Summer 2014: Robots, Day 1 of 3

I like to refer to the summer of 2014 as “Return of the Robots!” We had such a great time with the Cheshire High School Mecha Rams (FIRST Robotics Team #999) that I couldn’t wait to invite them back for another program series this summer. Jeff Goodin was just as excited as me by the idea, and he and his teen mentors have worked hard to put together a great series of events and activities for our G3 scientists to introduce them to the amazing world of robotics.  Jeff was unable to join us for this first day, but he had adult mentors Ray Kelchner, Rob Brucato, and Joe Grzybowski do a bang-up job of filling in for him. They were joined by current teen and alum members of the Mecha Rams:  Sean Kelchner, Christian Kenney, Michael Defranesco, Dan Fisher, and Bella Guo (alum). The teens will attend the full program series to help mentor our young scientists through all of the activities.

One of the coolest moments of the day had to be be when our G3 crew was introduced to the Mecha Rams award-winning robot, “Tomorrow.” Last year, their robot didn’t survive the rigorous competition rounds; this year, we were lucky to see the actual competition robot in action. The goal this year was to design a robot that could launch a ball through a hoop. Points could be achieved by actually sending the ball through the hoop, but they could also be achieved by assisting other robots to do the same. Ray Kelchner described the robot competitions as something like a basketball game. Your team combines with other teams, and you have brief strategy discussions to see who will perform what function on the team. You might be on “offense” and work to launch a ball through a hoop. You might be on “defense” and work to protect your own goal. You also might be like a point guard, who “assists” other players by putting them in the perfect position to score points for the larger team. The robot Tomorrow actually turned out to be a great “assist” robot, feeding balls to other robots for scoring maneuvers.

After meeting Tomorrow and watching the Mecha Rams manipulate him both outside in the parking and indoors in our program room, it was time to divide the room into 3 large groups for the day’s activities. There were 3 stations set up in the room:

  1. STATION ONE:  BUTTON MAKING.  Students were allowed to design and produce their own wearable button. A big part of robotics competitions involves the fanfare and team spirit – many people show their support and spirit through the vast number of thematic buttons they wear to the competition venues.
  2. STATION TWO:  COMPUTER CODING.  Working on laptops or iPads, the G3 crew got some practice with coding…coding an Angry Birds game, that is, by visiting 🙂
  3. STATION THREE:  THINK LIKE A PROGRAMMER.  Working in groups of three or four, our G3 scientists programmed each other using a handy robot dictionary that was provided by the Mecha Rams. They wrote their own code with paper and pencil to guide a human “robot” through a maze with the goal of picking up a beach ball from the floor.


Our G3 crew had a lot of fun making their own buttons. The designs ranged from cool pictures to fun team names to just buttons showcasing their own names.


When we took a vote at the end of the day, this activity by far was the favorite among our G3 crew. They worked in pairs on either a laptop or iPad to practice their coding skills with the fun of Angry Birds thrown in. Of course that was a blast! Several kids even came up to me as the program day ended to make sure I was posting the web site on my blog post so they could visit it again on their own time and continue playing with code (and Angry Birds!) 🙂


This station was a lot of fun because it really showed our G3 crew how difficult it is to think like a programmer. The kids were first given a “robot dictionary” to help them in designing the instructions they would give their human partner (acting as a robot) to walk through a maze and pick up a beach ball at the end. All groups were given the opportunity to walk through the maze, testing their code, before they made a formal attempt to complete the course. When they were ready, the person giving the code turned their back to the maze (so they couldn’t see what their partner was doing on the course itself). Instructions were given one-by-one, and the partner in the course was forced to only perform actions as instructed by their partner. Many of our teams discovered just how difficult it was to get a person through the course to the end. In fact, when Rob Brucato turned the “announcer” around to see where their “robot” partner ended up, some of our kids even had a hard time spotting their “robot” partner in the room because they had gone so far off course!


Later this week, the G3 scientists will do their first hands-on work with the LEGO® Mindstorms kits and continue fine-tuning their coding and programming skills. We’ll also be putting our G3 scientists into their smaller competition teams, they’ll come up with formal team names, and even create their own team buttons!  All of this will lead up to the final program of our series on July 24th, when the G3 teams will actually compete in a final challenge 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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