Robotics Education

A Blog for my independent study in robotics education. I will post frequently, as all work I write here will be handed in and graded.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Last week was much better than the previous workshop. We had six kids, this time—almost seven, but the one kid didn’t want to work with a partner, so he left. (I tried convincing him to stay, but he was completely unresponsive, not even making eye contact.) However, we even managed to attract a member of the female species!

We followed the lesson plan rather loosely, as the students were able to grasp the visual programming rather quickly, and a lot of the assignments are somewhat redundant. Instead of having them do all of the tasks straight through, I had them skip ahead, using variations of the more advanced tasks. For example, once the kids were able to get the bot to turn, I didn’t have them write a program to go straight and turn—I simply had them program it to use the touch sensor. So, to keep the lessons going at a brisk pace, we’re going to skip further ahead and have them start experimenting with the light sensors.

One thing that worked out very well was the partnering of the students: the most experienced boy, Kyle, was able to teach the girl well enough that she was able to catch up with everyone else in the workshop, despite missing the first two periods. Group learning works well when one of the group members is somewhat more knowledgeable than the others.

So today Kevin and I are going to bring light sensors, and perhaps have the kids program the bots to follow lines.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Disappointing Showing

The workshop last Thursday did not go as well as expected. The entire problem—and I’m not sure whose fault it is—was the lack of participating students. The previous week, where we had five kids (a small but interested group), we were promised that more would show up the following week. Both the teacher attending the workshop and the program coordinator indicated that those who had attended would bring more of their friends along with them, and we would have perhaps as many as fifteen.

This, however, is not what happened. The workshop this last time consisted of only two children, only one of which had come the previous week. He was certainly enthusiastic about the robots, but he is quite young—a seventh grader. I have no problem including him in the activity, but I was expecting an overall older age group. The other student is a sixth grader, and obviously had little interest in learning anything about the robots; he had come only for the snacks. I feel confident in this conclusion, as the only time he did not have a bored or impatient attitude was when the teacher offered him a snack bar.

I understand the reasoning behind encouraging after school activities with snacks, but if the student is simply unable to generate interest in the activity (and I don’t believe I should have to work too hard towards garnering it), then perhaps it would be more prudent to place him in a sports program. I came to run a workshop in robotics for high school students, not baby sit a rambunctious sixth grader.

I think that if the school is interested in having me run more workshops, the administration needs to do more advertising. 8½ by 11 inch sheets hung intermittently through the hallway seem to have had little effect; teachers must announce the programs offered after school in the classroom where their attention is undivided.

I am still looking forward to running the next workshop, but I hope sincerely that there are more students this next time.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Meeting in the lab

I had a short meeting yesterday in the lab. I picked up five copies of the lesson for the students from Sumon. I also showed Prof Sklar what I did with the Google calendar (see above). And she told me that I should focus on designing the PHP form for future surveys rather than doing the data entry for the past surveys. The whole thing lasted about an hour.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

First Day at Wingate

Thursday, Kevin and I went to the high school. We met at the lab at one fifteen, gathered the kits, and left. We got there at two o’clock and were shown around by Dana for about half an hour before we went upstairs to the classroom. There were only five kids there, but they were well behaved an interested working with the robots.

We gave the kids some papers to fill out for the school, and while they did that, we handed out the kits and instruction manuals. One of them had already been involved with a robotics competition that used Lego bots, so he was able to construct his in a matter of twenty to thirty minutes. Others worked at an even pace, while one younger kid needed more help. He was often unable to distinguish between different sized pieces, and was often thrown off by the inconsistency of the colors of the blocks; the instructions indicated that he needed to use a yellow block, but some yellow blocks were replaced with gray blocks while Kevin and I were putting them together. I also tried having him use the flipbook instructions, and that worked somewhat better, but he was also confused by the fact that all the pieces in flipbook are gray and black.

The three others were able to get along with building the bots with only minimal help needed. Common errors included putting wheels in the wrong hole and also confusing the full bushings with the small gears. Kevin and I made our own error by including the wrong wheel for the front of the chassis, so the kids had to compensate by using half and full bushels in different places.

At the end of the workshop, all of the kids completed the go-bot, and two of them had also had gone onto putting on the RCX brick and playing around with RoboLab.

For the next time, I’d like to give the workshop more structure. I’m going to start out by writing on the board the lesson plan for the day, including the goals they should have to complete by the end of the class, and also things to keep in mind while building the bot. Most of the time spent in the class will be them working from their lesson plans while I go around helping out those who need it. I think what I might also try is going through the lesson plan with them before they start it, to give them a sense of what they should they be thinking about, and what methods they should use to solve the problems.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

This Past Week

Up until now, for the past two hours or so, I've been working on a neat little thing: up above is my agenda from Google Calendar. It doesn't look like much, but I had to weather the CSS code in the blog's template and figure out what elements were formatted to do what...which meant I had to learn CSS from scratch, and is why it took me so long to accomplish that. I also spent some time last week looking around the web for help on CSS and PHP (probably three hours total there).

Anyway, this is really convenient, so that people who need to know what my schedule is like can see it easily without having to sign in to Google or waste time waiting for the entire AJAX calendar to load up.

This past Monday (two days ago) I had another meeting with Prof Sklar for an hour, and she enlightened me further to the greatness of PHP. Actually it's pretty simple; since I understand programming in general, it's just a matter of learning the syntax and "ideology" of PHP. I also spent about three to four hours reading the pamphlet that she gave me last week, though that didn't really help as much as I thought it would, since the author takes the insane route of assuming that the reader already knows CGI but needs to have the notion of a string explained.

Also, at the meeting, Prof Sklar informed me of what I needed to do to prepare for tomorrow, which today I followed up on. Earlier this morning I called up Danielle and left a voicemail to let her know the Kevin and I are coming, and also sent an email to Caitlin to the same effect, asking if there was any further information that we might need (Caitlin directed us to go to a particular room).

I also spent some time going over the instructions for building the robots, and I also saved the PDF files onto my flash drive.

And last Thursday Kevin and I built five robots for tomorrow's workshop. Actually, he built the robots, while I spent the time sorting all of the pieces, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to work from a pile of unsorted multifarious Lego blocks. No wonder computer scientists spend all their time talking about sorting. In fact, I even implemented an algorithm to sort them: first separating pieces by color, then by size, then by shape. I chose those three groups because they ascend in that order by number of instances (there were only three colors, but many different sizes and even more shapes) and by functional complexity (determining shape is a much more process intensive task than determining color). The whole foray took about three hours.

As far as the data entry goes…well it goes slow. I spent about five hours over three nights this past week working on it, but I’ve gotten only the table structure and three surveys done. It’s really difficult to read people’s handwriting…I'm going to try to get them all done this weekend.

And that’s that. More after the first workshop--which is tomorrow.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Meeting with Prof Sklar

I had a 3o minute meeting today. I now have a few tasks set before me: entering more information from surveys into spreadsheets, learning PHP, and then at some point I'll have some practice examples to get me started on a webform. Prof Sklar gave me a 30 page packet on PHP to be read by next week, and I'm also going to get some guys from work to help me out with the learning process.

Looks like my schedule is finally settling down though. There might be a few tremors left though.

Pieces of You

This past Friday (September 8th), I met up with Sumon and Kevin in the robotics lab. Sumon had Kevin and me set up four robot kits each, which consisted of digging through the graves of robotic creations long past, finding the correct pieces for each kit, ticking them off on a checklist once found, and putting the parts for a complete kit into a plastic box for later assembly.

After that was done, Sumon described to us the process of teaching kids how to put together a robot from an instructions sheet. I remember putting together one for the AI class, and it will be quite a chore to instruct a group of teenagers how to do this. I hope they have free refills on Ritalin in the school cafeteria.

Next Sumon showed us the RoboLab software that we'll be using. I had already become somewhat familiar with it when working on four of the lesson plans during the Summer, but I still learned some more about the way the icons work and what they mean in terms of actual programming syntax. It's more or less like learning a new language, except instead of using English the code is in pictograms. It's as if learning to program in Chinese.

The whole thing took two and half hours, which went by pretty quickly. It's going to take me a bit longer to completely familiarize myself with all of the symbols in RoboLab, but that I can do at work when I have free time. I'm also going to go back to the lab sometime this week to help organize pieces and assemble more kits. That'll be more than likely on Thursday.

Lastly, while I was there in the lab, Mr. Coordinator called back; the school definitely is interested in having the program there. I answered a few of his questions (yes, we bring all the equipment and we teach the whole course, but we only ask you to provide batteries...) and then told him that Prof Sklar would like to have a meeting and could then describe the program in more detail. I took down his email and then passed it along to her later on.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The first three days

August 29

On Tuesday I met with Professor Sklar to discuss the details of the project. There are ten lesson plans made up for the students already, four of which I completed and reviewed during the summer. However, she thinks that I may only get through six of them altogether, as teaching the actual programming tends to get bogged down by helping the students figure out how to set up and configure the corporeal aspects of the robots. (Speaking of which, we're using the LEGOS RCX robots--neat little things with all sorts of motors and sensors for navigating an environment. Very cool stuff, and someone out on the net even made an entire language for more serious programming, called Not Quite C.)

At any rate, we still have to figure out what school I'm going to be teaching at and at what time. She has a couple of schools in mind, though none of them are quite perfect for me (geographically speaking), so I volunteer to call up a friend who works at school nearby my apartment. This is all very tricky for me as I have to balance a meeting time for another independent study, another class that I might add to my schedule, trying to work 20 hours a week.

After talking about schools, Prof Sklar assigns me a stack of surveys from a RoboCup tournament. Teams of kids filled them out, and now my job is to put some of the information into a spreadsheet.

Later on that day I went through the surveys and got them on the computer.

August 30

I try calling a friend of mine who works at a high school two blocks from my apartment, but the number I have is either old or just Not Right.

Later in the day I go to the orientation for CIS independent studies and learn that on top of the actual teaching of robotics and learning programming for data entry/analysis, I'm required to tutor CIS freshman, and also put in a total of 15 hours per week for the project. I find this somewhat dismaying, as it is only a 3 credit course, I'm not guaranteed any sort of monetary compensation for what I do, and on top of that I'm not exactly equipped to start tutoring freshman when I haven't written much of anything (besides some programs for the LEGO bots last year) in about two years. To put it lightly, I'm rusty.

So instead of actually tutoring, I'm going to be working with my boss from work (actually my boss' boss), in some sort of computer lab and/or programming gig. I think this is officially only supposed to be for an hour or two during the week, but I'm afraid he might have something more intensive in mind. If that's the case, I'd really like to get paid for that time, as there are only so many hours in a week, and with all of this starting to pile up, encroaching on my 20 hour work schedule, I'd prefer to continue putting food on my plate.

Late that night I got an email from Prof Sklar informing me that Wingate--a high school in Crown Heights--has a spot for me to do my robotics thing on Thursdays, which fits my schedule (less than ideal, but still doable). She also inquires about the status of my friend's high school.

August 31

Today I tracked down my friend's number and got in contact with him (the school is called Clara Barton High), and he directed me towards the Coordinator of Student Affairs. I informed Mr. Coordinator of the program's details and also told him that there would be other students running workshops. He seemed interested and said that he would talk to others on the administrative staff about it.

If they do end up wanting to have a program there, I'd much prefer to teach at Clara Barton, considering the extreme convenience of being just a few blocks away from my apartment.

So now I'm just waiting for his response, and for the rest of my schedule to settle down. The times for the meetings for my other independent study were set, but I still don't know when exactly I'll be working (since that depends on the teaching schedule), and I don't know when I'm going to be doing the lab/tutoring portion of this project--nor do I even know what I'm going to be doing.