Once each team built a simple robot with two independently driven tires, we tried our first simple program: move forward, in a straight line, for a set distance. There was an interesting array of solutions to this problem. Some teams measured the amount of time the motors turned, others measured the number of total degrees the motors turned, and most measured the number of rotations the motors turned.

It's very exciting to see all the enthusiasm for robotics this year! This week we are going to challenge kids with another program based on "dead-reckoning." In the near future we will introduce some sensors to take robots to the next level of autonomy!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Robotics Track Meet, Here We Come!

The robotics workshop has been a busy place this spring.  Student teams selected the events they wanted to compete in, and got to work.  They read the competition rules, some of which are quite specific and detailed, and followed the circular process of the engineering design model.

This process of continual improvement and innovation yielded some terrific contraptions. We will be entering two robots in the walking competition, a six legged and four legged model.  We will be entering a fantastic table clearing robot with mechanical arms that literally launch the cans off the table instead of just pushing them.  At least three speed robots will compete, each using specific gear ratios to obtain the perfect balance of torque and top speed. Two weight-pulling robots will compete, one of them using two full cans of soda as ballast.  A slope climbing robot has consistently climbed 60˚ without incident.  And two delivery robots will compete.

The delivery mission is probably the most difficult challenge at the Track Meet.  A robot has to navigate a course with walls and black and blue tape lines, either dropping its cargo on target #2 (longer, but easier), or launching it through target #1 (shorter, but more difficult).  Being successful at this challenge depends on both solid physical engineering and clever programming.

At school this morning, I shot video of a terrific delivery bot built and designed by a team of three 8th graders.  It uses a combination of input from light sensors and motor sensors to navigate the course and deliver the payload.

This team of kids worked tirelessly for months to build and program the robot.  It kept launching the payload just to the side of the target, and they couldn't figure out how to adjust it.  A 6th grader happened to see them practicing, and suggested they remount the throwing arm one inch to the side.  It worked!  I watched as the robot performed its task five times in a row with 100% accuracy.

I just love the perseverance and creativity that LEGO robotics brings out in kids.  Their dogged determination plus a tip from an underclassman paid off.

Later that day, I shot video of another delivery robot built and programmed by an 8th grader at Woolwich Central School.  She used a combination of reflective light sensing, distance sensing with the ultrasonic sensor, and motor sensing to record the number of rotations completed.  A different approach to solve the same problem.

Debugging this program was a bear.  The motor rotation sensor didn't seem to be working, and we couldn't figure out why.  Then it hit me.  We were asking the robot to stop after 8 rotations at the end of the program, but by they time it got to that part of the program, the motor had already turned tens of times.  We needed to insert a block to reset the motor rotations to zero before entering the last part of the program.  It worked!

Another 8th grade team from Woolwich designed this amazing four-legged walking robot.

 The Track Meet on Saturday is going to be a blast!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Big Kids, Little Kids, LEGOS and Science -- A Perfect Combination

On January 14th, all four classes of second graders from Dike Newell School stepped out of their yellow school buses and hustled into the cafeteria at Bath Middle School with excitement written all over their faces.  Inside, twenty middle school students were waiting for them in the cafeteria, standing behind six different tables covered with various robotic LEGO contraptions.

Second grade teacher Sue Michaud received a sizable grant for "beginner" LEGO robotics kits a couple of years ago, and she is well aware of the benefits of using them in the classroom.  Knowing that I run the LEGO Robotics program at the middle school level (with more advanced kits), she approached me with the idea of having middle school students teach second graders about simple machines using LEGOs.  It was a GREAT idea!

The second graders were engaged and captivated by the creations built by the middle school students.  As part of their visit, they had to fill in spaces on BINGO cards with examples of simple machines.  Instead of using chips or crossing out the boxes, the students drew pictures depicting the things they saw. 

I could not have been more proud of the middle school students.  They were patient, warm and kind to those little kids.  I could see a bit more softness than normal in the way they carried themselves as they interacted with the second graders.   Maybe they saw a little bit of themselves in the faces of the little ones.  The middle school years are a time of acute focus on oneself, so it's important for kids to be reminded that each one of us is part of a bigger picture. Even though kids may be in different schools and different developmental stages, they are all still KIDS who are curious, energetic, imaginative, creative and inquisitive.  

A big part of Expeditionary Learning at BMS  is giving students the opportunity to present their learning to authentic audiences.  This Simple Machines Exposition to second graders was a perfect example of this model.  We all agreed it was a great success and plan to continue the exposition annually!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Preparations for Simple Machines Expo

Since returning from break on Monday, the computer lab has been filled with focused middle schoolers, tinkering with tiny contraptions.  In just one week, they will be presenting their work to 63 2nd graders to demonstrate the mechanical advantages of simple machines.

It's serendipitous that this activity is happening at this point in the school year.  It briefly shifts the focus from writing computer code to design engineering, which will be crucial for the robots we build for the Robotics Track Meet, in May.  The Track Meet has events that require robots to have complex gearing systems, swinging levers, grasping claws, and projectile launchers.  LEGO Robotics is so cool because it draws on three distinct thought processes:

  • Creativity to imagine solutions to a problem
  • Design engineering, to make systems that are strong, efficient and redundant
  • Logic, to write clear computer code for robots to function as planned

Preparing for our Simple Machines Expo for the second graders will give the kids a crash course in design engineering.

It's great to see how excited these students are to share their work and higher level understanding with their younger schoolmates.  They are taking the task seriously, and are tailoring their seven minute scripts to make them accessible for the second graders.  They are all trying to remember what it was like to be a little kid!  

We are mostly using designs inspired by two excellent books by Yoshihito Isogawa.
He is an engineer, a professor of engineering,  and a LEGO expert with over forty years of experience building and designing models and robots.

Monday, January 4, 2016

All in the Family

An important aspect of any Expeditionary Learning School (like Bath Middle School) is using students' knowledge and understanding to make presentations to authentic audiences.  On Thursday, January 14th, the entire second grade from Dike Newell School (63 kids!) will be coming to BMS for a one hour exposition on simple machines.

Six tables will be set up for the second graders to cycle through.  At each table will be a team of three middle school students presenting examples of the uses of simple machines in LEGO creations.  We will have gears, levers, pulleys, screws and wedges.  The benefits of this expo go both ways -- for the second graders this will make their learning more exciting and contextual;  for the middle school students this exploration of design engineering will dovetail perfectly with preparations for the Robot Track Meet this spring.   

Check back here for photos of our workshop as we get ready for this exciting event.