Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wrapping Things Up

Meeting 16 of the Robotic Dudes was fairly low key today. We hadn't met last week due to school being out of session on Thursdays. Next week is our final meeting, and that evening we will hold a demonstration/competition among the various teams at the school for the families.

Some involved are very hesitant to call it a competition, favoring instead the demonstration aspect of it, but Lego talks about coopertition being a key principle of the challenges - a combination of cooperation and competition. We want to work together and learn from each other, but we also want to try hard to win. So I hope we win. ;)

We kept it kind of quiet today. We had everyone work on repeating their tasks several times to make sure everything was set up where it needed to be, with the robots pointing in just the right direction. A rotation of just a couple degrees in angle could result in the robot being several inches off from where they needed to be for their tasks.

There were one or two of the team who were starting to work on a totally new task on the complete opposite side of the field, which I tried to explain wasn't likely to be done by the time we show things off next week. In the end, I just let them do what they wanted to do.

This whole first year really has been setting us up for success next year. There are a lot of things we'll be able to look at doing different or better, in addition to having some experienced people on the team. The one thing from my observations and interactions that I'd like to see is just overall taking things a little more seriously. Now, I'm all for having fun and enjoying one another's company, so I'm not talking about being more serious. We just need some more organization and help with focusing on working on the tasks and learning more about methods of programming that will take our performance to the next level. I'd also like to not being losing and breaking parts all the time. Half the challenge board is disassembled, so we can't even do all parts of the challenge. If someone wants to do a Legos club where they just build whatever they want, someone can sponsor that, but for Lego Robotics Club, we should be building some awesome robots. I'm looking forward to that.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Demo Day

We don't have a robotics club meeting today, since it is a half day of school. Last week, we did have our 15th meeting. We are looking at holding our competition / demonstration at the end of this month, just before spring break. The idea is then at that time, a lot of things like soccer and other outdoor activities start happening as the weather warms up and we get closer to the end of the school year. So I think once we have that demonstration, while it's possible that some of the boys may want to continue meeting, we will likely be done for the year at that point. We're looking into shirts or medals or something to hand out as a reward for participating.

So last week we worked for a while on polishing up what we were working on. We talked about being realistic and what they thought we could get finished up by the end of the month. I had each of the small teams work on what they were close on and demonstrate what they had. They didn't have to be perfect, just show where they were at, so we could judge how close it seemed like they were.

We basically have four activities that look like they are close, that people have been working on. One of them is pretty complicated and may or may not be finished. Two are basically functioning most of the time now. Every now and then they don't totally work, but as they work on fine tuning them, such as making sure the robots start from the same place every time and so on, I think that success rate will go up. The fourth task should be simple, but more often than not it ends up being kind of a brute force, run over the parts type of thing, which maybe technically works, but it would be nice if we can get that one working without knocking everything over.

It was nice to see some success. I know part of the goal with the robotics this year is to be prepared to do something bigger (and earlier) next near. Most of the tasks we've completed are fairly simple ones, close to the home base and don't take much maneuvering to get to. What would be great is if next year we could purchase the whole challenge kit and have the table ready right as school was starting. That way we could have the teams start meeting and knock out some of the basic tasks quickly, freeing them up to work on some of the more advanced parts or the ones that are difficult to get to on the other side of the board.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Slogging Through

Meeting 14 was last week. We had most of the team there, but with some of the things we had put in place previously in terms of organization, we were generally on task. One of the things we need to do, which was suggested by our assistant coach, is to have each group schedule a time during our meeting where they will have access to the robot. We have two robots, ours and the one belonging to another team. We share since we aren't there at the same time, so it makes a lot of sense to use each other's robots. Still, only two robots, when we have 4 teams of 2 or 3 people each, there is still a robot bottleneck.

Sometimes you can test things out in your head and build accessories and do other things that don't necessarily require the robot itself. Other times, you just have to run it and see what happens.

We have a few portions of the challenge that are there or at least close to there. One is the water filter, which is just pushing in a certain spot to slide the filter into place. Another is the rain. It requires driving at just the right angle and bumping the switch that drops the water. Those two are pretty much working. Another is the pump. That team kind of comes and goes in terms of how close they are, but it's pretty straight forward - just driving forward and hitting one of a couple different levers. Each of those three are close to the home base and just require a quick drive and pushing, sliding, or lifting a single switch. Another more complicated aspect of the challenge is removing and replacing the broken water pipe. That one is close, although we need to simplify it. Right now, he's trying to carry out the new piece, set it down to remove the old piece, and then he will pick up the new piece again and drop it into position. I think setting it down and picking it up again is going to be error-prone, so we need to talk about how to simplify that action.

There are several parts of the challenge that are missing from the board. I'm not totally sure if that is because they are just put away because they were broken or otherwise disassembled. The STEM Lab where we meet is used by several robotics teams, plus several other student groups like Odyssey of the Mind, and I'm sure there are others. The problem is that there isn't always respect for each other's things in there.

I did ask one of the team members to leave about halfway through, since he was not on task and was throwing things around the room. The kits are expensive. I'm sure we've already lost a few pieces due to things falling on the floor. As soon as they start throwing things, though, we're dealing with both losing the Lego pieces and damaging things that belong to other groups who use the room.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


For meeting 13, we had an interesting idea from our assistant coach. Basically, we have been having problem with focus and getting the team to stick to the various assignments they had. He mentioned that he's surprised adults are able to get as much development done as they do, as they often run into similar issues. But even more for the elementary school kids, who don't have experience.

The suggestion, which we jumped on and had the team do is organize themselves into several small teams and then write down those assignments. It's not that we hadn't tried that previous, since we had, but actually writing it down and making sure everyone was happy with their assignment seemed like a good idea. For the rest of the meeting, as I saw someone wandering around or off task, I'd just ask them what their task was and if they were working on it. More often than not, they'd get back on track.

We had a couple of the teams either be able to accomplish their task or at least get close to it, which is encouraging. Others are still trying to do things that are probably more complicated than they need to be.

Friday, February 23, 2018


For our 12th meeting (which was a couple weeks ago), I figured we needed something to shake things up a bit. We have been using the generic robot design, with just slight changes to the arm out front, so I looked up several videos showing teams who have created a variety of different types of robots to solve as many parts of the Hydrodynamics Challenge as possible.

We watched three different ones, with all very different approaches and takeaways. Above is one of the three videos we watched. The main takeaway is that they were very creative in how they built the base robot and the various appendages to perform all the tasks. They also aimed to solve several tasks back to back, so an arm might move one way to drop something in a certain place and then it moves back the other way to slide a piece somewhere else. They even left pieces out on the field if they were no longer needed.

They have been mostly trying to program the robot to move around and do things with the simple arm, but this opened them up to the idea of building more, which they were excited about. One thing we do need to come back around to is the idea that they need to build the machines as simply as possible and in a way that they won't break easily. A few of the team were trying to activate a lever and used a bunch of complicated gears, when just a bump with a large arm would have done the job.

Our helper was missing for this session, but we were largely focused given the inspiration provided by the videos.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Help Has Arrived

For our eleventh meeting of the Robotic Dudes, we had a helper come, which was great to see. We had three of the team missing, which helped it be a bit calmer, plus having an assistant coach shifted the dynamics a bit.

We had two groups working on solving various tasks in the Hydrodynamics Challenge. There were still a couple of boys just sort of wandering around and one who left early. One of the teams just had to have the robot drive forward a couple of feet and lift a lever to dump out a water barrel. They came pretty close to getting it to work. Another team was trying to pick up a broken pipe, but that team had to get the robot to navigate quite a bit further before grabbing the pipe, so more room to be off slightly. I think they need to use the light sensor to turn based on when they hit some guidance lines on the ground.

I attended a Vex competition a week or so, which my nephew was competing in. I had signed him off on the Robotics Merit Badge and thought it would be a good idea to come check out how Vex works. It is similar in some ways and different in others to how the Lego Robotics works. With Legos, there are many more intricate tasks to perform. The precision required is pretty crazy. With Vex, the tasks are more gross motor, picking up or pushing around plastic rings about the size of a donut. Also with Legos, only one team is on the board at a time. There are two boards side by side running concurrently, and there is a part where you can drop something on the other side of the field, but it is very minimal interaction. With Vex, you're on the same board so can run into each other, but you actually work in cooperation with each other for part of the challenge. Legos is completely autonomous, while Vex has both autonomous and remote control modes.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Last Thursday we had our 10th Robotic Dudes meeting. It started a bit slow with people running around again, and we had another discussion regarding the need to focus. I think it may be starting to sink in that they're not going to be able to continue coming if they aren't actually working on something.

We are supposed to be getting another helper, a USU student with some programming background, who will be coming to help with crowd control and answering questions. At this point, we really need to get going on programming. Of course, that wasn't helped much when we showed up and all the computers that are normally in the STEM Lab were gone. So we talked about pseudocode, which is a way of stepping through the logic of a program without actually writing code.

I had the boys grab their notebooks and write out how they could logically work on certain tasks. I think it was good, but they needed to be a bit more detailed in their pseudocode. They would write things like drive forward and lift the lever, instead of how it would know how far it had gone or what type of motor would be activated to lift the lever.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Nine Lives

Our Robotic Dudes last week was fairly uneventful from a productivity standpoint. It was our ninth meeting, and honestly I don't that we got much done. The challenge kit and table are fully assembled and in the room where we can actually work on them, since they wrapped that up in preparation for STEM Night. We started by talking about how STEM Night went and what goals people had for moving forward. We also talked through a few of the challenge options and broke into some teams based on which challenges people wanted to work on. But about half the group just ran around out of control, not paying attention to what we were doing. Does that mean we're in the Storming phase of team development or have we regressed to Forming? The ideal is that moving forward we'll have some additional adult supervision to help out.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

STEM Night

Last Thursday was meeting 8 of the Robotic Dudes. We were preparing for the STEM night, which was last Friday. We didn't have to do a presentation, just take turns with the other Lego teams from the school manning a booth with the challenge table and a couple robots. We were to just be there working on things and talk to people as they came up to us.

In our meeting on Thursday, it was a pretty low key work day. We were broken up into a couple different groups. As usual, some were working harder on things than others. One of the boys was singing Weird Al's The Saga Begins, a spoof of American Pie about Star Wars Episode I. It is one of my favorite songs (both Don's and Al's versions), so I put it on the room's speakers. Then I somehow turned into a DJ, taking requests for songs they wanted to hear. I was hoping the background music would help them focus some, but it actually distracted a little bit. It wasn't too bad, as I turned it down so it wasn't too loud. I was kind of surprised that Lukas Graham's Once I Was Seven Years Old was the most requested song. I don't think they were going to let me out of there without playing it. I mean, it's a good song and all. I guess they like channeling their inner seven year olds.

The actual STEM Night was pretty good. There were a lot of people there, throughout the school. The star gazing was a big hit, with a portable, inflatable planetarium. I didn't make it inside as there were a lot of kids lined up to go in there. There was a 3D printing station, some dogs from the humane society, and paper airplane contest. They had pizza and lots of science exhibits from the university and other groups around town, so a good atmosphere.

As for our particular station, I think it was okay. The other teams did the first shifts. Those teams seemed pretty well behaved and able to talk to people about what they were doing. We were at the end. I thought the crowds would have thinned out more by then, but people seemed to be sticking around. We had to clean everything up, which wasn't too bad. Several of the challenge pieces were broken, or maybe better said slightly disassembled, from everyone wanting to touch them. Some of that is from random kids and adults looking at things and some of it was from our team not being able to keep their hands off. I was a little surprised at how excited some of the team was, like they had never seen the challenge kit before, grabbing pieces they wanted to play with and yelling like they were at a birthday party. I mean, it was loud in there already, with as many people as were crammed into the cafetorium (combined cafeteria and auditorium), but I guess it's good that they're still excited to be there.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Ringing in the New Year with Robots

Last Thursday we had our seventh meeting of the Robotic Dudes. A few days before our meeting, one of the other coaches contacted me about sharing robots, which I think will be a great thing. At this point, we've all built the basic model straight out of the book. The idea was that if we've all got stock model builds sitting there in the closet, we might as well share them so we can have several groups working on their own hardware at the same time in the class.

Based on the kindergarten feedback, I had one group working on adjusting the robot's arm so it would be two separate arms that would alternate up and down instead of one larger arm with both sides going up and down together. I gave them a little hint which gear they might use to make it work, and they did the rest. They put some little "hands" on the ends of the two arms, and it worked great. At that point, their unfocused creativity took over, and they spent the rest of the time building a big tail and putting ears on it so it looked like a dog or something. As soon as they left, I took off the tail, but I did leave the ears on it. Mostly, I didn't want the other team when they borrow our robot to have this big thing hanging off the back of it.

Honestly, I think that in addition to having a robotics club, they should just have a Legos club, since that seems to be what a few of them are most interested in - just building stuff with Legos. I've explained a few times that they need to learn to program and have some idea of what they want their robot to do before it makes sense to build something. Maybe I need to completely disassemble our existing robot and have them rebuild it just to get some of that out of their system.

I think today I'll have one group focus on the dancing robot for the kindergarteners, and another group will focus on accomplishing one of the tasks from the Hydro Dynamics Challenge. I think they'll be excited if we do the toilet flushing one.

Tomorrow is the school STEM night, where several groups from the university will come over and do all kinds of fun STEM-related activities (plus pizza) to get kids excited about science. There will be a robotics club booth, where each team will take turns for about half hour apiece, just being there working on their robots. We don't present anything, just be there doing something and available for people to ask questions about what we're doing. Should be fun.