Thursday, December 01, 2005

Robotics, Session 5

Or, The best-laid plans can still be foiled by technological difficulties.

Robotics started out really well this week.

I have begun a new routine intended to foster creativity and teamwork; we start each session with a very short activity from Kris Bordessa's book, Team Challenges. The added benefit of this is that while they take 5-10 minutes to work on the challenge, I can run around and set things up. So today, I gave each group of 2-4 kids one index card, 6 round stickers, and about 8 minutes to find a way to build a free-standing bridge that would cross about 18 inches of space between two chairs. Each group solved it, and what was interesting was that they really did find different solutions to the challenge. Two groups got it fairly quickly, while the third took just about the allotted time, and the last group really pushed the time limit. I am giving them more time than her book allows, because they are new to this and I want to encourage thinking and planning rather than just grabbing the materials and throwing something together. I think the kids liked the activity, and I'm planning to try this one next week (my favorites are the ones that use stuff I already have in the classroom...).

I forgot all about the prizes that I had - Hershey's Hugs - because I was working on my own Teacher Challenge: Get The LCD Projector Working. This was an omen. I've used the LCD projector a dozen times in the last few years, and I almost always struggle to get it to project; it is very sensitive to whether you turn on the computer first or the projector first. I don't use it frequently enough to remember which is the correct order, so I always end up spending a harried few minutes restarting everything and crossing my fingers. (You know, it just occurred to me to make up an instruction card and tape it to the top of the projector. That might help in the future.) Anyway, I stalled for time by giving each group a laptop and having them turn them on and open Robolab, and just in the nick of time, voila! we had projection.
Note: Whatever happens, keep the kids busy! Buy yourself time to troubleshoot without having an audience of bored kids shouting conflicting instructions at you.

I did a mini-lesson on Robolab. We couldn't find Robolab on one of the laptops, even though I know I installed it earlier today, so I let that group "drive" the projection while I stood by the screen and pointed things out. We made a basic program to make the robot go forward for 6 seconds and then stop. Then I challenged them to spend the last half hour and write a program to make the robot move in a square.

One group - all sixth graders - are quickly becoming the robotics superstars. They got right to work. They have a strong leader, one of the girls, and all members of the group are eager to learn and willing to listen to each other. It's no suprise that this was one of the first two groups to solve the bridge-building challenge. Their program was definitely functional, although they will have to tweak the amount of time they tell the robot to turn. We had some interesting give-and-take about whether the robot needed to turn in the same direction for each corner, or a different direction. They are quick learners and so much fun to work with. You can pretty much just leave them and they do their thing, and when they need help, they ask for it and then take the new information and run with it. Awesome.

The other groups..... not so awesome. Several key team members were absent, students who are, in various combinations, very smart, good leaders, and extremely enthusiastic. The other kids tend to follow their lead, so without those students, energy was low and kids were picking at each other. I heard a lot of "Shut up!" and had to cajole certain kids to engage with the task. In retrospect, I probably should have given them more choice in their programming task or asked if any of them prefered to finish building the boat, but hey, there was a lot going on and hindsight is 20-20. Anyway, by the end, a couple of groups had at least started the programming task, and the sixth grade group had finished.

With only about ten minutes left, it was time to test the sixth graders' program. I connected the IR Tower - which was working yesterday! - and we attempted to load the program onto the RCX. No luck. Then I realized that it was a different computer than the one we had been using yesterday, and there might be one last installation step (the computer has to recognize the IR Tower), and maybe we had to be logged in as an administrator to complete that step and get it working. I quickly logged us out, logged back in as an admin, and we tried again. No luck. By this point, the rest of the kids had started to go slightly bonkers. I had to "bench" a couple who showed remarkably bad judgment (I turned around to see one boy toss the doorstop across the room). So, I had to tell the sixth graders we'd try again in homeroom tomorrow, so that I could put out fires and oversee clean-up. *sigh*

These technical problems are sooooooo frustrating!!! It all seemed so easy at the Vision Ed workshops. Sure, sometimes you had to cover the tower and robot with a shoebox to block out ambient light, but otherwise, no big deal. I loaded Robolab onto laptops all day today, one at a time. I was surreptitiously installing it even while teaching! I put hours of preparation into today, and in the end, we got tantalizingly close but were still hampered by technical difficulties. Grrrrr!

One unfulfilling session was manageable, but two in a row is a real problem. The kids' morale will start to flag - it may already be flagging. The moment of seeing a program operating in the robot ought to be galvanizing, inspiring those who weren't really focused to work harder in order to test their own program and have that same feeling of success. It is really hard to have several weeks go by without this kind of concrete positive feedback.

I stayed after for an hour or so and tried to fix the problem, without success. I will try again tomorrow, and I think I will also transfer the kids' program to the first laptop - the one that was working yesterday - in the hopes of showing them their results quickly and buying myself time to sort out the issues with the other laptops.

Overall, I guess it wasn't awful, and there were some really positive moments. We are still figuring this all out. The problems now are an investment in everything being much easier in future years. And the sixth grade group rocks my world.


Anonymous Norm said...

What you are going through is that same type of learning process that kids often face. Many first year people in FLL learn a lot more about managing the program than about robotics itself. Because of all the frustrations, some kids begin drifting away, which is why teachers have learned by the 2nd year to overrecruit. A lot of teaches come over to me at the events and say "I can't wait for next year. Now I know what I have to do to make this work smoothly." It can all be so frustrating but somehow usually works out very well in the end. I'm going to send out some of your reports in an NYCFIRST Update so others can share your pain.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Kris said...

Happy to hear that the kids had fun building bridges!

1:38 PM  

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