Summer 2013: Robots, Day 1

Jeff Goodin talkin' robots

Jeff Goodin talkin’ robots

I always think long and hard about what programs to plan for my G3 scientists, especially for the summertime when energy is high, minds are open, and creativity is off the charts. I was ecstatic when I discovered that the Cheshire High School Mecha Rams (FIRST Robotics Team #999) would be willing to team up with G3 for a 3-part series on what they know and love best…ROBOTS!  Jeff Goodin led our program and activities, aptly joined by 7 teen members of the Mecha Rams (Evan Langelis, Joe Goncalves, Nick Tracey, Charles Zhu, Kaitlin Mines, Michael DeFrensesco, CJ Caron). The teens will attend the full program series to help mentor our young scientists.

Each of our scientists received a great information booklet from the Mecha Rams that talks about the history of robots, what exactly a “robot” is, robotics terminology, some famous scientist biographies, activities that can be tried at home, and more. Jeff spent some time talking to the G3 scientists about what a robot actually is, what a robot needs, and why we need robots. In particular, I remember being blown away by something Jeff said at the start of our hour:

  • In about 2 years, there will be more robots on earth than human beings!  How crazy is that?!  [And in case you were wondering, current estimates say there are over 7 billion people on Earth!! Inquisitive minds can check out the cool, ever-changing "Population Clock" from the US Census Bureau.]
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Captivated by the competition videos

G3 is always fond of multimedia resources, and Jeff didn’t disappoint. He shared some really interesting videos with our group. The first video showed a group of middle school students using a LEGO® robotics kit and entering a competition where their small robot would receive points based on how well it completed a series of challenges (e.g., knocking an item off a pedestal, grabbing an item). This video was followed by one that showed highlights from the competition that the Mecha Rams entered last year…with much larger, hand-made robots and even harder challenges to complete. Jeff said that some of the robots created from scratch by high school teams can weigh 120+ pounds! The challenge last year involved 1) designing a robot that could collect and then throw Frisbees through a series of open goals, OR 2) designing a robot that could climb a tower. Our Cheshire Mecha Rams opted for the 2nd challenge (climbing the tower). Both videos gave the G3 crew a great sense of how they could start thinking about giving programming instructions to robots as well as what kind of fun competitions they could get involved with as they enter the middle school and then the high school.

Talking to our pretend robots...

How do we get our “robot” to sit?

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Walk forward…

Once the videos finished, Jeff had a great activity for our G3 scientists and their teen mentors – one that would help them develop both their teamwork skills and help them get in the right mindset for creating instructions/programs for the small LEGO® robots.  The room was divided into a series of teams with one teen mentor assigned to each group. Each team was also given 2 chairs that were set up in line with each other but a short distance apart. The instructions:

  • One person would pretend to be a robot. They would close their eyes, and then only move as instructed to by their other team members. For example, if they were instructed to move forward, they would continue walking forward unless instructed to stop.
  • The other team members – the programmers – needed to have their “robot” walk around the farthest chair, sit down in it, and then return to the starting chair…and this needed to be accomplished through only their verbal instructions.
  • The Cheshire High teens acted as both judges and mentors, correcting the “programmers” when they used instructions that would not work with a real robot and explaining how they might make similar requests with different words/instructions.
The LEGO sound sensor

The LEGO sound sensor

The G3 crew quickly realized that thinking like a programmer can be very tricky indeed. A lot of our scientists said they had difficulty getting their “robot” to move left or right, or to understand their instructions as given. For example, if they asked their “robot” to “step forward,” they might have assumed that the “robot” would walk forward but the team member pretending to be the robot interpreted the instruction as a single step with just one leg. So, the activity was definitely good practice for the activities yet to come in our summer series.

Checking out the LEGO robot kit

Checking out the LEGO robot kit

What does this sensor do?

What does this sensor do?

The final time in the day was spent with some fun, hands-on work with the LEGO robots. Our G3 scientists wasted no time in exploring the robot kits and getting those robots roaming around the room. The teen mentors helped each group by explaining the different sensors that could be attached to each robot (light, touch, sound) and how each sensor could work on the robot. By far, the most popular sensor with our G3 crew was the sound sensor.  Check out some of the crazy fun they had with the robots below.

In next week’s program, the G3 scientists will do some more structured work with the robots and the teens will help them with some actual programming and testing. The G3 scientists will also form their competition teams, come up with team names, and even create their own team buttons!  All of this will lead up to the final program of our series on July 25th, when the G3 teams will actually compete in a series of challenges using their robots. I can’t wait to see my G3 scientists dive into their hands-on work with the robots :)

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