Summer camp with Photography, Writing and Robotics

So next week I teach a summer camp for students involving three ‘ingredients’ – photography, creative writing and robotics.

The goal is to get students to connect visual and language arts, with technology. They will also tinker with robots, and understand how to design and program them.

This is one of the simplest bots (the NXT model) we use for the FIRST Lego League competitions. It has four different sensors, and can be modified with several wheel sizes. Students will learn to program them using Mindstorms software.

Robots don’t always have to look like this, They could be made from everyday objects found around the house. For instance, students will also experiment with ‘brush bots’ – tiny devices made from the heads of toothbrushes, of all things!


As for photography, there’s plenty of material to photograph right here in our back yard!


Continuing Digital Learning Day – Don Wilde on Arduino and micro-controllers

DonWilde_tnToday Don Wilde, former Intel engineer, and FLL robotics coach/judge, was here to show our students a different side of programming – the Arduino board.

Don talked about how programming has been invading almost every part of our lives, from cars (which house dozens of computers), and houses to businesses, and libraries. (This session was fittingly held in the library – and I mentioned how students today self-check in and check out their books with a scanner and software).

He also stressed the point of how engineers are needed to design robots, and for online stores, casinos and satellites to function. “Highly-paid work today, whether it is in entertainment or communication needs engineers and programmers, and you could be one of them,” he said.

Don then demonstrated one of the devices he had put together for this, using a off-the-shelf Arduino Uno board. He connected a series of light, touch and sound sensors to show how this plug-and-play device worked.



By way of comparison, he talked about the Lego NXT robot, itself a micro-controller, with which many students in both 5th and 6th grades are familiar. We have had a robotics program in the school for the past 6 years. Thanks to Don, I have become interested in introducing Arduino to my class. Perhaps someday, we will have programming as a regular class, rather than an add-on to the curriculum!














When Robotics is more science than fiction

A few weeks back I took my Robotics team to see one of the coolest robots. It has ‘eyes’ and a brain, and it knows enough to get itself out of trouble, even when its handlers are not in the next room —let’s say 34 million miles away! This was the Mars Rover, at the  Mars Space Facility at Arizona State University.

The purpose of the visit was to get students to start thinking of technology as something much bigger than the gadgets they tend to get exposed to. To many 4th and 5th graders a computer is a box with a screen. A remote control is a piece of plastic with buttons.  And a robot tends to be thought of as an anthropomorphic device that takes orders.

Is our education system to blame?

Perhaps our society has to face up to the bigger challenges facing young people today. Challenges that may not be solved just because these kids become savvy using an iPhone app. Or being able to define the Pythogorean theorem.

Apart form a tour of the Rover, the students got to meet the NASA robotics team who demonstrated the simple-looking but complicated bots they are working on, using PVC pipes, , scrap metal, Styrofoam, and wire. Twenty years from now one of these could be making the big step to solve unsolvable water, energy or safety issues back here on earth. I think my students walked away from there realizing that robotics is more science than science fiction.

They took notes! They asked a lot of questions!

One of them, a budding designer, is making very complex sketches of his ideal robot.  Someday all children will…

I will leave that sentence unfinished –for now.

But as adults, there’s work to be done. Recently President Obama addressed students at the Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center. He was imploring students to think like the future inventors and  entrepreneurs. This country is sorely lacking them.

“Now, imagine if America was first to develop and mass-produce a new treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched …or flexible display soldiers …or a car that drives itself. Imagine how many workers and businesses and consumers would prosper from those breakthroughs.”

Those things aren’t science fiction, he noted. It is the “kind of adventurous, pioneering spirit that we need right now.”

My class of 14 students is relatively small. We do not have the funds of a Carnegie Mellon. But we have big ideas. Wide-open eyes. Some of them are already programming the Lego NXT brick to perform some neat manoeuvres.