Saturday, December 17, 2005

Robotics Practice Tournament - What it was like for my team

Improbably, my team, my newbies, my kids who barely had a working robot when we arrived this morning, placed seventh out of 35 teams in the "robot performance" aspect of the tournament.

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.


Blogger posthipchick said...

Go Team Frizzle!

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Adam Piontek said...

Yeah, congratulations! Yay, I needed some good news :)

7:23 PM  
Blogger Not Quite Grown Up... said...

That sounds like a great experience for you and your team!

8:21 PM  
Blogger Amerloc said...

Woot! GratZ! PWN 'em next time!

8:37 PM  
Blogger Princess of the Portable said...

This sounds like a great experience. One of the things I struggle with most is how to motivate kids to keep trying when giving up seems the better option. :)

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy hearing about the Lego team. My son was on the Robotics team in high school (what comes after the Lego competitions.) They had 15-20 kids on the team, one physics teacher in charge of the team, some volunteer engineers from the local John Deere, an industrial tech teacher, and 3-4 parents who volunteered everytime. You are trying to do it alone! They would be donated empty warehouse space to work in for a few months during the season. (The playing field for Robotics is really big.) They would build a practice playing field to work on while getting ready for the competition. They worked 7-10 p.m. many weeks in a row leading up to competition. The advantage to just you working with the team, though, is that I bet the kids feel more empowered because they are actually doing more on their own.

9:26 AM  
Blogger graycie said...

***Loud cheering! *** Showers of glittery confetti! ** Raucous shouts of joy! *** Lots of hugs and back slapping! *** Flights of balloons! *** Fireworks!***

What you and your kids accomplished is what we all want in our own subject areas -- genuine learning of material, how to use what you learn, how/when to adapt or push on or scrap it.

***Hooray *** Hooray *** Hooray***

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it my imagination, or have some comments been eliminated????

12:45 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

It's your imagination. Even if I wanted to eliminate comments, this is the first time I've checked the internet in 24 hours. I haven't had time to censor anyone.

What makes you think that they have been?

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could have sworn I saw postings from the higer-ups at the DOE congratulating you and finally realizing that this system has so many dedicated professionals like you.

Sorry, I must have been dreaming.

5:45 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

LOL. Maybe after the real tournament in January.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Grand Moff Trojan said...

Congrats!!! I am glad to hear that you are doing well with this additional project.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Chaz said...

Ms. Frizzle;

For some of those students you do make a difference. They will never forget their experience and that you were there to guide them.

As for DOE educrats congratulating you, only that you didn't ask for per session for all the work you did Saturday.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You really do deserve to get per session and I will tell you why.

Our current mayor and Mayor Rudy both stated that teaching is a calling and not a profession. And teachers do not go into teaching for the money.

Sorry, but we are a profession and we can both care for our students and deserve to be paid accordingly.
We are required to get a BA, MA amd 30 above the MA.

Your principal has the budget (if she is anything like my principal) to pay for this tournament and the one in January. I'm sure she must read these posts.

While I respect your "I did it for the kids" comment, I think the time we spend staying late, working on weekends preparing lessons, etc. has just as much worth as a lawyer charging clients for every second they put into a case. The teachers working in the suburbs get the bucks and I am sure they are just as dedicated.
You can always use the money for your classroom.

Teachers have expenses too!
(unless you're an heiress)

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

In Region 4 all schools involved in robotics (30+) are allocated 80 hours of per session for their robotic teacher(s) because robotics was put into a massive 3 year federal technology grant (one more year after this and they have to fend for themselves.) I believe that teachers in Region 2 that went for training also got some per session and some schools figure out a way to get some money for their teachers.

At the Queens tournament on Saturday any coach from Region 4 that wanted to could punch in. Most put in more than 80 hours during the year - there's an event in May and they are asked to apportion their hours accordingly but they often run over.

Some people involved in robotics look down on this, feeling that it should be a "voluntary" activity, but long-time teacher/coaches are beginning to resent that attitude, at least in NYC and I know of some that have dropped out this year, feeling they are just doing too much - a lot of the initial impetus for the FLL in NYC came from teacher, not administrative, initiatives. Quite a few are doing all this without adminsitrative support or interest and they complain all the time but keep coming back because this program has so many rewarding aspects, it is addictive. But at some point the sense of volunteerism wears away.

Others have gotten the entrenaurial spirit – I know of a teacher who set up an after-school robotics program and charges parents and they are fighting to get in. Some have expanded into summer camps and service hundreds of kids.

As for the big-wigs at the DOE, some have made note of the impact the program is having – there are even some teams at City Hall Academy at Tweed. But wihtout some financial support from the top at some point, many teachers drift away eventually.

Sorry to bring such mundane issues of money into an educational discussion.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Kris said...

First off, congratulations! Sounds like the kids pulled it together under pressure. I'd bet that they'll be even more inspired to figure out a way to solve the problems that they encountered.

Now, a question. I love the idea of a practice session, and I do firmly believe that kids who see other solutions learn substantially from seeing how others solve a problem. But is there not a risk that kids will get ideas for solving the challenge from the other presentations they see? Are the solutions readily visible to onlookers? Or is this okay in this program? With my Destination Imagination teams, interference - intentional or not - is absolutely not allowed. Most teams wouldn't dream of using an idea they saw in another solution, but maybe some would. Seeing a solution to the same challenge they are attempting to solve could interfere with their own solution. DI does offer some practice events for their instant challenges (that constantly change), but never for the main challenge.

Just curious.

2:17 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

As it turns out, I AM getting per session for the tournament. I told my principal about how well we did, and she was like, "You're putting in a time sheet for this, right?" So there you have it. And I discovered that another teacher has been getting paid for all the chess tournaments he attends (one nearly every weekend) which makes me feel much better about getting paid for the two robotics tournaments.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Cave-Woman said...

Hooray for your team!

A couple of years ago I coordinated a Rube-Goldberg competition for my students using recyclable materials. It was a blast!

Sounds like your kids are a wonderfully engaged group.

Keep up the good work!

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Money well deserved!!!
(and a very lovely principal if I may say)

Now go out and buy yourself something nice.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Fred Wright said...

I start out by telling my students to copy anything we can and then to figure out we can use it to solve problems. The very first thing we do at the tourneys is to walk around and look at every other team and robot. Then we stand around the practice table and take notes and pictures. We also offer every resource possible to anyone who asks. We post our ideas and designs and sometimes our code on our blog. We are subscribing to the "open source" or transparent concept. We believe that sharing and tweaking is a real skill. To pretend you did not see an answer to a crossword puzzle and not use it and avoid it or to use the answer and pretend it was yours are both silly.

So we offer our ideas and solutions freely including our research for our project. We have been given riches so we give away what we think is precious. The Honda I own is a better vehicle because of the way US design and production was improved upon. Just ask my father, a retired United Auto Worker who built Chevy trucks for 25 years. The methods were different but I like my car.

Last year when we practiced and won a few missions, we had a unique design. When we competed at the FLL Tournament, we saw 25 versions of our design all scoring points. Wow! I have a hard time letting go of all this myself but I have a feeling the presentations follow a similar trend. That is if you can not explain it and prove by the explinations why an element is key to your solution that comes off as insincere or as prepared by someone else.

Our method is still experimenal but doing things this way feels better than being secretive and super competitve. We trust everone to borrow so we do not resent anyone for looking over our shoulder. I will admit to some misdirection though...

Ms. Frizzle Congratulations to your team and I am pleased to see you have all of these experiences to build upon. I think any first year coach can relate to many of your experiences. Next year you get a whole new list of things to go wrong and right!

5:58 PM  

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