by Guest Blogger Gabe Cronin, Science Teacher at Seattle Academy
As a teacher, I am always looking for authentic learning situations with multifaceted problem solving opportunities, the opportunity to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed, and including some sort of public assessment of growth. Our culture of performance embodies these criteria, but it can be puzzling to figure out how to implement them in a science or mathematics classroom. The First programs setup through U.S. Robotics do an excellent job of giving kids the opportunity to perform and ultimately compete against their peers. Our robotics club has competed for the last two years in the First Tech Challenge. This is analogous to a J.V. level in a sports competition; the focus is on skill development, taking risks, and having fun in preparation for bigger challenges. The challenges even at this level are real and compelling. (Hover on pictures for the captions.)
This year’s competition required students to build a device which could transfer wiffle balls from the ground, to one of three scoring containers with different point values. Four robots compete at a time, with two allied against the other two. As with any game, we started with the fundamentals; how do you move a wiffle ball? Well, you can build an arm, but that’s a challenging, serial process. You could use something to scoop up several balls. Perhaps, but we tried something similar with hockey pucks last year to little avail. How do you score? A catapult could work, but you have to continuously reset it. A pitching machine seemed like a great option, until we realized that none of us knew how one works!
Design & Strategy
The team spent several weeks batting around these types of questions, subconsciously doing the same sort of thinking that design engineers must do when faced with tasks. In all games there are those who are skilled, those who think, and those who do both. The winners are almost always those who do both. This game is no exception; the different scoring containers were worth 1, 5, or 10 points. The 10 pointer only opened up for the last 30 seconds of the game, so it was slightly risky. In addition, there was a wild card: a yellow ball optionally dispensed in the last 30 seconds could double anyone’s point total. With this in mind the team spent time discussing strategy.
We ultimately decided to focus on picking up balls, storing them, and then go for the high scoring bin in the last 30 seconds. The next two months were spent trying to reliably pick up balls and fire them. Countless build sessions resulted in very little perceived gain. We could get a wheel spinning fast enough to fire a ball pretty quickly. But we needed a mechanism to keep the ball in contact with the wheel long enough to launch it without getting stuck and burning out the motor. Several iterations failed; finally one looked promising. Even then it took many hours of fiddling with minutiae to get something that worked dependably. (VIDEO BELOW: Be patient, this clip starts at 1:12 and you can’t move the slider forward or the clip will just start over. I am trying to fix the problem. -KJ)
We focused on a conveyor system to pick up balls, which required levels of intricate design. The balls needed to be kept in contact with a moving surface with just enough friction to keep them moving up, but not too much that they wouldn’t move at all. This balance was exceedingly delicate and difficult to maintain over the 12” span of our conveyer. Ben Kahle became an expert in belt design; watching him work was much more akin to watching an artist manipulating matter than to an engineer. Ben also became invested with the same sort of intensity that one sees in an artist.
At our December competition at Bellevue High School, fate laughed at us as the robot failed catastrophically, before rebounding. The software shut down during a practice test. Sometimes all the preparation and hard work you do simply won’t be enough and there isn’t anything you can do about it except do the best you can in the moment. We missed two of our five matches as we troubleshooted a problem beyond our control and not of our making. It was one of the most frustrating days of my life. Yet, in the end we successfully competed in three matches, picking up and scoring balls.
Following the December debacle, the club met again and decided to revamp the robot in order to participate in Idaho’s state competition. The rules of the game were the same. To their credit, the team did this final rebuild largely without adult intervention. Every successful coach knows that moment when a team becomes a team, and motivation transitions from external to internal. I watched that process happen as the group pulled together. For me, it was humbling and scary to watch them dismantle a working robot and venture back into the land of the unknown. Several times I mentioned to colleagues that I didn’t think we’d get back to the level we had been at in December. Yet they did. And while I could critique the final design, I cannot critique the process that led to it.
Rebound to Idaho
In Moscow, the team took care of the day almost entirely on their own. I write almost, because Morgan Gellert and I spent at least 45 minutes wrestling with Bluetooth so it would talk to the robot. We found an awkward fix but it got us through the day. Here is a short video of our robot shooting the high-point balls at the end of the match.
[Video: Starts at 2:32. I am trying to fix this. And, again you can’t move the slider or the video will restart at the beginning.]
Besides that, however, Tommy Adams and I made only minute suggestions, and the team conducted all on-site robot and strategy modifications themselves. They won three matches convincingly, and managed to be picked by one of the top 3 teams to be a partner in the semifinal matches. Ultimately our alliance was eliminated in the semifinals, but we like to think that we were recognized by our peers as one of the top 6 teams present.
Learning is about authentic problem solving, being allowed to fail and try again, and having your work validated by public appearance. This robotics team embodies those steps and I was ridiculously proud of them at the Moscow competition. No-one will mistake us for a national competitor yet, but we certainly are not a bunch of slouches either.