Lego Robotics Engineering and the XO

Trip Start Oct 14, 2009
Trip End Dec 31, 2016

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Flag of United States  , New Hampshire
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Last month I registered for a mid-winter Lego Engineering class at our local Art Space & Gallery, the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, NH. The class description said: Teams of two will solve engineering challenges by designing and programming Lego NXT Mindstorms robots. Student will make gains in logical problem solving and better understand concepts of gearing, center of balance, and strength as they build robots that complete specific missions.

In San Francisco, I had seen Lego Wedo Robotics for the XO, and David C, the Lego rep, presenting it there informed us that indeed Lego is working on a Mindstorms version for the XO as well. In Cambodia, I saw that the classroom has some Wedo kits and 5 Mindstorm Lego bot kits as well. I thought that if I took the Mindstorms class, I could provide some curriculum ideas and maybe even some remote support to Camboia or other projects.

But the class was for 9 to 12 year olds. Do you think I could pass myself off as a kid? I inquired at AVA and emailed the instructor, Ed F. He said for sure I could join the class. It was once a week for 4 weeks; and each class was 2 hours that sped by! I share our activities to seed ideas for teachers and others interested in introductory Lego robotics from Lego Education.

David had given me the Wedo software, but we did not have the Wedo hardware to play around with on the XO. If the project builds are interchangeable, we didn’t know that or have time to experiment. But I’m sure the curriculum ideas and skills will transfer, and when Mindstorms is compatable with the XO, my readers will have a framework from which to begin.

Our class was small; 4 boys and the instructors son, McCaffrey, who is already an experienced bot builder. While we have a large bin of saved Legos from our boys, at home, I had never built anything complex and was totally unfamiliar with the “how to” of building with Legos without a plan, or instruction sheet. That first class, I was the slowest student. Thank goodness for Caffrey! And thank you Caffrey for your help.:)

Class 1: The task for the day was to build a vehicle the could support (carry) the Lego ‘brain,” and program the brain to move the vehicle straight forward. We were supposed to use at least 2 interconnecting gears. At the end of class, we would have a race, and the vehicle that moved the slowest would be declared the day’s winner! One lesson was: to teach how the size and positions of the gears can propel faster or slower. ( Hint: think of the gears on a bicycle with different speeds.) Another was to learn the basic “how to” of the Mindstorms computer program, by creating the program for the brain, downloading it, running it, and then revising it until it works the way the “programmer” intends. And, the lesson that the western kids already had experience with, how to build a strong basic robot that could carry the “brain along with it. In the end, my robot car first went in circles. When I fixed that, the structure fell apart and I didn’t have anything with which to race. My homework: Dig out the old Lego and try and build a strong truck. Learn which pieces work to do what. Then by next week I’ll be a quicker builder.

Class 2: Ed began the class by summarizing a Chinese fable. In honor of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dragon, he told the story of the holiday full moon party outside, in a rural Chinese village. The revelers (had been drinking) and were dancing around the well. One man toppled over into the deep well which luckily did not have too much water in it. Our task was to build a Lego robot that could lower something into the well that could rescue the poor villager. I’m not sure which story he was referring to, but this one will work: (insert link to Wikipedia Tikki Tikki Tembo)

We partnered up and I actually built a crane (with help from Caffrey:)). The hardest part of the construction project was visualizing what we should build. Remember we are not using project plans or instructions; just creativity. This week’s task was easier for me, as when I used to ski patrol, we used a seat on a rope to practice lift evacuation for scenarios when a lift is broken with people on it and you have to get them downand out of the cold quickly. Sort of an opposite task, but the relevance in my past experience was helpful. I built a vehicle that could carry the brain and lower the seat down the imaginary well. Next I had to learn to program the brain so that my crane would lower, pause (for the poor fellow to climb on) and then raise it back up, slowly enough to keep him from slamming against the well walls. Eventually, I decided that a progrom permitting manual control of this function made more sense. Because you could raise and lower the rope and seat at will.

At this point in our classes, I am thinking a lot about relevance. Science skills are important, as is creativity and thinking outside of the box, but how will building with plastic Lego toys be relevant to poor rural children, like the Reaksmy (Cambodia) kids. How can work with the motors and sensors and computer programs transfer into their agrarian environment. I don’t have a good answer but I can think of many ways.

Class 3: I missed the next class. (I was in Jamaica:)). In that class the kids built rides for a carnival. Bumper cars (think touch sensors) and Ferris wheels.

Class 4: In our last class, the scene on our “work table” was that somwhere in this field, there was a buried toxic waste site. The assignment was to built a robot that could search the field and detect the site. Using a robot would conceivably prevent a person from exposure to hazardous waste. Relevance? In this lesson I could see potential. Could this teach useful skills? Toxic waste is a global problem. Would this work for de-mining operations to clear land mines?

I arrived late so Ed suggested that I build the 5 minute Bot from instructions he pulled up on the computer. It took me longer than 5 minutes, maybe 20, by the time I found all of the right pieces, but it worked well, and was easy. The programming was a little more complex. But it built on the skills of the previous weeks and I was more fascile with it. All the kids succeeded in using sensors, and some built more complex bots. Sam’s robot had touch, light and sound sensors all working. This was a pretty cool project.

I was glad I took this workshop. I learned a bit of something I had no previous knowledge or experience with. I learned to laugh at myself when clumsy, and I had great fun. Thanks Ed and kids, for sharing your enthusiasm with me!

The class will be offered again this summer in a “camp” week session. The classes are longer than the after school classes, so the kids can learn even more. It was so much fun that maybe this “kid” will sign up again. (link for class)

PS: The Sugar OS for the XO and its Activities (Apps) are free and open software, as is GNOME which the XO will also run. Lego engineering programs are not free. The kits with the software, motors, “brain,” sensors etc., and construction materials are not cheap and XO projects may wish to carefully consider what relevant skills can be taught, in individual locations.

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