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...

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