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Parallax President Ken Gracey gets Hands-on Teaching Robotics

  • By: Published: 02 July, 2012 0 comments

Don’t just sit at your desk, Ken! Volunteer!

Fifteen years ago we started Stamps in Class so this year I decided it was important to get more experience with students who use Parallax’s education program, and to share more of what we’ve created. Considering my own kids are at this age I figured it was now or never – start the program before they reach high school and it would become established by the time they arrived. And truthfully, most of our team’s experience has been teaching teachers to use our microcontrollers, and using their feedback to make continual improvements to the program. But working with students is entirely different.

I had so many unanswered questions that related to the students and robotics programs:

  • Can robotics be taught as an elective to students of wide interests, not just in gifted programs and after-school clubs?
  • What interests them and what are the hurdles to getting students started?
  • How do they really receive our education programs? Are they feeling lost or inspired by their success?
  • Do they think microcontrollers and robotics are just for geeky kids, or is there a place for everybody?
  • BASIC Stamp or Propeller for the high school kids? Big question here!
  • What’s the role of impressive “load and run” demonstrations vs. understanding how they work, and building the application one step at a time?
  • How much does the teacher really have to learn to run a class like this?

Well, it’s going to take a lot longer than I thought to answer these questions, but at least I’m on my way to developing a better understanding of how students use our educational program. I’ll give you an overview of what I’ve been up to with our local school.

Find an advocate at school to start a robotics program

It’s helpful to have an advocate in any school to get a program started. My experience began with a casual visit to the school library with my youngest son, Nathan. We were there to borrow a dozen laptops from Ms. Wright, Librarian. It was spring 2011 and I was planning to run a short Scribbler 2 (S2) 5th grade program. When I came back to finish installing the software Ms. Wright had completed a Google search on Parallax and immediately asked that I return in the Fall to plan a program for Spring 2012. I guess this happened by accident but now I was committed and looking forward to contributing.

The idea was that Ms. Wright would take care of the administrative issues like where to place the program in the curriculum, which teachers would be involved and how we’d run the classes. I knew she’d support the program and make these details the least of my worries, letting me focus on the value I could bring to the school. A few weeks later she produced Mr. Kirschner, a middle school science teacher and Ms. Butterworth, a high school engineering technology teacher. These teachers were both receptive and interested in robotics, especially if I’d help. Suddenly I had a team of four!

In December 2011 we agreed to launch the program at the middle school by March 2012. In the meantime I had to get my background check, fingerprinting by the Sheriff, receive confidentiality and physical abuse training, and take a tuberculosis test. After all of this was complete I’d have the ability to volunteer at the school with the freedom I needed to introduce robotics. I’d be able to walk around, run a class, and come and go without checking in. We were set!

S2s at the Middle School – this will be easy, right?

For me, class was a lot of fun! For the middle school students, it was a choreographed adventure each day. They’d show up, set up laptops, grab an S2, and break right into the day’s challenge. I thought I’d be able to cover several topics a day, but that method wasn’t going to work – once they were programming there was no way to round them up again [at least with my skills]. This caused us to rethink the approach. From that point forward we’d start class with an example, provide a challenge, and let them experiment. The ending bell would ring all too soon and the kids would let out an “awwww”.

Feeling that I had to convey some technical education, I showed how the S2 GUI can be used to create DO...LOOP programming, CASE…SELECT and other language-based programming skills they’d use in high school. I’m not really sure all of this stuck, or if it even mattered. What was really important is that they were truly excited by the course. Questions like “can you come earlier next week?” or “how can we sign up in high school?” and comments like “wow – this is sooo cool!” were common. In the end I believe the exposure and motivation was probably more important than the formality of the technical education.

It took a few weeks for the students to become really productive with the S2s. Soon we were creating art with Sharpie pens, following complex lines through the hallway, playing songs, following light or even a combination of all of these activities. The students wrote all of these programs in the S2 GUI, including their own line following and light following programs. We took the S2s apart and rebuilt them, too.

Mr. Kirschner learned the S2 and can now run the course on his own next year, but I know I’ll be there to help him out. I’m convinced that a middle school educator doesn’t need to understand everything about the S2; the students learn quickly. In some ways the teacher only needs to provide the access to the activity. And considering we have Neil Rosenberg’s S2 curriculum there’s a guide for any teacher.

Robo Friday: could it possibly become even more fun?

When we started the middle school program I promised that each Friday we’d do something unique: learn to solder, fly a quadcopter, drive a tele-presence robot over a wireless video link through the school, show flame-throwing robots, hack an S2 to use a Ping))), power up DC motors and LED strips from a power supply, or just take things apart. Robo Friday was so popular that sometimes we had guests from other parts of the school. Guess I didn’t know what I was getting into because this took some preparation!

Robo Friday provided a fantastic opportunity to identify their interests. Though they like show-and-tell, they really want to be involved with their own hands and minds. It was easy to get their attention with an 800F soldering iron and it surprised me a bunch to see how much they enjoyed soldering. We started our soldering lessons with the S2 robot badge, which seemed appropriate considering they were now programming the S2. Then we moved up to Wayne and Layne’s Persistence of Vision kit. I kept raising the bar by challenging them to do perfectly detailed work, taking their time. They told me over and over how much they like to solder together something. . . even anything, so the next week I showed them how to make little creatures out of Parallax’s scrapped component selections that are usually destined for the Unofficial Propeller Expo giveaway tables. At this stage they can solder very well – I haven’t seen a single lifted PCB pad, backwards component, or solder bridge in the last couple of days. They’ve improved their motor skills and confidence.

The high school kids: start with the BASIC Stamp or Propeller?The middle school and high school are connected on the same campus. Now that the middle school was underway I would help Ms. Butterworth get started with her program. She runs three classes before lunch, each an hour and twenty minutes in length. She has over 50 students in her program from freshmen to seniors. When I arrived they were finishing up their carpentry project where they built dog homes. The dog homes would be sold in the community to raise money for next year’s shop program.

For a solid week I agonized over the decision of whether to introduce the BASIC Stamp What’s a Microcontroller and Robotics series, or to go straight to the Propeller Board of Education program on http://learn.parallax.com and ask Ms. Butterworth to work side by side with us as we develop the curriculum. Clearly, learning the BASIC Stamp is fast since each line of code does something you can see or hear – nothing going on behind the scenes or in other processors. Yet it comes with many limitations, too!

But the Propeller would open the door to so many opportunities more quickly, some simple like running servos in another cog, accessing a Ping))) from a single line of code in your top program, or even speech synthesis and *.wav file playback. Not to mention video, easy RF and sensor fusion. The issue with the Propeller from my standpoint is that using it is more a matter of high-level integration of existing objects, so students really don’t get the depth required to understand these low-level objects. Is that short-changing them in some way, trading a study and program approach for quick return and ease of use?

I asked the educational team in Parallax for their opinion. First they encouraged me to use the BASIC Stamp since it’s so easy to program and provides a nice, simple introduction with highly evolved tutorials. I knew that Ms. Butterworth could easily use the BASIC Stamp if I got called away from the class for a few days. Heck, she had even been through the Robotics text the week before the class started and understood the whole system. While I was waffling on the Propeller or BASIC Stamp decision, Andy was progressing with Propeller tutorials on http://learn.parallax.com that made the Propeller Board of Education just as easy as a BASIC Stamp – he had created objects for I/O control, servos, timing and things that I feared explaining (like WAITCNT and CLKFREQ) to high school students. You see, if you lose their interest they pick up a smart phone or do something else. Can’t let that happen.

After a few more days thinking about this Andy called me and said, “use the Propeller with them, Ken”. I asked why and he replied, “Because you want to”. What a relief – the decision had been made and I was now committed to the Propeller BOE. I really respect Andy and needed his validation to support the decision. My enthusiasm for the course increased exponentially.

Ms. Butterworth has a broad experience across several disciplines, doing everything from building dog houses to editing video and teaching C programming. She even took her family to Maker Faire a few weeks ago to learn how to integrate these new ways into her course next year. A 3D printer sits in the classroom and anybody can use it. Get the idea? She was totally comfortable being a test case for Parallax, quickly understanding the basics of Propeller coding. Andy and I were only steps ahead of her, sometimes just providing schematics and code. Though we gave her a few buggy examples and switched gears a few times she rolled with it like I would have never imagined. The result, though, is that with this feedback our program will be very mature and ready for her to use by Fall semester.

Did the high school students find it too complex? A few, maybe, but most of them have been quite successful. Ms. Butterworth said they could even handle the curriculum at a higher speed. How did we introduce some of the more complex Propeller concepts related to objects, methods, timing and parameters? Initially we didn’t delve too far into these details – we’d show them how to write simple programs to do our challenges with the Propeller Boe-Bot, leaving the OBJ section of code alone and focusing on our main method(s). For example, we started with dead reckoning to follow square shapes, but moved into spirals and figure eights. These patterns required REPEAT loops and variables, giving us a chance to talk a little more about programming and architecture. The students were really quick to sort out the solutions and stay on task the whole time. At this stage we could start to share how the program actually runs in the Propeller. Had we started with technical explanations we would have lost their interest. Backing into the functionality seems to be the way to go with freshmen and sophomores.

One week I was gone to Microsoft for several days. In my absence Ms. Butterworth moved the class into whiskers and then introduced a maze. She reported today, “They were surprised at how challenging it was to navigate through a maze but most were successful”. Next we passed out Ping))) sensors and had them experiment with speech synthesis. Now I know why I wanted to use the Propeller – these kids learn quickly and for some of us the Propeller provides a lifetime of learning. There are few limits to the Propeller, especially for students of this age.

Their next challenge was an autonomous navigator with Ping))), speech synthesis and maybe even whiskers. They will combine the examples to do this on their own. Today I stopped in to refresh their battery inventory and Ms. Butterworth had all of the students programming talking Propeller Boe-Bots!

The speech synthesis programs were very popular on the Propeller Boe-Bot. I’m not all that certain about what the boys were programming the Propeller to say.

Looking back, I’m very happy that I went straight to the Propeller. The long-term benefits are significant and there’s a whole world of programming examples we can introduce in the coming years in Spin, C, ASM or even BASIC. Some of the things they find interesting include underwater remotely operated vehicles (this school is near Lake Tahoe), mounting Airsoft or Paintball guns on larger robots, lights and sound, and creating inventions. And they’ve asked that we powder-coat the robot chassis in different colors.

As for the concerns about missing the low-level introduction, we’ll do that next semester. The program will have rotations of six students per section (robotics, programming, construction, video editing) so we’ll have smaller groups. They’ll also be able to choose robotics for a full semester senior project.

I strongly recommend and endorse the Propeller Board of Education and http://learn.parallax.com to high school students. With the upcoming addition of C/C++ we’ll have the same solutions in two languages. There’s no reason to hold back starting a class with the Propeller Multicore!

Ms. Butterworth and I are already planning out the robotics lab for next year. She has a giant grant to improve her facility, but it can only be used for walls, venting, and anything else that bolts to the ground (not Parallax products, unfortunately).

Thank you, Parallax for supporting the effort! It’s been really rewarding.

-Ken Gracey