Tag Archives: Lego® Mindstorms

Diary of a First Year FLL Coach

First Year FLL Coach – Me?

August 22, 2016
Today, I asked the 4-H robotics leaders if our club was going to participate in First Lego League this year. “Sure,” they said, “and would you mind being one of our first year FLL coaches?”

August 30, 2016
The FLL challenge comes out today. It’s called Animal Allies. I can’t wait to find out more about it.

September 5, 2016
Today, I gave a brief presentation to our club about First Lego League. I think I scared some parents, but gained the interests of the more experienced student members. We now have a team of seven students.

The coaches and mentors navigated the FLL computer system and got our team registered and the kit ordered. I had an easier time since I had gone through a Jr. FLL season with my older son two years ago.

September 18, 2016
One of our mentors (and 4-H robotics leader) built the game board. The kit and game mat arrived and the kids spent the meeting building pieces.

A picture of two 4x8 robot game boards

This was from our practice competition.

September 25, 2016
The game board is fascinating and the students finally finished putting together all of the pieces. We did a team building exercise and ran out of time.

October 2, 2016
We now have nine team members. The team has decided to split up into three groups and begin building a base robot. The team will then vote for the best design.

October 16, 2016
It took another meeting to finish and decide on the robot design. Now, the other teams are copying the robot design so that each team can work on the robot game. There has been little discussion about the animal project; everyone is more interested in the robot game.

 

The Robot Game, The Robot Presentation & The Project

October 23, 2016
Teams are finally working on programs to complete the robot game challenge. There have been some problems with such a big team. Everyone wants to work on the robot. Our initial talks about animal projects are centered on reducing ocean pollution. We are also registered for a practice tournament November 12. I have spoken to my sister-in-law twice in the last few weeks to clarify FLL rules. (She’s a FLL veteran coach and is immensely helpful).

October 30, 2016
More work on the robot game. My co-coach is amazing at finding team building challenges so the kids can develop their “core values.”

November 2, 2016
Our animal project is looking too much like a pollution/trash problem (which was last year’s FLL challenge). We have a mid-week meeting to focus on one animal and to flush out a general presentation idea for the practice tournament. The kids chose to study manatees.

November 6, 2016
I am out of town. More robot game. More team building.

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November 12, 2016
Practice Tournament. Everyone did very well and it gave the students (and coaches) a better idea of what FLL is all about. Our team did better than we thought they would.

November 19, 2016
The robot design has been modified so that there is now only one robot to compete in the robot game. That means two to three kids work on the programming while the coaches help the other kids flush out the robot and manatee presentations. Team building happens at the end of every meeting.

December 4, 11, 18
The holiday season is in full swing and we are only getting three to four kids at each Sunday meeting. This has made it difficult to move forward with our presentation since no one wants to make a group decision with only part of the team present.

December 25 & January 1
Since we meet on Sunday, we have cancelled these meetings to enjoy the holiday season (and because a lot of people are out of town).

 

Getting Ready for the Qualifying Tournament

January 5, 2017
We have an afternoon meeting at the library/park to refine the manatee and robot presentations. The students decide what they want to talk about and we (the coaches) help them by writing down main points on an index card. They are to take them home, write down what they want to say and try to memorize it for Saturday’s qualifying tournament.

January 7, 2017
The tournament is an hour away and the day is very cold and very wet. It’s a bit of a shock for our central Florida area. Thankfully, the gym is warm and the 24-team double tournament is buzzing with activity. I sent our schedule out yesterday and made a couple of copies to leave on our table. Everyone arrived on time and we were busy all day long. Our team table was close to the robot game area and the students took advantage of the location. They watched how the other team’s competed and enjoyed hanging out with one another.

This was one long day. We had to be there by 8:15 and the award ceremony finished at 4:00. Our team won the mechanical design/programming award and received an alternate bid to the regional tournament. My co-coach and I were thrilled. This is such a fabulous run for a first year team – and 7 out of 9 members can return next year! They will have a better idea of what to expect. I definitely see some areas for improvement. For example, we left more than 30-seconds on the clock for the robot game and they could do a better job at learning to share speaking roles during the presentations. But more importantly, everyone was well-supported, courteous and focused on building a good team (and good people).

January 2017
My co-coach contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission in our area and our team will visit their office to learn more about manatee rescue and how to write a regulation. Although our FLL season is over, we are still helping our team to go out into the community and hopefully, make a difference.

 

Reflections on Being a First Year FLL Coach

My co-coach and I were often coaching “from behind,” as he likes to say. We were trying to guide and ask questions (and sometimes direct) so that the students owned most of the decisions. That was really hard – especially as we tried to figure out the FLL rules. It took a lot of time to give everyone an equal voice, but I think it made for a stronger team. I also returned to being an adjunct instructor this past August and was trying to balance teaching on top of coaching. I felt like I didn’t prepare as much as I could (or should) have, but the students led the way and asked questions when they needed information.

I can’t say enough about First Lego League. This tournament is amazing and the purpose is not to win, or to get better at robotics. It’s to work as a team and to become familiar with the design thinking process. The purpose is to solve the world’s problems and to help kids (and their coaches) to know they have a voice and some power. They have power to work cooperatively. They have power to talk to government officials and business owners. This is project-based learning in action – with a little bit of legos and robotics thrown in for fun.

Book Review – Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover art & technology books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

cover picture of mindstorms ev3 discovery book

By Lauren Valk

Ages 9 and up
Valk, Laurens. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book. No Starch Press, Inc.: San Fransisco, 2014.

Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

This fabulous book is one of many in a sea of EV3 instructional books, all of which are designed to teach your young roboticist how to navigate the convoluted Mindstorms software. However, this one differs in that it is written directly to your young roboticist. It’s not written to the robotics teacher (ahem), and while it is wordier than my budding roboticist would like, it does provide a lot of little “challenges” to help reinforce the programming concepts. We have been working with it for the last nine months. Plus, it’s in color, which makes my visual-spatial learner very happy.

The target audience is the owner of the Lego Mindstorms retail kit (the ones sold at Toys R Us, etc.)  I have the kit that comes from Lego Education, which means that I own the Educational Software ($99). However, the free version utilizes the same programming, and the only major difference is that it does not include Lego’s video tutorials. Personally, I haven’t been a huge fan of the video tutorials, also known as the ‘Robot Educator,’ though they may be more useful in a classroom setting.

EV3 Mindstorms, Seymour Papert & Constructionism

For those that are unaware, the Mindstorms software was modeled after Seymour Papert’s Logo turtle, and the first wave was created by a team at MIT (including Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch). Papert’s theory being that children learn the best by playing and messing around and building new knowledge out of the stuff they already know. This became the constructionist learning approach.

Constructionism was built off the constructivist learning theory which asserts that if given the right tools and age-appropriate resources, kids (and adults) will teach themselves the knowledge that they need. Papert was especially strong on his feelings that computers should be used in schools, but not just as a tool to complete a typed paper, but rather as a discovery instrument.

Nowadays, the visual Labview computer language is the basis for the EV3 Mindstorms software.

icon-based programming

Screenshot of the EV3 Mindstorms software

EV3 Mindstorms Software

With minimal instruction and guidance, it’s easy for kids to get started with icon-based software. I see the same thing happening with my summer coding camps, where I use the icon-based programming language Scratch. I give a little instruction and let them playfully discover how the software works. However, learning without a mentor takes a lot of time (and frustration). It happens. It’s very beneficial. But, it takes a lot of time. Our society values “well-roundness” and we don’t always provide enough time for deep learning.

But, I think a skilled facilitator is invaluable at this early stage of learning and can get kids started on the path to deep learning, while still offering them a lot of self-discovery. A good teacher will ask questions to help their students to delve deeper into the materials, such as “I wonder what would happen if you changed the number of steps?” or “Is there a way to make your sprite stop at the end of the screen?” Yes, these are leading questions, but they also help children to retain their creativity, love for problem-solving and give them some direction so they don’t become overwhelmed.

Many of the kids need a little bit of – just in time guidance – to make those deep learning connections. The depth of a multilayered language, such as the EV3 Mindstorms, benefits from a good facilitator standing nearby. This mentor should not be interfering, but should step in when a child is getting frustrated because there is not enough feedback in their learning loop. I also want to be quick to point out that the facilitator does not have to be an adult. It can be the more advanced kids teaching the inexperienced ones (and vice versa).

I think the Mindstorms EV3 Discovery book provides enough free choice and challenges to keep an interested student involved, without being stifled or overwhelmed.  There are numerous colorful pictures and a lot of mini-lessons. Some of the lessons include the programming (or at least a guide to what needs to occur), and there are a lot of chances to get some direct instruction. Thankfully, there’s also a chance to play around with the code, and be able to see how their “author-facilitator” did it.

You could work through the book in order. There are nineteen chapters and they teach a number of programming concepts. Valk also provides a lot of sample programs so that you can understand how some of the sensors work. Since I have an educational set, my sensors are a little different than the ones from the retail set, but the concepts are very similar and you can apply the knowledge to those as well.

I tend to veer toward the “work in order” theory of learning, but I have a visual-spatial learner who learns best when he has a lot of control and can follow his interests. So, after the first few lessons on movement, I gave him free reign to choose whatever he wanted to work on next. We started with the ultrasonic sensor and he made a “roomba” like robot that moved away from the wall.

Later, he decided that he wanted to learn more about the color sensors and flipped to chapter seven. He then proceeded to pick and choose random programs to test with the color sensor. This required a little bit of help from mom (to remind him to pay attention to the details of the sensor), but after realizing it was very similar to our line reading Ozobots, he was off and running. He tried a little experimentation – with black markers and hand-drawn lines – which surprisingly didn’t work.

hand-drawn circle for ev3 robot

But, we remembered that we had some black electrical tape and he proceeded to try out his color-sensing robot.

A picture of a black line made from electrical tape and a lego EV3 line-following robot

R tested out the robot’s line-following abilities – using the color sensor.

After his success, I (strongly) suggested that we delve deeply into the color sensor and truly get to know it well before moving on to other programming and parts. He reluctantly agreed and we perused other ideas and opportunities from Valk’s book. We printed out the pre-made circle track and my son wrote the program to make it stay within the lines.

printed circle from book, Mindstorms EV3 Discovery book.

All told, we love this book. He loves the colorful pictures and I love the creative challenges that require a deeper understanding of content.

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A project from the book where the robot has to push out the pieces, but stay within the confines of the circle.

Brick Chronicles – EV3 Conveyor Belt

The Brick Chronicles feature unique creations made with Lego® bricks. Hopefully you, and the children in your life, will find them as inspiring as I do!

A picture of a Lego Mindstorms conveyor belt

A conveyor belt, made by R, age 10.

EV3 Conveyor Belt

A few weeks ago, my oldest son had some uninterrupted time. No “school work,” plenty of free time and a brother who had a huge stack of Nate the Great books to keep him occupied. He used the EV3 brick to flush out his idea for a moving machine. He also used the ipad app (instead of the computer-based Lego software) to program his contraption.  I came home to a Mindstorms conveyor belt. Of course, I put it on the piano bench, took it outside to capture the fading light and ask him to demonstrate it for the camera. Check out the video:

I’m lucky that I recorded this video. If I had waited a week longer, I wouldn’t have been able to capture it in action. As with most of the Legos® in our house, this EV3 conveyor belt has now been transformed into something else. Just like it should be…no ‘kragle’ here!

 

Book Review – Mindstorms

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A picture of the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

As relevant today as it was 35 years ago…

Target Audience: Adults (especially teachers, parents)
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. 2nd ed. Perseus Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.

Mindstorms

It’s taken me awhile to write this review, partly because I have so much to say and yet, I’m not sure how to organize everything I’ve read. Quite frankly, I really need to read the book again, but I had to return it since I borrowed it via interlibrary loan. It was as if I found myself at an amusement park, but only had an hour left before it closed. What would I do and what was the most important thing that I wanted to see? Sometimes, you just need to sit and think about it. That being said, I am going to attempt to provide an overview, but wanted to throw it out there that I could have used a little more time to digest the information.

A picture of the Table of Contents from the book, Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

I do think I understood the overall point of his book, namely that students should be learning with more real-life experiences, thus constructing their own knowledge, and computers can be used to help them reflect their learning. However, he seems to differ in his educational thinking from the Montessori method because he acknowledges that interest plays a big role in how well a student learns. For example, in a primary Montessori classroom, students are encouraged to explore their own interests, but there is a limited prepared environment from which they can explore. Papert seems to advocate for an open-ended, real-life curriculum where a student can explore their own interests in daily life, but still be guided by a facilitator.  I thought it sounded a lot like project-based learning with a little bit of homeschooling thrown in.

But ‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone.’ It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.
– p. 32

Throughout the book, he uses his own interests – gears and mathematics – to make the case for creative computer use in schools and learning. In chapter one, he discusses the culture of computers and the hopes (and fears) teachers and educators have for their use in school. He mentions that there is indeed a potential for students to only consume computer programs, to use them to idly fill up their time, but that others will use them to make further explorations. It might allow children to tackle complex subjects at an earlier age because physical barriers, such as handwriting and spelling, will be eliminated by the use of computers.

Though the book was originally published in 1980, this second edition was published in 1993. So, how can a book on ‘computers in schools’ still be relevant more than 20 years later?

A picture of the opening screen of a Scratch project.

A mini-project on the country of Greece. Programmed completely by R, age 9.5.

Sadly, it’s incredibly relevant because computers are still primarily being used to transmit information. It’s top-down learning where a teacher dictates what a student will learn rather than using the computer to help a child to express the concepts that they learned and make their own changes. Papert advocates for using computers to help students see what they are learning, for them to construct their own knowledge based on the programs they are running. While the topic they tested included geometry concepts, he acknowledges that computers could and should be used in other ways.

A picture from the book, Mindstorms. It shows simple line drawings that could be made withthe robot turtle.

A sampling of projects that students could make, and while doing so would learn key math concepts.

He and his colleagues created the LOGO computer language and used it to teach geometry. Since Papert’s background, training and interests are in mathematics, he uses math as a backdrop to explain his theories and his desire to see our thinking made visible. This is especially relevant to me as I am always on the look out for more reality-based ways of using math with my own children. I will admit that he sometimes lost me during his mathspeak (it has been 25 years since I took geometry), but it really isn’t about learning geometry, it’s about learning how to make learning visible so that the students can recognize their mistakes, fix their “bugs” and learn how to learn. He was definitely an advocate of a growth mindset before it became a ubiquitous term.

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are ‘smart people’ and ‘dumb people’…as a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of ‘dumb people’ or, more often, to a group of people ‘dumb at x.
– p.43

Teaching fifth graders how to program with the simplified text-based language of LOGO was not meant to teach them to be programmers, but rather to help them express their ideas of geometry. Papert wasn’t talking about specific programs (or apps), rather he was discussing learning in general, thinking about thinking, and using computers to express that learning. In fact, he meant for the LOGO turtle to show them where they made mistakes so that they could learn to fix them – in context. No teacher required, thus making the learning more valuable and sticky.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own "bug," by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

A sample project of how a student fixed their own “bug,” by noticing that the line drawing was not going out (to form a triangular roof), but was going in instead.

This book has made it very clear that the creators of the icon-based programming language, Scratch, were following in his work and wanted to honor his vision of constructionist learning.  Having read some of their papers on Scratch and taken the course on Tinkering from the Exploratorium Museum, I was able to understand much more about how and why these tools were developed.

A picture of 3 AAA batteries, alligator clips and a tiny lightbulb.

I made these circuit blocks while taking the Tinkering with STEM course. A great way to help students learn about direct current.

As might be expected from a book on education from a computer scientist, his theories and main ideas are sometimes muddled and he seems to jump from one abstract topic to the next. His work with LOGO was partially based on his work with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and partially from his own work at MIT where he worked on artificial intelligence. His theories are sometimes unclear, I think, because he doesn’t want to have a prescribed curriculum. Also, there’s the question of cognitive, age-based abilities. Was he advocating for preschoolers to use a computer to reflect their learning? I don’t know.

That being said, I really enjoyed being challenged by this book. It made me rethink some of my own teachings and I am now ready to tackle the Making Thinking Visible book that has been sitting on my shelf since last fall.

A picture of the book, Making Thinking Visible.

From the Harvard-based project that tried to help students see (and change) their own learning.

 

 

 

 

 

Picture of two small wooden dolls with hand-sewn outfits

What we’ve been making this week

Making this week

In January, I was intensely focused on behind-the-scenes work, which included strengthening my HTML knowledge and gaining a better understanding of cascading style sheets (CSS). I was also delving much more deeply into my WordPress site and adding to my front-end web development skills. It’s fun work. I enjoy it and I like the creative aspect, however, I was feeling a need to craft something in person.

I don’t know if my subconscious decided to add more creative pursuits to our week, or if it was just time to switch gears and move onto different aspects of work. Either way, our house (and table) has been a flurry of “making” activities. There was a lot of making this week…

A Color-Sensing Mindstorms Robot

Picture of kid taping together a line for robot

R is making a circle for his color-sensing Mindstorms robot to stay within.

My eldest son is my tester for the “Mindstorms Clinic” that I plan to offer this summer. We’ve been working together to find some really cool activities that delve deeply into certain aspects of these lego robots. Personally, I am quite intrigued by the color sensor and love the line-following (or color avoiding) aspects. Since I love to use Ozobots in my camps, I love how programming the EV3 brick lends an insight into how the Ozobots might read their own color language.

Crafting Ancient Egypt

My youngest son has chosen to study Egypt for our co-op’s ongoing project-based learning class. In addition to reading all sorts of books, he’s been making clay models and crafting mummies.

C looks at the picture of the pyramids at Giza and makes his own artistic interpretation with clay.

C looks at the picture of the pyramids at Giza and using clay, makes his own artistic interpretation.

C is coloring the top of the sarcophagus.

C is coloring the top of the sarcophagus.

I had to help him glue the sarcophagus together, but he did everything else.

I had to help him glue the sarcophagus together, but he did everything else.

Sewing, Painting and Making

In preparation for another summer camp I am co-leading, I have been making some prototypes for characters and landscapes. Since we’re still in the “testing and trying” stage of camp development, I’m not sure how (or if) these prototypes will be used, but I had a lot of fun making them.

Picture of two small wooden dolls with hand-sewn outfits

Using the examples in the book, Feltcraft, I created these characters from plain wooden pieces. They look like giants visiting the pyramids of Giza!

And, for those who would prefer to paint their characters…

Picture of painted wooden peg dolls that look like Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi

My boys are begging to play with these…but I need to get some more paint for Obi Wan’s face.

In an attempt to create more “boy-friendly” characters, I stumbled across this web site and studied her pictures and painted my own versions. If these are a go, I’m going to have my 10-year-old try and see if he can re-create something similar. I need to make sure it’s an appropriate, and not frustrating, activity. In the meantime, he and I have already brainstormed a way to make “Yoda.”

Since my characters can’t live on newspaper, they need some sort of backdrop. I’ve been reading up on acrylic painting techniques and brushing up on my dusty scrapbooking skills. I see many more iterations of these concepts in my future.

picture of blue sky painted scence

Adding multiple layers of paint – blue and light blue to create a variety of colors.

All week my table was filled with painting supplies and I was dreaming of my own artist’s studio. Since that’s not possible, I pulled out my knitting travel bag and put in a few rows for another washcloth. My creative beast is temporarily fed, but I’m already anticipating this week’s creative endeavors.

Picture of a half-knit cream-colored washcloth

Another washcloth – the last of the cream yarn.