Robotics, Session 3
We are developing a tradition or routine of starting robotics with a team meeting. We push the tables out of the way and move chairs into something approximating a circle. This gives me the chance to make announcements, take attendance, answer questions, and explain the day's tasks.
I started our meeting by creating clean-up crews. I had considered simply assigning each student to a group with a particular clean-up task, but in the end, I simply stood at the chalkboard, asked the kids to list the tasks that we have to do to clean up, and then had them volunteer for different crews. It was interesting to see that kids were drawn to different kinds of jobs, by and large exactly the same ones I would have assigned. But because they chose, they are invested in doing a good job. So we have a group that puts the furniture back and puts up chairs, a group that puts away Legos and checks for lost Legos, a group that puts the computers away, and a group that puts the mat away.
One of the students suggested, "Make sure there are no missing students," as a clean-up task. In the end, I assigned that particular task to myself. The kids kept reminding me not to lose anyone!
Next, I passed out a missions list and we read it and discussed it. The kids had a ton of questions about the missions and other stuff - what are we doing after the tournament is over in January? can we make a robot that reaches over onto the adjoining playing field to pick up the dolphin if the other team gets it first? should we make a really big robot? It was fascinating, because kids who rarely participate in class offered to answer each other's questions. They listened to what the others had to say and asked follow-up questions, made suggestions, offered opinions. Everyone was really focused and respectful.
Finally, we divided into groups for the day. I was a little worried about how this would go, but it ended up working really well. One group built our first robot, following a plan from the book that came with the robot kit. Another group continued working on the shipping container and the boat for the playing field (we are making excruciatingly slow progress, but progress, nonetheless, and a certain group has taken ownership of that part of the project). A third group helped install Robolab on a couple more laptops and did a short tutorial on Robolab with me.
The first group finished the robot in no time. What was fascinating was the way they worked together to troubleshoot various problems that they had. For example, the way they first built it, the wires that connect the motors to the RCX were chafing against the wheels. A student pointed out that this was going to damage the wires over time. I asked if they could change anything about the robot to fix the problem, and then I left them to figure it out. About 10 minutes later, they came over to where I was working with the programmers, eagerly holding up their robot, problem solved. High-fives all around! They put the robot on the table, turned it on, and it promptly plowed into all the remaining Legos, sending them careening toward and over the edges of the table. I asked them to move to the floor for testing, and they eagerly moved to an open space to test their robot. When they found that the motors were turning in opposite directions, making the robot turn but not move forward, they went back to their table and experimented until they figured out the solution. More high-fives!
Meanwhile, the group building the playing field struggled with missing pieces. I don't think anything major is really missing; I believe that what happened is that as we built earlier objects, we used identical pieces that came in different colors. So the kids might be looking for a red 2-by-8 and can't find it, but a black 2-by-8 is available because someone used the wrong color in another project. This is not a major problem and I am letting them figure it out mostly on their own.
Finally, we got Robolab installed on 3 laptops, and I demonstrated the basics to a group of 4 kids. I showed them how to write a program that would make the robot turn on two motors and move forward for 6 seconds. Then I challenged them to add to it so that the robot would reverse and move backwards for 6 seconds. They did it in about 15 minutes, and spent the rest of the time exploring the various options in Robolab, especially music. We will do a whole-group session with Robolab where I go over it more thoroughly, but it was awesome to see how quickly they figured things out on their own. For example, I showed them the "Stop A" and "Stop C" signs, and immediately a student suggested that the "Stop All" sign would be more efficient. Then another chimed in that we hadn't used motor B in our hypothetical robot, so we didn't need "Stop All." I clarified that it would still work, and then we talked about situations when you might choose to stop each motor separately and situations when you might choose to stop all.
As clean-up time neared, I realized that we had a working robot and a workable program, so I told them if we cleaned up in five minutes, we could try to test the program in the RCX. They cleaned up quickly, but then we faced the most perplexing problem of the day: the IR Tower did not turn on when plugged into the computer. I had purchased a 9-Volt battery as shown in the Lego instruction manual, but our IR Tower didn't have a space for a battery. I am still somewhat mystified - anyone out there know what I'm missing? I'm sure it's something obvious, but I just don't see it. Anyway, I have one week to solve this problem because I promised them we could test the program first thing next Thursday.
And I am as eager as they are!
Today was also the first day of filming for the documentary. That went really well, too. The filmmakers are really discreet. I asked the kids not to be shy or to show off, just to be themselves, and they did me proud. I think they totally forgot about the camera, even when it was just a foot or two above them or peeking over their shoulders. I had to wear a clip-on mic which was a little annoying, but not a huge deal. And the guy who wasn't filming actually helped out with the computers, which was so nice. I can do it by myself, but it is SO much better to have a second adult in the room.