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.)


  1. wow, Rob...keep it coming! We are off to the Intl Robocup in one week. I am really looking forward to keeping in touch with your happenings.


  2. No worries.

    I hope it all goes well!

  3. A Török név, az tényleg Török?