Thursday, March 17, 2016

Teaching Girls to be Brave, not Perfect

The scene:

Frozen, she stared at her RobotC program on the screen. 
Her lifeless partner, the robot, yearning for an algorithm, stood in front of her.
USB cable unplugged. No connection between them. 

While looking at the two of them, suddenly, it occurred to me--she might be afraid that her program won't work. I thought of Reshma Saujani and her TED Talk: Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection. I had watched her stare at the screen for days, trying to encourage her, but it wasn't until a colleague sent me Saujani's Ted Talk that I realized what might be happening here. Girls are often refrain trying things and takings risks due to fear of not getting it perfect.

I sat down next to them.
"Have you tested your program?" I asked.
"No," she nodded.
"Well, let's do it and see what happens. Then we'll have some information about how it works."
A sheepish and concerned "Okay," was barely audible.

She plugged in her USB cord. The familiar download sound occurred.


The robot came to life, engaging in unpredicted antics, as the arm pushed down forcefully lifting the front part of the robot off the counter and turned wildly to the left and back etc... Not, what she wanted to happen. (I could have predicted this.) Excitedly, I started asking her questions.

She smiled and we began debugging together.

As often happens, class was over just when it started to get interesting. (A topic for another post.)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

EV3s Ready for 2nd Semester

Second semester base robots have been built by the students and are poised for another term of abuse. The greater my organization, the minimal harm to the robots and the greater the learning. From one semester to the next, my organization seems to steadily improve, but mostly by small increments. This semester however was different. A major reorganization of my classroom including: tearing out some wall-mounted table tops; installation of  a white-board wall; and the reorienting of the projector to face away from the door, produced an major organizational leap forward. I am excited about the time that will be saved. Here are some photos and bullet points describing my course.
  • I color code everything! As you can see from the photos. 
  • Kids use 2 computers. One with curriculum open and one with LEGO Mindstorms open.
  • They watch curriculum videos using color coded earbuds.
  • Earbuds are kept in color coded baggies, stored behind robot in parking spaces. 
  • Color coded USB cables are stored in parking spaces. 
  • Classes are 40-45 minutes long. Kids come in a get right work. 
  • Kids that move through curricular challenges faster, completes others that I create or they create their own challenges. 
  • They pseudocode only the final challenges for each module. 
  • There are entrance procedures and exit procedures. 
Color coded robot parking spaces.
Color coded LEGO element toolkits.
       Whiteboard "wall-paper."
"How Close to the Edge?"- challenge.

One last thing. Every semester students evaluate their courses using an electronic "Student Feedback Intsrument." One question asks students whether or not the "Teacher integrates and uses technology in the course." As a reminder of the spectrum of perception on which middle school students can be, I give you these three responses:
  • We use tech all the time.
  • Not really.
  • It's a robotics class. 
This made me smile. 
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

LEGO EV3 Robotics Soccer Shootout

To inspire my 5 girls and 5 boys in my Robotics Innovation Design from day 1 this year, I decided to do something a little different. Classes on our first day of school were 20 minutes long. I didn't want to spend the time talking about policies and goals etc... Instead, I wanted to do something that I could refer back to constantly throughout the semester. Thus, I introduced the final group project to get them thinking about ideas from day one. I showed them all the videos of the final projects from the past 4 semesters and left them with a question mark. "What will you all produce?"

I have posted final project videos all but last Spring's in previous blog posts. Below is the Soccer Shootout from my 2015 Spring RID class. I hope you enjoy it. It certainly inspired my present students.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Final Semester Project: Olympic Torch / Robot Parade

Or "Capturing Footage of a Wild Animal"

The first semester for our school has come to end. During the last several weeks, the students worked on their final project which was to be performed at the last middle school assembly of the semester, literally just minutes before being dismissed for winter break.

The students and I met in the theater in the morning to do several last run throughs. It worked fairly well, but probably would not work perfectly. Robots sometimes have minds of their owns, it seems. The robot starting positions were marked and the blue, green, red and white tape was laid out on the stage. The robots were supposed to move forward in formation to the green line and stop and wave their flags in sequence. Then the center robot would move out of the way for the torch robot to move forward across the stage, stop at the red line and do a ninety degree turn to face the audience. Once the center robot moved back into position, all the robots with their flags up would move forward to the blue line, stop, back up and turn to face the audience. They would then follow the white line staying a set distance behind the robot in front using their ultrasonic sensor. Once the lead robot stopped at the barrier, all the robots were supposed to stop and wave their flags once or until the barrier was removed. 

The following video is of the assembly and shows robots not cooperating.

Post assembly, the students bolted for winter break leaving me unsatisfied with the performance. Therefore, I came into school one morning during break to debug the robots and record what should have happened.

With my heart pounding, I coordinated the camera, the music and the robots singlehandedly and managed to get the following on the first take. It wasn't perfect as you will see. "That'll do," I said to myself. When I turned off the camera, I literally felt like I had captured footage of a wild animal never to be seen again. Enjoy.

As always, thank you for reading and viewing.
Happy New Year everyone. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Apple Orchard Challenge and the Thoughtful Robot

My students progressed faster than I expected through the Movement tutorials of the EV3 Curriculum. Being in the computer lab with 18 pc desktops and only 11 students works out well. I bought some cheap earbuds and some splitters so that each pair of students could plug in and listen to the same curriculum video on one computer while programming in Mindstorms on another.

The students' level of engagement ramped up when I brought in a robotics table (the kind used in the FLL) and built the Apple Orchard Challenge right before there eyes. The curriculum called for black electrical tape, but I did not want to have to hem and haw about whether it counted or not if one wheel crossed the tape etc. Using some cardboard aluminum foil tubes, different colored post-it notes and tape, I created a more 'realistic' orchard. I also figured the kids would enjoy it more if they hit something rather than simply motored over the black tape. The Mandarin teacher, a great friend of mine, helped me 'plant' the 'trees' on the cardboard tubes and suggested I make them fruit trees. I love collaboration!


The video above was of the first group to get down the last row. So close they were. Eventually, all five groups completed the challenge. There was definitely some frustration along the way as the students realized that starting the robot in a slightly different position could throw angles and distances off and cause a crash into the trees as shown below. They persisted, over and over and over again. Give kids challenges and they persevere.


You may have noticed one robot moving much slower than the others. That was Orange Blossom, named for the colored tape on the robot. Paige and Eve decided to take a more slow and steady approach in programming their robot than the other four groups. This elicited sighs of impatience as the other students had to wait for their turn on the board. Emily, a member of the second group to complete the challenge, watched Orange Blossom seemingly stroll through the orchard as if looking for an apple to pick and quipped, "That is such a thoughtful robot." Knowing what she might I asked her why because I wanted to hear it from her. "Because it is moving so slowly." Ahh, so there are benefits to moving slowly. Maybe this realization could be applied to other aspects of school and life. If I haven't written it yet, I am now. Kids learn so much more than robotics in a robotics course.

On to sensors. A student already gave me an idea for a theme song for this unit. 
Stay tuned and thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

First Day of School: No! No! Yes!

Classes on our first day of school are only 20 minutes long. A few years ago, I realized that instead of wasting this time with logistics such as name cards and what did you do this summer, I wanted to do something that I could and would refer to throughout the entire course. Something that I could refer to constantly as "What did you learn on the very first day?" For robotics, I thought that I would have the kids write pseudocode from the very first program as simple as it would be. Then I thought, "No." I should wait until the programs become more complicated and then introduce pseudocode. But then I thought that, "No!" again. I should do it from the very beginning so that it becomes engrained and automatic. "Yes!" This is what I will do. Thus, I had the students write in their journals the directions/steps for making a robot go around a stack of their journals. I put out a couple of meter sticks and the kids went right to work. It was great. The students then shared their steps out loud. Forward some inches (Next time, it will be metric.), then turn 90 degrees etc. It was great. After stacking their journals on top of each other in the middle of the table, I then demonstrated an actual program with a base robot that I had already created to complete the task. I chose not to introduce the word pseudocode until later, but simply refer to what they wrote as directions or steps. With the hook set, the next day I will have the students build the base robot, review some of the course expectations and get started on the EV3 Curriculum

Monday, July 28, 2014

Robotics Academy PD at CMU NREC

(I am in the front row, 3rd from the right in the dark shirt, if you care to know.)

With one year of teaching LEGO EV3 Mindstorms under my belt piecing together a curriculum as I went along, it was time for some formal training. I decided on the Robotics Academy Certified EV3 Professional Development at the NREC, "part of the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, a world-renowned robotics organization, where you'll be surrounded by real-world robot research and commercialization." The mecca of robotics! 

Twenty-four teachers from all over the United States and several from schools abroad, including Doha, Ireland, Madagascar and Vietnam converged on the NREC for one week of training using the EV3 Curriculum. After the program and facility overview and introductions, we entered the secure facility by signing in and collecting our badges and name cards. This is the real deal, the vanguard of robotic engineering research. Indeed, each of the five mornings Norman Kerman, the designated mayor of the NREC, and CHIMP welcomed us into the giant converted warehouse as we walked to our classroom.

An articulate, knowledgeable and thorough teacher, Ross Higashi, wasted no time starting us programming using the EV3 Curriculum for the Mindstorms software. You can get an idea of what the curriculum is like by testing out the free online version. The organization and presentation of the software hooked everyone that I spoke with almost immediately, including one woman who was truly skeptical and didn't want to be there in the first place, but her school insisted on sending her. 

Last year I used the Robot Educator within the Mindstorms software and challenges from Classroom Activities for the Busy Teacher: EV3 by Damien Kee. (This book has great activities that I will continue to use). The students did not notice the lack of depth and continuity that I noticed and felt badly about. (I tend to be hard on myself.) With the EV3 Curriculum from the NREC, I had found what I was looking for. On day one of the program, a sound pedagogical philosophy emerged. The course was not just about learning the Mindstorms' programming environment; it was about teaching for understanding, i.e. the portion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Moreover, the philosophy was modeled, not simply talked about. A well organized, engaging curriculum, real world examples, clear explanations and a sound pedagogical philosophy?! I was sold! 

The free version includes the basics, but the bonus segments on My Blocks, Data Wires and Logic come with the purchased version. 

Overall, this program was one of the most productive, effective, and applicable professional development experiences that I have ever had. I had considered taking the online course, but much preferred to be there in person and interact with the instructors, the other teachers and experience the facility. Moreover, I had never been to Pittsburgh, PA. Carnegie Mellon University; The University of Pittsburgh; the beautiful stadiums; the three rivers; the bridges; the museums, etc. I loved it and will definitely be back, hopefully for the RobotC professional development course. If you are new to EV3 or wish to upgrade your understanding I strongly recommend these courses. 

As always, thank you for reading.