Monday, December 13, 2010

Pong 3.5D and CraftBots

Pong 3.5D (ME-84: Take home midterm)
As a take home midterm in ME-84, we were challenged to make use of everything we had learned so far, along with a new set of 3D rendering tools in LabView, to create an avatar that could walk around a 3D world. The task was broken down into separate sections so that we could demonstrate what we'd learned about user interface, image processing, NXT input, and haptics.

Because I'm not actually taking the class for credit, I didn't worry too much about jumping through all the assessment hoops, and instead concentrated on making a game that I thought was pretty cool *and* covered all the important elements of the task in one program.

The game I ended up with was Pong in 2.5 Dimensions. This was intended to be Pong 3D, but it was pointed out to me that although the playing field is *rendered* in 3D, the movements of ball and paddles are limited to 2D, so it only counts for about 2.5D!

Here's how the game works...
- requires an NXT with motors attached to Ports A & B (and the NXT volume turned on!).
- it's a game for two players, Player 1 (red) and Player 2 (blue).
- each player's avatar (paddle) moves in a direction corresponding to where the webcam sees most of their colour (i.e. hold a red object to the left, and their paddle moves left).
- each player score a point when their opponent misses the ball
- first to five wins
- the angle of each players' view window can be adjusted by the corresponding motor.

The playing field is rendered in 3D, and the paddles are controlled by the position of red and blue balls in front of a web-cam. I programmed this as an assignment for ME-84, using LabView Education Edition. Thanks as always to Christoffer and Alex for demonstrating the game, and big thanks to Christoffer for producing the awesome video...

CraftBots (ME-84: Final project)
All good things and all that...

After a very stressful week of playing with breadboards, multimeters, wire strippers, drills, saws, and far too much solder for my liking... I was ready to present my craft-based robotics system to a group of first graders. The challenge, that we've been working on over the past two months, was to create a cheap educational robot. I came up with an idea that I called "CraftBots", where students would be able to make robots out of craft materials and then automate them in some way by incorporating electronic components (sensors, and actuators) that I provided.

The concept was that instead of having the students program using a computer, I would remove the computer entirely, and replace it with physical blocks that represent each programming action. Originally I had in mind a suite of blocks to represent AND, OR, and NOT. Sensors would plug into these blocks as inputs, and actuators as the outputs. The blocks could be combined in different ways to produce a wide range of logic-based behaviours. I quickly realised that this was going to be far more complex than necessary for a demonstration of the basic concept, so instead I settled on the production of blocks that would come in two "flavours".

Both types of blocks contain two AA batteries and some simple circuitry. They have one input, one output, an on/off switch, and a potentiometer to set the threshold of the input. In both blocks the output is either on or off depending on the value of the input. For one of the blocks, the output is on by default, in the other, the output is off by default.

The original prototype was made out of Lego and programmed on the NXT...

From ME-84: Introduction to Robotics

In both the Lego-based prototype and the final version, I demonstrated a few different examples of the sorts of things that were possible. For example, a bed that shakes when the sun comes up, and a cake with candles (lights) that go out when you press a button, and a robot chicken with eyes that glow when it's patted or when it gets dark.

From ME-84: Introduction to Robotics

For some photos of the other students' final projects as well as more photos of my CraftBots and even a brief video see ME-84: Introduction to Robotics.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Underwater puppetry and the skill tester

Underwater puppetry (EN-10: Assignment 6)
The challenge for this assignment was something that I've been wanting to play with for ages - create a puppet using robotics. My original ideas were to make a marionette or possibly some kind of shadow puppet, but I was also very keen to avoid doing a style of puppetry that other students were going to attempt. In the end I opted for an untapped source of puppet potential... underwater puppetry! All I needed was access to a fish tank (thanks Kristen!), some tips about how to do underwater robots (thanks Stevens Institute of Technology), and some local know-how and materials (thanks Morgan and the Anderson building attic!).

I used RCX motors because they are easier to waterproof than NXT motors (it helps that they are smaller too). I plugged any holes on the motors with a hot glue gun and used petroleum jelly and small polypropylene washers to help seal the axle shaft. It took a morning to build the first version of the robot and I couldn't believe the result. It worked incredibly well, first time. The fish tank was a great size for testing the initial build but a bit small for tasting the robot's movement. The haptics that I decided to use in the remote control were a bit stubborn, but the robot was very maneuverable and generally pretty stable. It was much easier than I was expecting, and I'm now very tempted to stick an NXT in there as well... but not for this particular challenge.

From EN-10: Simple Robotics

I spent another morning building a treasure chest for the underwater puppet play... this is a puppet after all! I wanted the treasure chest to hold skeletons and gold that would be visible when the chest is opened, as a finale. I spent ages working on a mechanism that would push the skeletons out of the chest. I was a bit worried that the skeletons wouldn’t look obvious, so I mainly just filled the chest with skulls (rather than entire skeletons) and gold pieces. That made the chest easier to open, but then I put it in the tank and discovered that both the skulls and the gold pieces float!! In the end I had to put a sinker inside the lid of the chest just to keep it closed! And worse, navigating the craft in the small fish tank was so fiddly, that it was nearly impossible to get it into the right position to open the chest. The lever I’d created to open the chest was far from the best solution, but I was out of time. I had half an hour left to write a script - full of bad Dad jokes ("What's that shivering at the bottom of the ocean? A nervous wreck!"). Rather than inflict my bad jokes on anyone else, here's a short video of my underwater robot in action...

The other puppet performances were lots of fun to watch. They included a smart-talking sock puppets, ventriloquist's dummies, a marionette, and an ambitious automated shadow puppet retelling of The Lion King.

Skill Tester (EN-10: Assignment 7)
The final project for EN-10 was to make "your favourite childhood game" using robotics in some way. I'm not quite sure where the idea came from, but I immediately thought of doing a "skill tester". The idea is that you have to move a "wand" from left to right without touching the central wire. There are touch sensors embedded in the sides of the frame and your score increases each time time you reach them. The central wire and the "wand" are connected, via a couple of alligator clips and a custom cable, to one of the inputs on the NXT (from the NXT's point of view, they function as a touch sensor). Each time you touch the central wire, your number of lives decreases by one. Here's the "twist"... a motor turns the central wire, at a speed proportional to your score. The longer you play, the faster the central wire turns, and the harder the challenge becomes... (-:

I spent about a week, on and off, thinking about how I'd do it, and writing a few notes to myself. By the time it came to building, I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted. From there it took about three hours to build and program the first version.

From EN-10: Simple Robotics

That was all pretty easy, so for an extra challenge, I decided to make a 2-player version. I built a second skill tester, and hooked it up with the first by bluetooth. The idea in the 2-player version is that your score determines the speed of your opponent's central wire. The higher your score, the harder it is for your opponent. This makes the program a bit trickier, and I still haven't ironed out all the bugs, but it worked well enough for presentation in class. I was asked to keep it all intact for an open house at the CEEO in a few weeks, so that will give me a chance to improve the setup.

At the risk of starting an international incident, here's a demo of the 2-player version. Thanks to Christoffer and Alex for helping with this demonstration!

Photos from both of these projects, as well as a bunch more from EN-10, are here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Morse code and the great candy grab

Morse Code (ME-84: Assignment 5)
The task: Use the NXT to send and receive Morse code messages via an LED and a home-made light sensor. I found this much, much trickier than I expected. We were meant to present our projects on a Tuesday. The instructor, Chris Rogers, had boldly claimed that if we could fake it (and get away with it!), then we could get full marks. I did this (much, much more easily than I expected!), and then spent the next three days trying to get it working for real. Along the way I learned lots of new tricks in LabView, including how to use flags and timers to syncronise concurrent tasks, how to use the same subVI in multiple instances/clones (not knowing about this gave me some very weird behaviours), charts (I still don't really get how to work with these though).

In the end though, it finally came together Friday afternoon. In the end I could send and receive arbitrary messages at a rate of just under 10 seconds per character. For example, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” takes about 7 minutes. Not going to break any records, but at least I finally got it working, and can move on to a fresh challenge next week.

Candy Grab (EN-10: Assignment 5)
By a very convenient coincidence, my boys, Mitch and Rohan, had a day off school on the same day that we were doing the Candy Grab challenge in EN-10, the freshman intro to robotics course that I've been sitting in on. The challenge was to create a robot that can push candy out of the circle, without actually leaving the circle. My boys were a bit lucky in how the competition played out, as you can see here...

Preparing for the challenge was very hectic, but a lot of fun, and obviously my boys came away from the day with a very positive memory! It was like stealing candy from a freshman!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

NXT Scope and Soccer Dribbler

NXT Scope (ME-84: Assignment 4)
The task for the fourth challenge in ME-84 was to use a pre-release version of HiTechnic's new prototyping board to create an NXT based Scope. The Scope was to include a signal generator, an oscilloscope, and a multimeter. I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a nice, reusable menu system and even more time working out how to generate signals. In the end, I was able to display either a sine wave or a square wav (both with adjustable frequency and amplitude), and I also had a functioning volt meter. *Then* I realised that there was a programming block that we had ben meant to use to take care of the signal generation for us!!! It would've save me a lot of time, but I'm sure I learnt more doing it the hard way. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to complete the oscilloscope. I was hoping to get back to it afterwards, but other projects have taken over since then. I guess that will be another project to come back to when I can.

Soccer Dribbler (EN-10: Assignment 4)
In En-10, we were given a challenge to create a line-following robot that could dribble one of the LEGO balls included in the Education kit to 3' from a goal, and then shoot a goal! I thought this would be a good opportunity to build a soccer "dribbler". A dribbler is a mechanism for applying reverse spin to a ball so that the ball tends to "stick" to the robot. I've had some experience with these in the context of RoboCup Junior Australia (RCJA) where this is a very common technique. I was, however, unsure whether it was possible to dribble the LEGO ball, given that it is significantly lighter than the RCJ soccer ball. Here's what I made...


Friday, October 8, 2010

Haptic Pong and more Sumo

Haptic Pong (ME-84: Assignment 3)
Our third assignment in ME-84 followed on from a series of tasks in-class involving haptics. Specifically, we'd been making use of the motor as a way of providing feedback to the user, as well as it being an input device. The assignment was to create a video game that involved haptics.

I decided to create an NXT version of Pong, where the paddles would automatically bring themselves back to their starting position. My first version was a little boring, so I rewrote it so that the ball would increase in speed during the game (up to some limit). Here's a game nearing its conclusion...

SumoBots (EN-10: Assignment 3)
This challenge in EN-10 provided an opportunity for me to rebuild the sumo robot I'd previously made for ME-84. This time, however, the idea was for the robot to be fully autonomous. That was okay by me, as we had already created a program for our "remote controlled" sumo robot that would enable to operate autonomously. The other difference this time was that teams were limited to a single kit (plus an optional extra light sensor). Also fine by me, as the first time around I'd given myself that very constraint. And here was the result (this is, of course, the best that it performed!)...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The trombone and the swing

I've been spending so much time lately doing things that I want to blog about, that I never seem to find the time to update this blog. I'm pretty keen, however, to post something about each of the projects I've completed for the two robotics classess I'm undertaking, so here is some of what I've done since I last posted...

NXT Trombone (ME-84: Assignment 2)
From ME-84: Introduction to Robotics
ME-84: Introduction to RoboticsThe second assignment in ME-84 was to create an NXT-based musical instrument AND use it to perform a "recognisable" tune. I had been intending to modify a diagnostic program I'd created, based on a RoboCup Junior IR Soccer Ball and the HiTechnic's IR Seeker, but my eldest son challenged me to make a trombone, so that's what I did.

It took one afternoon to build the first version of my trombone. The idea is that the notes depend on the position of the slider, and are produced when you blow into the sound sensor mouth piece. I had originally wanted to make it look more like a real trombone, but thought it more important to see what could be done with a single Edu kit. The ultrasound sensor can be a little flakey, so I knew the slider would have to be long enough to spread out the eight or so positions required. In the end, I was reasonably happy with the performance of the ultrasound sensor (it performed better than I did!). I also wanted to use a formula to generate the correct note based on the ultrasound sensor reading, but I didn't know how to do a x^y calculation on the NXT at the time. In the end I found the hidden vi that maps notes to frequencies, and used that inside a case statement. At home, I asked my boys (who play piano), if they knew any songs that I would be able to play on the trumpet, and they taught me "Ode to Joy". I also learned how to dynamically control the length of the notes being played, using anotherPlay Note (no wait) and a Stop Note block.

Automated Swing (EN-10: Assignment 2)
From EN-10: Simple Robotics
I spent way too much time on this challenge. The assignment was to create a piece of playground equipment that included sensors and motors. I took this task as an opportunity to follow up on the swinging robot that I'd worked on during a biometics workshop back in August. The idea is to use motors to simulate the motion of a child on a swing, using the motors as legs.

Following some gentle encouragement from my wife, I made the robot look more like a swing seat. I'm pretty happy with how the NXT brick functions as seat, and it helps with the story of this robot as being a model of an "assistive device".

By estimating the period of the swing based on the length of the swing, and then doing some tweaking on top of that, I was able to come up with a motion that worked fairly well. The swing could start from rest and work up to a decent swing motion. The following video shows the robot in full swing (it had been started from rest)...

Of course, it would be much more impressive if the robot "knew" when to swing the legs based on the position of the swing. As a result I spent most of the following week trying to make use of a HiTechnic Accelerometer sensor to time the swing.

In the end, I gave up because of signal/noise issues. Between the vibrations naturally in the swinging and the extra acceleration caused by the motors, it proved to difficult for me (at this time) to solve the timing problem. I would however like to come back to this one when I know a bit more about filtering...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

This week's top five...

Here are five web sites / artcles / documents that I've come across in the last week or so and found very interesting...
  • Build IT: Underwater LEGO Robotics - I think this site might contain the most impressive and practical set of curriculum resources relating to a particular challenge that I've ever seen.
  • Robotics Design Studio - Another great site, including resources and a project museum that showcases some fabulous robotics creations.
  • Math and LEGO - This is document, by Tufts undergrad Sarah Tavares, is a collection of ideas for teaching mathematics concepts using LEGO materials. Seeing this collection has helped me to accept that I should do something similar, focusing on the concepts in my year 11/12 Mathematics course back home.
  • Can Math Help in LEGO Robotics Competitions? - As far as I can tell, this is a unique piece of research. This morning I had a good chat with the article's author, Eli Silk, about this and his related work. I'm looking forward to learning more about what he has been doing.
  • LEGO Boardroom Table - Nothing to do with my study here at Tufts, but I thought it was fun and somewhat inspirational.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The little sloth that could

After starting full time at the Tufts' CEEO on Sept 1, I spent the first few days summarising the 60 or so articles relating to robotics education that I read in preparation for my fellowship. I was making good progress, except that for every five articles I re-read and summarised, I found another article that I needed to add to my reading pile. )-:

I also spent far too much time setting up a Mac mini only to watch it die just two days later. I then learnt how to retrieve files from a non-booting Mac, before finally accepting that I'd be better off using my own PC laptop anyway.

Last week, classes started and I've hardly stopped to breath since then. I've been attending four classes, two with an engineering focus and two with an education focus. Here's a brief description of the two engineering courses...

Chris Rogers' ME-84: Introduction to Robotics
ME-84 is a 3rd year Engineering course that provides an introduction to robotics, drawing on computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. I'm doing this course not only to develop my own understanding of engineering, but also to see what engineering concepts and skills I can use in the development of a pre-tertiary robotics/engineering course back home. Because all the students undertaking the course have a solid grounding in engineering, this course goes way beyond anything I've ever taught before. E.g. It's week 2, and we're using the NXT to investigate different types of control (on-off, proportional, integral, derivative).

In the first lesson, we had a quick challenge to make a robot that moves, but without using wheels as wheels. This is what happened...

Assignments in this course consist of a weekly design challenge. The first assisngment was to create a sumo robot using any kind of remote control. The results were presented in class on Tuesday of this week where our robots battled each other. In my team, we decided to make a robot that would have a low centre of mass, could spin on the spot (as a defensive strategy), use a flipper to lift other robots off the ground (reducing their traction) and be remote controlled by another NXT over bluetooth. I was also keen to limit our solution (for the vehicle at least) to the parts from a single NXT Edu kit, but this put our robot at a huge disadvantage. There were some heavy duty robots in the competition!!

Ethan Danahy's EN-10: Simple Robotics
The other engineering course I'm doing is EN-10. This is a 1st year Engineering course that provides a much easier introduction to robotics and LabVIEW than ME-84 and is much closer to courses that I've taught in the past. I'm taking this class to help with my understanding of basic engineering principles, and for extra practise at design challenges - I suspect that many of the challenges in this course are ones that I've given students, but never done myself.

As in ME-84, the assignments consist of weekly design challenges. For our first assignment, we were challenged to create a robotic animal that moves in some way. I wanted to create something that could climb along a rope, so decided to create a sloth. I started with just a motor and a couple of beams tethered to a NXT held below the motor and tried to come up with something that could move along a rope without falling off. On the way I learned a lot that I didn't know, or hadn't realised, about linkages and balance. Once I had it working for a single motor, I then added an NXT and an extra set of legs to help support the weight of the NXT.

From 2010_09 EN10 Robotic Animal

From there, I added a head and, with more than a little help from home, I added some fur and ended up with my version of the sloth...

There were lots of great designs from the rest of the class, including a hopping frog, a couple of alligators, and Jumbo (the elephant that is Tuft's official mascot). You can see photos of some of them here.

Next week's challenges are to create a piece of robotic playground equipment (EN-10) and a musical instrument on which a recognisable tune can be played (ME-84). It's back to the drawing board...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

And so it begins...

I started "full time" at the Center last week and figure it's about time that I started posting to this blog regularly, otherwise I never will. For those who don't know, a little over twelve months ago I won a Hardie Fellowship, enabling me to undertake research and study at the Tufts University's Centre for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO). A few months ago, I posted some early thoughts about my fellowship, and now it's time to continue that story...

Two weeks ago, I came into the Center for a Biomimetics workshop with members of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab. These guys have been working on some awesome robotics projects, including some amazing bio-inspired projects such as sub-200mg micro air vehicles. I was surprised to learn that they had never played with LEGO robotics. The workshop started with an introductory challenge, for the Harvard team’s benefit, to create a robot that moves. We were working in pairs. Pairs that had prior experience with the NXT were given an additional challenge. In my pair, we worked on making a weight shifting, walking robot. We based our approach on an idea that used an RCX motor that I recalled from the 2nd edition of Eric Wang’s Engineering with LEGO bricks. Because the NXT motors are bigger than RCX motors, we needed to scale up our robot, and eventually ran out of time to complete the challenge. This is, however, one that I would like to come back to at some stage.

Following the first challenge, we had a discussion and brainstorming session about different movement/propulsion systems in nature. We came up with a list that included walking, hopping, jumping, climbing. The Harvard team were very knowledgeable about biological systems.

The second challenge was to choose one of the movements and replicate with the NXT. In my pair, we worked on a swinging robot. We ended up trying to simulate the movement of a child on a swing, using the motors as the legs. This lead to some lively discussion about the important of legs v the position of the body, and whether or not swinging legs at the right time puts energy into the motion. We calculated the period of the swing based on its length, and used this as a guide for determining how frequently to move the legs, but ended up having to adjust this to keep it in sync. More research (and in particular, a trip to a set of swings!) is required.

The workshop concluded with my first game of ultimate frisbee (I was glad that I wasn’t the only newcomer to the game) and pizza. It was a great introduction to being at the Center, and I left looking forward to coming back...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A newbies guide to Disneyland and Legoland

The week before last, we travelled across ten time zones and over 17000km from Hobart to Boston. To break up the journey we decided to spend a few days in each of Disneyland and Legoland. We wanted to start and finish relatively close to the Los Angelese airport, so we spent two full days at Disneyland, two at Legoland, and then finished with another full day back at Disneyland.

This is my summary of our experiences at each theme park, the highs, the lows, and some tip & tricks for other visitors....

Something that stood out immediately was just how clean everything is at Disneyland. There must be a small army of people picking up rubbish and cleaning up spills, etc. Another very impressive feature is just how much attention to detail goes on throughout the park. The park is divided into themed "lands", each cleverly filled with appropriate decorations and music and separated by well crafted "liminal" spaces. It was also amazing how quickly they unloaded the people from each ride, and set the next group going, either by exiting to the opposite side, or loading/unloading on conveyor belts. Very slick.

The highlights of Disneyland included...
  • Autopia - steer cars around an enclosed track. This was the boys' favourite and a great ride for their age group (they are 7 and 9). We rode this three times.
  • Space Tours - a dated, but still pretty neat, Star Wars-inspired space simulator ride. Mitch loved this one, and was a bit disappointed that we didn't get to go again.
  • Astro Blasters - A Buzz Lightyear-themed ride where you get to shoot at targets and earn points. Anita got hooked on this one and we did it twice.
  • Jedi Training Academy - Participants become a Jedi padawan and learn the ways of the force, and then get to battle Darth Maul or Darth Vader. It took a couple of attempts for Mitch and Rohan to be selected, but in the end they were. They looked a bit overawed, but they had a ball.
  • Tomorrowland - Overall, this seemed to be our favourite area within Disneyland, and we kept finding ourselves back here.
  • Aladdin - Excellent stage show with flying carpets and a show-stealing genie. At 45 minutes, it was much tighter and more entertaining than what I remember of the Disney movie.
  • Fantasmic! - an amazing nighttime show featuring water projection screens, flames on the water's surface, and much more.
  • Splash Mountain - a fun "flume" ride, with some leisurely winding around and through a mountain and one somewhat scary (at least it was for me!) drop at the end. We got a little wet, but not too wet.
  • Captain EO 3D - It was great to see this classic piece of Michael Jackson but it's very dated, and not the best piece of work by any of the otherwise very talented people who were involved (Francis Ford Coppola, James Horner, oh and that George Lucas bloke). Presumably it was cutting edge for the 80s, but I think it might be stuck there. There were some nice surprises, but it's a good thing we saw this before Muppetvision...
  • Muppet*Vision 3D - Jim Henson at his brilliant best. It's 20 years old but for the most part looks like it was made yesterday. Walking into the Muppet Theatre was a delight, and all the gimmics worked because they were underpinned by a great script that captures Henson's sense of fun. My favourite attraction of the week!
Here are my tips & tricks for other Disneyland newbies...
  • Arrive early, take a break in the middle of the day to avoid the biggest crowds, and then return refreshed in the evening.
  • Be strategic about the order in which you do the attractions to minimise wait times.
  • Make clever use of the fast pass system to bypass the "standby" lines of the most popular attractions, which leads to...
  • Use the Ridemax to plan you itinerary - This is my new favourite piece of software, and worth much more than the $15 it cost. The first day we didn't use it (even though I had already installed it), because I didn't want to be dogmatic about where to go and when we had to be there, but in the end it was just too frustrating deciding when to queue and when to try another attraction. (A 30 to 60 minute wait for a 5-minute ride is very common at Disneyland.) Once we started using the software, however, we were able to avoid all the worst lines and plan our days with so much less stress. The software comes with a bunch of other invaluable tips that also helped make a big difference.
  • If you're there with a 7- and/or a 9-year old, skip the Indiana Jones ride. The set dessings as we walked through the incredibly long tunnels into the ride (past what looked like thousands of people in the "standby" line) were excellent, but our boys spent most of the actual ride with their eyes closed, and I just found the whole thing overblown and kind of annoying. It was more "Temple of Doom" than "Raiders of the Lost Ark", if you know what I mean.
  • Food - Bring food with you, or leave the park to eat. One exception to this is The French Market Restaurant in the New Orleans Square. It's still too expensive, but if you have to pay over-inflated "captive audience" prices for food, it doesn't hurt to have an option that tastes good and, shock horror!, acutally includes some veggies.
  • Accommodation - We stayed at the Anaheim Islander Inn & Suites. It was a great price for comfortable accommodation, and was walking distance from Disneyland. It was also one of the only places we could find within our price range that could easily accomodate a family of four. Their "breakfast" was more of a snack (a pastry and an apple), but we were expecting this, so it was okay. We just bought cereal and milk from a corner store and took the provided "breakfast" with us to eat during the day. They also had a pool that the boys seemed to enjoy just as much as any of the Disneyland attractions!
For our first day in Legoland, we caught a train to Carlsbad, dropped off our gear at the hotel where we would be staying the night and made our way to the theme park. We arrived two hours after opening, wandered around from the front of the park to the left and quickly found ourselves in a line for the "Sky Cruiser". We waited for over an hour for a very ordinary three minute ride, where we were encouraged to pedal, to make the vehicle go faster, and therefore make the ride finish quicker!! Not happy! It did not help at all that the ride was loaded sssooooo slooooowwwwlllyyy.... The whole time we were thinking, "This ain't Disney!". We spent most of the afternoon at the water park, and in the evening came up with a better strategy for tackling the other attractions on day two... We did this partly by asking ourselves, "What would RideMax do?".

We intended to start day two right on opening time, but after allowing ourselves to be distracted by the hotel pool (and two geocaches near the hotel... ahem...), we arrived 30 minutes after opening (so much for that plan...). We raced directly to the Knight's Tournament expecting a small line to have already formed. There was none (phew!). We enjoyed the ride and then went to Captain Cranky - We were the first to ride! The next two activites on our itinerary had small lines, and suddenly we found ourselves 30+ minutes ahead of schedule. The moral of this story... arrive early, head straight to the most popular rides at the back of the park, then work your way to the front of the park.

Highlights of Legoland...
  • Water park - I loved building (well, decorating really) our own raft and then gently floating around the "flume" (yes, this is my new favourite word). In another attraction, going down a waterslide in a raft big enough for our whole family was also very cool.
  • Miniland - LEGO buildings, vehicles, people, etc. representing places and people from all over the world. Cool! (My long-standing desire to build a LEGO model of a Hobart building or two continues to grow...)
  • Knight's Tournament - Now this was cool. It's unlike any other ride I've seen. You're in a harness at the end of robotic arm that can move and spin you in any direction. You get to choose what level you want to do from 1 (gentle) to 5 (vomit inducing). We chose level 2, but that was enough for the rest of the family. I was keen to go again, on level 3, and even though there was no line, we stuck to our itinerary... )-:
  • Clutch Powers 4D (Yes 4D!! Isn't the 4th dimension time? Or is that 4D as opposed to a static 3D hologram?) - The story was simple but made more sense than most fiction published by LEGO. Overtly gimmicky, but fun.
  • Skipper School & Driving School - These were great for children our boys' age. In both cases, children are able to steer their own vehicles at gentle speeds. Unlike anything at Disneyland (except Autopia to some extent), these rides give the punters much more autonomy.
  • Aqua zone - a mock jet ski-type of ride that looked cool, with jets of water controlled by onlookers threatening to give the riders a soaking. Unfortunately, most of the jets weren't working properly... )-: And there I was, worrying that I was going to get wet...
Tips & tricks...
  • As I said already, start at the back of the park. I guess this is a good strategy for any theme park. Shows what a newbie I am.
  • Accommodation - We stayed at Inns of America. It was a bit more up market than we needed, but it was close to Legoland and they provided a complimentary shuttle service to the theme park. And they had a pool that the boys made great use of while we waited for the Legoland to open.
Comparing Legoland with Disneyland is not particularly flattering for Legoland, at least from an adult's point of view. The staff are generally less enthused (although there were a couple of notable exceptions), the place is dirtier, and overall it looks a bit run down, BUT.... Mitch wrote in his class blog that he enjoyed Disneyland but that he preferred Legoland, so I guess something is working. I think that this is partly because LEGO means more to them than Mickey & co., but mainly I think the boys might've been getting a bit tired of rides at Disneyland being "done" to them. With activities like Skipper School, Driving School, and Build-A-Raft at Legoland, the opportunities to "create" were apparent and appreciated.

Overall both parks were lots of fun, and I would enjoy revisiting either of them.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010 - Day Three

Here are some thoughts about day three of the LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010 that I jotted down on my way home, and then left to age for two weeks. I wish I'd finished this off closer to the event, but better late than never I guess...

Morning presentations

Ethan Denahy – Talked about what’s happening at Tufts. This was presented in a bit of a blur, but he had a lot of ground to cover and I suppose it helped fill in some gaps. He focused almost exclusively on the CEEO's “products” and given that I very nearly missed learning about some research that was very relevant to me, I almost would’ve preferred a quick overview (or at least a printed list) of the research projects currently on the go. Anyway, here’s what was in Ethan’s summary:
  • Books
  • SAM Animation
  • WeDo
  • Design compass & design log – this is the first time that many of us had seen this (or so it seemed). Looks very interesting…
  • RoboBooks – This is the 4th year of its development. Progress continues…
  • LabView – intelligent control
  • Telerobotics
  • Arduino processor combined with LEGO
  • Sites… CEEO, LEGO Engineering, SAM Animation, STOMP network
Chris Rogers – Talked about the future of RoboLab. He started with a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of RoboLab, as a justification for LabView Education Education (LVEE). He showed some quick LVEE programming examples, such as proportional control, and how a light sensor can be connected to a waveform chart. Chris described the launch of LVEE in 2009 as a “quiet release”. I get the impression that LVEE 2011 has always been the main goal. After 2011….??? And then because the next speaker hadn’t arrived, Chris entertained us with lots of cool videos of robot design projects: e.g. a hamburger maker, musical instruments, assistive devices. There was a slightly odd moment when someone asked Chris who he was - I think maybe the implication was that Chris was a LEGO or NI salesman or somesuch. He handled it well, but I was fully expecting him to say he was the janitor. (-:

Key note: Dean Kamen
Very interesting. This was another of those “oh, that’s what it’s about” moments. I had always thought that FIRST was all show and not *really* about learning robotics, but now I can see that that was never the original intention. I guess I need to do a bit more reading now, but I was quite impressed by Dean's explanation of the thought processes that lead to FIRST… I was especially impressed that it had been possible for anyone to do the hard work to make it happen. Talk is much easier than action, but it seems that Dean Kamen does both. There were lots of great ideas in there, here's a list of what I jotted down during his talk... (this is more a reminder for myself, it probably won't make much sense to anyone else, sorry)…
  • Education crisis? What education crisis? – Polititicians jump on it, and make it a devisive issue - they throw money, testing, computers at it , but does this solve it?
  • Dean's assertion was that it's not an education problem – it’s a culture problem. It’s not a supply problem it's a demand problem.
  • The US is so rich The problem is not about what we don’t have, it’s that we have too much.. "Life is short , play hard". Why isn't it “life is short, so work hard”?
  • FIRST was about making STEM as highly valued as sport. Engineers as popular as sport stars.
  • If there was a “cricket crisis” in the US (eg. If cricket become part of the Olympics), how would it be solved? Curriculum, standards, , national high-stakes testing?, or would it be through role models / superstars?
  • Dean met with 50 CEOs - the NBA/NFL of “smarts” to discuss and solve the “education crisis". He put it to them that their engineers would become the superstars of education.
  • His process was... Companies adopt schools, Dean would supply kits to the companies/teams, after school events are held, students want to get onto the team, come to Manchester, NH in 6 weeks, and bring cheerleaders, at the event students operate the robots that the engineers built.
  • Why robotics? Beccause it is accessible.
  • The engineers don’t teach, they coach. In sports, the coach builds you up when you don’t do well. If the great thing about sports is that it's good for teamwork, why is teamwork called cheating at school?
  • After the first FIRST, in which 23 comapines participated, the CEOs complained... It took too much time, it wasn’t just an afterschool program after all. But then in the second year, they all came back!
  • As the competiton has grown, so have the number of events... regional events, state finals, etc. It’s now in its 19th year, 19000 schools, 90000 engineers.
  • You can’t buy passion.
  • Brandeis University Study “More than Robots” found that students participating in STEM were 50% more likely to attend college. 3x more likely to major in engineering . 90 page report. Must get!!
  • George Bush Senior described FIRST as, “Like the WWF but with smart people”.
  • Now there's a new problem – It’s not a shortage of volunteers, but rather the feds claiming that the schools won’t want to participaic, that they won’t want the money.
  • The money’s there… $10000 per school, ~$1 billion over 4 years!
  • The talk finished with Dean asking us the question, “How do you get the support of teachers & administration?” He spent some time trying to tease out an answer that could help him. There were some good ideas, but nothing that was going to save the day.

Development lab summary
A summary of each of the five different development labs from the previous two days...
  • Merrideth – Designing activities for young children. Gave a list of components of climate change, and described the projects that her groups had come up with.
  • Morgan – Renewable energy. Which is best? Solar v crank v wind. Solar reflectors improved performance by 10%. Variables and trade-offs.
  • Rob, ?, Darby - Data logging lab.
  • Brian - Multiple representations using SAM Animation. What is wind power and what does it mean? Brian gave a very exhaustive list of ideas of how SAM could be used? It would be best for me to just link to it. He also said the videos produced will be put on youtube.
  • Robert – Instructionism v Constructionism – A tricky session to convey to the others, but the two people who volunteered to create a model summarising their experience of the symposium did a great job, and I think showed how it could work, very nicely. Well done!

Optional extra afternoon session
NASA Curriculum – I’d love to talk about this, but we had to sign a NDA… (mind you, I got very distracted talking about the future plans for [censored] so I didn’t end up actually do very much of what we were meant to be doing anyway, so there wouldn't be much to tell.)

But wait there's more... Day Four
Okay, there wasn’t really a day four, but I was pretty keen to meet Kristen Wendall despite not having arranged a meeting… Kristen was, however, very gracious and gave me plenty of time and lots of great ideas for my own research. In one hour I made more progress than I had in weeks. Some of the questions that came up…
  • What do students think they are doing when they undertake STEM activities? – I need to have a look at David Hammer’s work on this topic.
  • What does students think it mean to do engineering, science, maths (in the real world, and in the classroom)?
  • When do students think they need to draw on STEM knowledge to solve a problem?
  • More of an example of a content question, but… What do students think a computer program does?
I was a little surprised, but very pleased, to learn that I’d missed a relevant paper in my informal literature review… one by Chris Schunn on using robotics to teach proportion (More on that later, I'm sure.) Anyway, it’s great to have met someone who has undertaken the style of research that I originally wanted to undertake. I can’t wait to read more about it, and start formulating my research questions.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Australia victorious in RoboCup Junior Dance!!

Australia's World Cup aspirations, there are some other Australian teams dominating the world stage at the moment.

This is from Susan Bowler, I trust she won't mind me reposting it here...

Hello everybody!

It has been a very exciting day for Australia. We rocked!

Temperamental Technology (Perth) won 1st place for Individual Performance Primary Dance. RoboRockers (Brisbane) won 2nd place for Individual Performance Primary Dance.

That is two world champs!

But wait, there is more....

RoboRockers was one of the teams that won the Super Team competition Primary Dance.

A little team from Hobart, Tasmania...called RoboSquad United are the new World Champions for Secondary Dance Individual Performance, plus Super Team Champions, plus most Collegial Team (for the second year in a row)............ not bad or a few days work.

Here is a video of their finals performance…

But this rehearsal is a bit better for being able to see what was actually happening with the robots…

Friday, June 18, 2010

RoboSquad United

Last week I head Dean Kamen talking about how we need big business to provide heros of "smarts" for our students. Well, here are a few of our own student heros...

Tasmania's very own RoboSquad United will be representing Australia in the Dance Challenge at the international RoboCup Junior 2010 being held in Singapore this week. It was great hearing them on ABC local radio yesterday morning.

You can watch a sneak preview of their performance from a few days ago, or follow their blog.

BTW, those drawing robots look like they might be based on a familiar design... (-:

I wish the girls and their tireless teacher, Susan Bowler, all the best!


Saturday, June 12, 2010

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010 - Day Two

Here are my thoughts about the second day of the LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010, held at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Once again, please let me stress that this is not meant as a formal report, it's just a collection of my reflections about the event, primarily for my own benefit.

Morning presentations
  • Y. Debbie Liu (Harvard) - Talked about the thinking patterns of scientists at the "cutting edge" of science (e.g. bioinformatics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology). It looked like she talked to a *lot* of scientists to identify theses patterns of thinking: systems thinking, engineering thinking, quantitative thinking, interdisciplinary thinking, distributed thinking. I like this way of thinking about thinking. I can't help thinking that these are the tips of iceburgs. I just had a quick look for some of her work online, because I'm interested to read some more later and found this: Using Scratch to Teach 21st Century Scientiffic Thinking Skills.
  • Timothy Lannin (Tufts) - Timothy, an undergraduate (!!) mechanical engineering major , designed and ran an engineering course at Tufts for other, non-engineering, students. The course focused on energy (how to measure energy production and consumption) and the engineering design process. Projects included: A model city powered by alternative energy, wind turbine design (test the effect of varying blade length, blade width, pitch angle, number of blades), solar collectors (parabolic troughs, parabolic dishes). [He said his materials are online, but I couldn't find the link just now. I'll add them later.]
  • Brian Gravel (Tufts) - Multiple representations in science and engineering. This was one of those, "I heard of it, but I didn't really get it until now" moments for me. Brian showed us SAM Animation and gave some very solid justifications for its use. Unfortunately, I was so engrossed in the presentation that I didn't make any notes. )-:
  • Travis Franck (Tufts, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy) - Travis gave us an example of a mental model relating to climate change, and showed us some amazing simulation tools at Climate Interactive.
  • Al Hurst (Cranston High School East) - Talked about his students use powerpoint to keep a log book of their work. The log books include: day & date, detail what you accomplished in class, any problems/solutions, define any new vocabulary, screen captures. The project he has them do for the last quarter of the course is to build a carnival ride, that must use three sensors.
Development lab: Facilitating v Instructing (LEGO Serious Play)
Having been suitably impressed by Robert Rassmussen over the previous day and a half, I was keen to attend his workshop (sorry, I meant "development lab"), but I was not nearly as excited about the toolkit, LEGO Serious Play. On paper, it didn't look promising and I was a bit worried... "express your thoughts and ideas through metaphorical LEGO models and in that process balance different modes of instructions". Uh oh! This is going to be worse than butcher's paper!

Well, how wrong was I? Robert has us working individually and very quickly sucked us in by giving us a building challenge that we could all do, "build a tower, using only yellow pieces". No problems there. And then he asked us to each say something a couple of things about our towers. Okay, fine. But that's what's all about... each person created something of their own and seemed to have no difficultly in talking about it. Robert made the point (that I've been concious of for a while but rarely hear it mentioned) that all too often in group discussions or brainstorming sessions, whatever idea is shared first affects all the subsequent suggestions, and tends to derail everyone else's ideas. [He later gave me a reference for this, but maybe I didn't write it down... I'll find it later.]

The second challenge was something along the lines of "thinking about this morning, pick three pieces that you can use to say something about how you feel or what you would reflect on from this morning". This question was less "neutral" than the yellow tower, but still quite safe, I think because it was more about finding/creating meaning in the pieces than it was about personal reflection.

The third challenge was build a model showing what you are most passionate about in education. This was trickier, and Robert prefaced it by asking us to not have a meeting with ourselves, but just to start building. As with all the questions, we were given only four or five minutes to complete our builds. At first, I had no idea how to respond, but I finally did what I was told, and something came together. It was great hearing each others ideas, and also how in some cases the act of building had triggered ideas just below the surface. For example, I started with some pieces that represented something about giving students the tools to think for themselves, and the importance of talking/working together to achieve this. But then I noticed a ship's steering wheel and realised this could represent "charting the course between constructionism and instructionism", and then I found a map that I used to represent "curriculum design". These are topics that I'm very passionate about, but I find it interesting that they didn't occur to me until I saw something that triggered my memory.

After the break, Robert talked about the "flow", and I think he was quoting Papert [more research required] with an idea that he showed graphically... Challenge on the vertical scale, Knowledge/skills on the horizontal. High challenge + low knowledge = anxiety! Low challenge + high knowledge = boredom! Up the middle of the graph is a region of "hard fun". The yellow tower challenge got us all started at low challenge/low knowledge because it was achievable for all. From there we moved up the graph, this is the "flow". Coming from the high challenge/low knowledge side of the graph into the flow gives an "aha!" moment.

He also talked about how this approach could be used to answer a question like "What do you think the team should be working on in relation to water pollution?". He made mention of seven sub-strategies, and intended to show us just a couple, but we talked him into giving us an overview of all of them. It was all a bit quick, however, so I can't do them justice here, but they had to do with how you take the individuals' ideas and put them together in some way, ultimately show how they are interconnected and how changing one will effect others.

Afternoon presentations
  • Amber Kendall (Tufts) - Wow!! This was the most significant presentation for me. It asked (and more importantly responded to) a style of question that I've been wondering about for ages... "Exploring science through engineering might be fun, but do students really learn any science?" After reading every article I could find on robotics education, I am pretty confident that this question has not been addressed in robotics, and even though Amber's presentation was not exactly about robotics, it's the most relevant, and mature, collection of work I've seen so far. The curriculum and resarch tools looked very interesting, so I was pleased to be able to meet the lead researcher, Kristen Wendall, a couple of days later... (more to follow)
  • Norazleen (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Talked about her approach to structuring their robotics program, SPACE – Scenario, Problem, Ask questions, Construct?, Evaluation. She showed us video of students undertaking a story-based challenge (I think maybe a rescue of some kind?), that involved the robots moving forward to a certain point and then turn in a particular direction. It wasn’t clear from the presentation, but I was informed by someone who had seen the full video that the robots had to turn on different surfaces, therefore making the magnetic compass necessary (as opposed to using dead reckoning).
  • Lim Hui Hsin Jeanne (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Describe how she uses "Construct, Integrate, Differentiate" in the context of a tower challenge and a crane challenge, as an example. For the tower, the students are required to build the tallest and stablest tower. For an extra challenge, it is to suppport 500g. The crane challenge involves building a crane that can lift 500g. Assessment includes an electronic portfolio and written work.
  • Chua Khoon Siong Ray (LEGO Teacher Award recipient, Singapore) - Showed us a series of physics based challenges designed to develop understandings of time, speed, and motion. A 100cm sprint provides the context for challenges that involve either varying motor power (speed) or time. I’ve never been particularly excited by the classic “drive a particular distance without going over / hitting the wall” challenge until now. Ray showed us a neat variation of this classic that provides a culmination for their speed/distance/time investigations. The challenge is to rescue a princess, by first knocking over the monsters that guard her and then get as close as possible to the princess, without hitting her! The robots have to move a particular distance (dead reckoning) to demonstrate the skills learnt in the previous lessons. I guess this was always the idea with this challenge, but it never quite seemed as fun as this. I could imagine using this with my Maths Applied 2 class as a linear modelling investigation, and having them collect data and determine a rule experimentally as well as calculating it theoretically.
  • Mark Lockett (LEGO Teacher Award recipient and Proselytic Banana Bender, Australia) - Talked about how he uses De Bono’s 6 hats and the 4 Cs in robotics. Well, this is embarrassing… I was so busy taking photos for Mark (and to be honest, they didn’t end up being anything more than snaps really) that I forgot to pay attention to his talk… I put down the camera and started taking notes just as he finished his talk. D’oh! I had been intending to record an interview, I guess now I’ll need to make sure that happens. Sorry Mark!
We were asked what we would like to know more about. I only copied down the sections that interested me the most, but I’m sure the full response will be posted in in due course.

General feedback
  • Workshops on programming – Agreed. If I wasn’t coming back in a few week, I would’ve been a bit annoyed that we hadn’t done some LabView programming.

  • What are the age appropriate techniques/tools for engineering design?
  • How do we train teachers to incorporate engineering in the classroom? Methods, time, content, program v building.
  • Differentiating instructions - ability/readiness
  • Presevation of curiousity. How do we keep students thinking v just plugging numbers into formulas?
  • Repeat Merredith’s research at different grades. Are there different ways of expressing planning?
  • Parents’ perception of these tools in the classroom. How to support kids at home?
  • Educating administration.
  • Longitude effects of including engineering K-12. Help? Hinder? More engineers?
  • More resources to teach how to build. Eg. The LEGO WeDo Activity Pack.
  • Technical specifications about devices. Eg. Motor efficiency.
This lead to a quick brainstorm of some of the best currently available:Another very good day. By this stage I was starting to get sad that it would be over so soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010 - Day One

Here's an assortment of reflections and impressions from my first day at LEGO Engineering Symposium 2010, at the Tufts' CEEO. It's not meant as a formal report, I just wanted to capture some ideas while it's fresh. This is really intended for my own benefit, but if it's useful to anyone else somehow, that's fine... (this is all a bit rough, sorry - you have been warned!)

Opening of symposium - Robert Rasmussen opened the event and set the tone for the week. To be honest, I was never particularly excited by having "climate change" as one of the two major themes for this year's conference, but at this opening, I really liked how Robert framed the purposes and the other "minor" themes.

He gave a strong definition of what "LEGO Engineering" means. It was along the lines of "learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through the engineering design process using selected LEGO materials". (I wanted to get the exact wording and I guess this is on their web site somewhere, but I haven't found it yet...) Robert also gave a good overview of the LEGO Engineering design process and talked about an idea that I am very passionate about (although I had never heard it put quite this clearly before)... "constructionism v instructionism". This was a central part of Robert's lab that I did on Day Two, so I'll write more about it later.

Morning presentations - A brief summary...
  • Merredith Portsmore (Tufts) - Talked about the engineering design process and a study of hers that study focused on young children and the planning phase of the design process. I particularly liked the idea of a drawing as a means of negotiation. I also liked the story-based task she used... "goldilocks engineering" (e.g. design a porridge protector, a goldilocks-proof chair, bed, etc.). I'm looking forward to reading more about her findings.
  • Rikke Ribert Andersen (LEGO Education, Denmark) - Demonstrated the new renewable energy add-on pack. This obviously fitted in nicely with the climate change theme of the symposium, and looked quite exciting. We had a play with this in the development lab that I attended... I like that it can work with or without the NXT and that it includes both the generator/motor and a solar panel. I don't like that the input and output aren't labelled (maybe arrows showing in and out would've worked?), and it seems odd that the input is tucked in under the base. I never like having to pull on a cable to remove it.
  • David Hammer (Maryland, but returning to Tufts this Fall) - Now *this* is why I'm coming to Boston. David was talking about ideas that fascinate me, but that I rarely get to discuss with anyone back home. [And even when we do discuss them, we're going from what we've "read" or "heard" of Papert, Resnick, Hofstadter etc., as opposed to quoting someone that you "know". At home in Tasmania, it often feels like you're only one, two, or at most maybe three, degrees of separation away from anyone else in the state. I guess it's similar here, except that you're at most about three degrees of separation from any of the gurus at Tufts, MIT, Harvard, etc. Awesome stuff! But I digress...] David was arguing that it is a mistake to attribute a particular conception to a student based on something they say in a particular context. He also focused on the all too familiar pattern that young students tend to have robust, well-reasoned and meaningful (although not necessarily correct) conceptions about particular ideas, whereas older students all too often seem to have had the meaning sucked out of what they are learning - instead it's just about finding the right answer. [This cuts right to the heart of a frustration that has been increasing for me as my own boys get older. They are now 7 and 9 and often seem to have better (more coherent , more robust) conceptions of particular fundamental mathematics ideas (as well as the capacity to describe and use them) than some of the 16-18 year olds that I teach. Yes, it's a small sample size, but I don't think they're alone. I think I've digressed again...] I'm so pleased to hear that David is coming to Tufts and I'm looking forward to learning more about this topic.
  • Justin Osterstrom - Talked about how he uses LEGO Serious Play in his elementary school class. I'll write more about Serious Play later, but one highlight from Justin's presentation was how he used it at the start of a unit to assess his students' current understanding about the topic, and determine what he would need to concentrate on. There was also a quote that went something like, "relevance leads to rigour". I think that sounds interesting, but I didn't get the source... )-: I'll have to ask him about that.

Development lab: Datalogging - In the development lab that I attended (we had a choice of five labs, with a maximum of 20 participents in each lab), the idea was to create a datalogging activity based around the climate change theme. The suggestion was to focus on a particular concept such as "small changes have a big impact" or "it's not just about the change in mean temperature, the spread is important too" and come up with an activity that could be used in the classroom. We had access to the new renewable energy pack and laptops with the NXT-G blocks needed to take data (voltage, watts, amps, and/or joules) from the energy pack.

Our group started by checking that we could at least generate and store some energy, and then worked on a project of having a solar panel that could track the sun (in two axes!). We did this by mounting the solar panel on tower that consisted of a pair of motors (one to turn the panel horizontally, the other to angle it up or down). We used three light sensors (two across the top panel, angled slightly out, and one below the panel) so that the robot could move towards the brightest light source. While the panel tracks the sun, it records data from the energy pack. Our robot worked well, but it would need some more work to make it more robust and to address some "balance issues". (-:

It would be interesting to run it from sunrise to sunset and see how the energy collected from the sun varies throughout the day, and how it varies depending on the angle of the sun (perhaps the angle could be inferred from the rotation sensor of the up/down motor or maybe an accelerometer could be attached to the panel). It might also be interesting to record light sensor and/or temperature sensor data throughout the day and see how that changes.

Afternoon presentations - A briefer summary, maybe...
  • Tina Grotzer (Harvard) - Talked about causal reasoning and impacts on understanding in K-12 science. I wish this work had been available when I had the would-be-clever idea to develop a unit on "the interconnectedness of all things" some years ago. Some great ideas and strategies that would help develop students' (and teachers'!) "systems thinking" - an increasingly important idea. See... Causal patterns in science
  • Barbara Bratzel - Gave a wonderful presentation about how she had her students build and test some great projects relating to energy. These included the string phones, windmills, and flywheel vehicles (greatest distance and fastest). Very practical and very motivating but also these activities had a well grounded purpose. [I love the research theme throughout the conference, but it's also very important to have presentations like this that show how the big ideas can be implemented in the classroom. I've always thought that teacher PD works best when it provides the "big picture" as well as something that I can do in my class tomorrow.]
  • Birger Brevik & Magnus Wallenborg (Norway and Sweden respectively) - Talked about how they take robotics to the masses with their robotics labs on wheels. That's not a bus - this is a bus! All very cool, but I wonder how much of the expertise and capacity to do robotics in the classroom stays inside the bus when it leaves. I'd love to know a bit more about what happens once they leave, and if their visit provides a catalyst for the growth of robotics programs.
Overall thoughts about day one - I absolutely loved the format of the day. Despite being jetlagged and ready for a "power nap" at any moment, the format and pacing of the presentations (blocks of four 15-20 minute presentations) meant that it was very easy to stay engaged and focused throughout each talk. In any other conference I've been too, the default model for "one hour's worth of general presentations" would've been handled by having the four or five presenters each speaking in parallel, and forcing delegates to make a choice about which one to attend. This means a) you miss out entirely on the other speakers' presentations, and b) if it turns out you don't like the presentation you've chosen, you're stuck for an hour, and c) even if you do like it, "brain fade" often sets in after about 15 minutes, so you may not learn much more in that extra time anyway.

I also liked the how the development labs were conducted as two 90ish minute blocks, with a break in between. The first session was long enough to understand the scope of the lab and get started, but it was great to have that break to let our brains mull over what we had learnt, and then be able to come back fresh to follow through. I found that I came back with ideas or solutions that hadn't been immediately obvious during the first session.

(But wait there's more... I watched this great talk from Mythbusters' Adam Savage, Problem solving: How I do it, when I got back to my hotel room. Very insightful and lots of interesting connections with the design process. Well worth checking out.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Graphics (Graphing) Calculators for iPhone

I’ve been having a look at some iPhone apps that offer similar functions to the graphic calculators we use here at school (the Casio fx-9860 and its variants), and there are some good ones around.

There are lots of free apps that do various useful things, but the best overall one (in terms of ease of use and functions) that I've looked at so far is called Graphing Calculator.

It costs AUS$2.49, so it’s cheaper than chicken and chips, and much cheaper than a “real” graphic calculator.

(I’m glad I’m not teaching a pre-tertiary at the moment…. How many times would hell have to freeze over before the TQA would allow students to use an iPhone in an external exam?)

Friday, April 16, 2010

MoonBots blast off... ???

It feels like a long time since the MoonBots challenge was first announced, but it looks like some more details are finally about to emerge...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Astroboy In Roboland

This documentary sounds interesting...

Astroboy In Roboland
(SBSTWO, Thursday 22nd April, 2010)
Looks at how robots of all sizes, shapes and functions are being developed and put into use in Japan. (From France in Japanese, English subtitles) (Documentary) G CC WS

Thanks Colin for the heads up!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Build a tower" and other design challenges

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of workshops held by Chris Rogers at ACEC2010. Chris Rogers is an engineering education guru who will be guiding my study and research at Tufts later this year.

I enjoyed the various design challenges that Chris gave us in the workshops. Across the two 2-hour workshops, the challenges included...
  • In pairs, build the tallest tower that you can using the small bag of technic/NXT LEGO pieces provided. You have 5 minutes, and you may only use your non-dominant hand!
  • In pairs, build a robot that can move forward, but wheels can't be use as wheels (most teams didn't have any wheels). Time: 1 hour. The NXT must either be part of the robot, or dragged along the ground. (I.e. the NXT brick can't be carried by a human following along)
  • Individually (and without looking at anyone else's work!), you have 3 minutes to build a duck from six LEGO pieces: two red 2x3 red plates, two 2x2 yellow bricks, one 2x4 yellow brick, and one 1x2 yellow brick.
  • In pairs, build a structure using all your pieces that stays together when it is pushed off the table... without any talking! (you can, however, use pencil/paper or any other non-verbal communcation.) Time: 5 minutes.
  • In pairs, build a structure to hold the NXT brick off the table surface... using only one hand.
  • In pairs, create an arm that can detect and move giant smartie chocolates into different position based on their colour.
The themes that emerged from these challenges related to engineering design and included:
  • the importance of goal clarification
  • understanding the client's needs
  • design limitations/constraints
  • multiple (and varied) solutions to single goal

Tower building in my robotics class
I was keen to try some with my own students as soon as possible, so I gave my students the tower building challenge. I didn't have separate bags of pieces ready to go, so instead...
  • I asked each student to go to the parts cupboard and select any 10 non-electronic pieces they liked. At this stage they had no idea what the challenge would be, so I suggested that take a range of pieces, eg. include beams, axles, connectors, etc.
  • Back in the room, I put them into groups of three (pairs would've been fine too), including people they wouldn't normally work with.
  • I gave them 5 minutes to build the tallest tower they could out of their combined pieces, using only their non-dominant hands.
  • We compared the models, and noted that some were more stable than others. Conveniently (from a teaching point of view), the tallest towers fell over when their tables were shoved, but the shortest towerdidn't. We discussed why this might be the case, and one of the students suggested the the centre of gravity might have something to do with the stability.
  • I gave them two minutes to discuss their strategies and exchange any of their parts for parts from the cupboard, on a 2 for 1 basis (ie. for each piece they take, they have to return two pieces).
  • They then had five more minutes to rebuild their tower, and we compared the results.
  • In the end, the tallest tower was also the most stable. It was also from the team that traded the most pieces. It had three large, thin wheels as the base, and the height came simply from axles and straight axle connectors. It provided a striking example of a low centre of gravity, and was a great way to finish the activity.

Dennis Hong: My seven species of robot

In this excellent video, Dennis Hong describes an amazing variety of robots made by his team at RoMeLa, Virginia Tech.

It provides a particularly good demonstration of alternate movement systems, including the most impressive humanoid RoboCup soccer playing robot that I've ever seen, and concludes with some insights into his creative process.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hardie Fellowship: In the beginning...

Last year I received a Hardie Fellowship to undertake research and study at the Tufts University's Centre for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) in Boston Massachusetts for six months from July/August 2010 – January 2011. Thank you Professor Hardie!

In the time since preparing my application, I've been busy reading through the literature and trying to form a clearer picture of what I want to do while in Boston. I still want to find a balance between study and research while I'm away, but the emphasis of the research apsect of the trip has shifted somewhat from what I stated in my application. Specifcally, my focus has changed from investigating the benefits or "efficacy" of robotics-based education (too difficult to produce hard data) to the ingredients of a successful robotics classroom.

I'll post more about all this later, but for now, here's a summary of what was in my original application...

1. Undertake preliminary research into the efficacy of robotics-based education to improve student learning outcomes
  • Undertake a literature review of research relating to robotics education
  • Interview some of the experts in the field of robotics education
  • Develop and trial assessment/measurement tools that could be used in a subsequent study longitudinal study.
2. Undertake study in robotics-based education, “constructionist” pedagogies, and/or engineering topics related to robotics
  • Gain a deeper understanding of current trends in “constructionist” pedagogies
  • Strengthen his ability to help students and teachers develop understanding of engineering concepts relevant to robotics.