Robotics Practice Tournament - What it was like for my team
Only six kids attended, out of the fifteen or so who are still in the club. They got so much out of today, it is a whole new world for us now.
When we arrived, we bumped into the tournament organizer, who kindly welcomed us and answered my anxious questions about what we should do given that we had a robot that kind of worked, and we'd written some programs, but the programs were written for a robot with a rotation sensor, and we hadn't really figured out how to build a robot with a rotation sensor yet. Should we attend the optional workshops on building & programming? Should we forfeit our matches, or just go out there and watch the other teams? And what about the research and technical presentations? He said to go for it, to show up, to ask questions if we couldn't provide answers.
We had about 30 minutes before the competition started, and the kids took the time to write a program on my laptop that would work with our existing robot. We loaded it onto the RCX just in time for the first match - a small miracle given that we were one of the first set of teams to compete in each round - so it turned out that all my anxiety was unfounded, we would not have to forfeit anything. Two sixth graders bravely volunteered to compete in the first match, and we all went tentatively into the competition room. The match started, the clock counted down, and the kids tried out our newly-programmed robot. It spun around. It crashed into things. They gamely picked it up and restarted it. Finally, it broke into six pieces. They picked it up again and came very, very close to repairing it before the 2 1/2 minutes were up. They left eager to troubleshoot.
The team raced back to our pit and repaired the robot. Somehow, in the middle of all this, those same two kids ended up being the ones to give our technical "presentation" - basically, they brought the broken robot into the conference room, explained what had happened to the robot, and then gave an astonishingly detailed explanation of what we should try to do over the next few weeks. I was so proud of them - plenty of adults would not have been able to wing it half so well!
When we returned, we were surprised to look on the scoreboard and discover we were not in last place, and had earned twelve points for the first match (I believe these came from bonus objects that remained on the board at the end of the match).
The next few rounds were a mixed bag. In the second round, they succeeded in knocking the dolphin out of the cage, so we earned about 20 points. That really raised their spirits. The third round was basically crashing and burning - the robot went everywhere but where they wanted it to, knocked over a bunch of stuff, and we fell in the rankings. The troubleshooting energy was high, but the kids were getting overstimulated and racing off in a million different directions. The programmers were not talking to the builders who were not talking to the operators. Lots of good ideas went nowhere.
In the fourth round, they came very close to getting the dolphin again, but the other team got it first. So they were disappointed, but at least it wasn't a problem with the robot. One boy had finished a new program designed to take on multiple missions at one time. We loaded it onto the RCX moments before the match. At this point, although we had scored and the kids were feeling good, it was a very real possibility that we might come in dead last, which would not have gone over well no matter how much they knew they'd learned.
Miraculously and somewhat accidently, the robot completed three different missions! We got the dolphin according to plan. The robot backed up and spun into the pipeline, pushing it into place. And on a second run, it rammed the reef into shallow water. We scored something like 83 points that round! It was awesome - for half an hour, we were listed in fourth place for all to see! I could not tear the kids away from the scoreboard. As the rest of the teams finished up, we dropped to seventh, but everyone was on cloud nine.
I introduced them to the tournament organizer so that they could tell him how far they'd come in just one day - from "I'm not sure we have a robot" to "we just finished seventh!"
The kids have a ton of questions they want answered - How do we slow it down? How do we build a claw? How do we make it more precise? How do we get it to turn accurately? How do we make sure we point it in the right direction? They observed that fancier robots did not always work better than simple ones. They can now talk confidently about the various missions, which ones we should try, what they require. They are talking strategy. One of our important realizations was that once you have tried a program a couple of times during a match, if it is not working, it may be best to quit while you're ahead, so you don't lose all your bonus points starting it over and over again, and so you avoid damaging the playing field and losing points for that. At the same time, they learned that a lot of problems can be solved during competition, and that it rarely hurts to point it in some new direction and see what happens.
I cannot wait until Thursday, when I will ask them to share their tournament experiences with their teammates, and when we will build on the energy from today.
And man, am I tired. I think I'm going to make myself chocolate chip pancakes for dinner.