Thursday, August 23, 2012

Barbara Bratzel in Australia

Last week, robotics education guru Barbara Bratzel was in Australia to work with teachers in Sydney, Brisbane and... Hobart!! Barbara is famous for her books showing how to teach young children physics using LEGO robotics and Robolab (and now LabVIEW). Her latest book is "LabVIEW Lessons: Classroom Activities for Learning Using LabVIEW and LEGO Mindstorms" (

Here are some take home ideas from her keynote address, "Instructions not included".

I thought Barbara had some nice ideas for challenges...(well, lots really!)
  • Flywheel car - Design a flywheel car that goes as far as possible and/or runs as long as possible.
  • Build an animal that moves in a characteristic fashion and reacts to a stimulus.
  • Haunted House - drive to each of four rooms and then back to the front door.
  • Chain reaction machine - aka Rube Golberg machine
  • RoboArtist - Attributes/rubric… use one medium, uses a second medium, uses one technique, uses a second technique, stays on the paper,…
  • Action/reaction car - balloon powered vehicles.
  • Cool it fast - data logging - to pass the test, your device must increase the cooling by 25%. If you pass, you're done. Otherwise, you need to provide a sketch and analysis of the machine. The most successful increased cooling by 350%.
  • Meet and greet - Build a robot that responds to a pat, or hand shake, or wave. (e.g. by doing a happy dance, or firing mini fig heads at you!, or stabs you!!)
  • At a snail's pace - make a snail that moves as slowly as possible, take a photo, sketch the gear train, calculate how many times the motor needs to turn to make the wheels turn once.
  • Piano playing robot - finger linkages
  • Bridge building - teams have a budget, and each piece costs so much. Students can sell parts back, but at half price.
  • Music box - build a music box with a theme, with characters that move around
  • Gumball machine

Some of the topics, tip and tricks that Barbara discussed...
  • Why engineering? - Engineers use STEM to create solutions
  • Engineering design process
  • Open-ended projects - give students ownership, and a bunch of other benefits that I didn't get down in time...  )-:
  • Challenges to using open-ended projects - everyone is doing something different, materials can't always be anticipated, storage, classroom noisy and busy, projects always take longer than you'd think.
  • Strategies for success - have a clear set of rules, have a system for managing materials, allow time for tinkering, leave room for false starts and failures, build up to big projects from structure to unstructured, from simple to complex.
  • Ground rules - we will be doing projects, large and small, throughout the year. Sometimes your attempt will be a success, other times it will be failure. Failure is okay, what's not okay is making fun of other people's failure. You can make constructive criticism - eg. "your car isn't going straight" is not okay, but "it looks like you car isn't driving straight because the left wheel is rubbing against the motor is okay". No designs are private property - be flattered if someone else uses your ideas.
  • Students with prior experience can create more elaborate projects.
  • Students can put their own stamp on projects.
  • Swedish school collaboration
    • each class picks a song and sends it to the other class to create a dance for that song
    • ask trivia of each other
  • How do I start the year? - Give students an opportunity to play with the materials. e.g. ball holder that must have a hinged lid, build a bear chair. 
  • How do you teach programming? - e.g. Driver's license with a sequence of basic movement challenges, Drive for five, pirouette, lurch, etc. This would be the first of a series of tasks, with each sequence finishing with an open ended challenge - e.g. get out of the box.
  • Does everyone do the same project? - each team could do part of a bigger project e.g. hamburger maker, Rube Goldberg, chain reaction.
  • How do you assess these projects?
    • e.g. ramp climbing car - test your car… how steep a ramp can it climb? Recorded the angle in degrees…. describe the problems, changes you could make, etc. - assess the progress and systematic approach to problem solving
      • design sheet and sketches
      • rubrics - points allocated for various features e.g. gum ball
      • tests e.g. build a balance out of LEGO, string, and a set of matrix masses, can take as much time you like. When finished, they're given a set of 4 unknown masses and scored based on the number of masses they measure to within 0.5g.
    • Pitfalls - grading based on success and grading based on creativity are tricky. Instead, grade on documentation, systematic improvement, understanding of underlying concepts
    • All projects documented - photos and videos of everything - on a password protected website so parents can access from home
  • Do you still have time to teach traditional academic topics? Yes!
  • Qualitative and quantitative - paper cup telephone,
  • Avoid single winner competitions
    • Give options about which contest to enter e.g perfect pitcher - distance or accuracy?
    • Structure projects to that everyone can win - e.g. clean sweep - clear all the Lego in the box in 30 seconds.
  • How do you attract girls? - create a collaborative atmosphere, avoid competition, de-emphasise cars.
  • To clean a classroom quickly - Barbara stands at the door with a bucket, to leave the room you've got to put a piece from the floor into the bucket.

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