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.)