We were in it, today. I split the kids up, a few weeks ago, into an RCX and an NXT team, and pitted them against each other to tackle a challenge: make a robot that can go around the sides of one of our tables as close to the edge as possible, without falling off. This is relatively simple programming but lots of troubleshooting. They’ve been at it for a few sessions now, with some time lost when the laptops were getting inventoried. Last time, both teams came tantalizingly close, with an NXT bot that operated on sound cues – it would begin turning at a handclap, stop turning at a handclap, and everyone had to be really quiet the rest of the time. Very exciting, but the group abandoned this project in favor of a simpler rotation-based program.
So today, getting back on our feet after a very slow session on Tuesday, both teams got close, again. But more importantly, they really started cooperating. One kid was dissing the other team, and I pointed out that the other team was actually way ahead of his in terms of tests and troubleshooting done this session, and it lit a little fire under him and his team. They picked up the pace and started a cycle of testing and troubleshooting, testing and troubleshooting, that was fun to be around.
Another boy who is very bright but pretty hyper and not so great at listening and contributing productively really turned on today. Suddenly, although still leaping over chairs, bumping into things, and otherwise rattling my nerves, he was full of great ideas and enough focus to communicate them to his team. The issue was that the robot was turning a perfect 90 degrees, then turning just a bit more in a weird little adjustment the kids had noticed happens in the demo program as well. This boy suggested measuring the number of rotations of the little turn, then compensating for it in the program. He switched the NXT to view, but realized that such a small turn didn’t register as even one rotation. Wait! We can use what Mr. D— told us about fractions, he said, and proceeded to repeatedly turn the robot that tiny adjustment amount, until the view window read 1 rotation. Now we just divide by the number of times we did the turn, he said excitedly. It’s one-fifth of a rotation! I wish I could have taped this moment for the math teacher.
Meanwhile, through all the gossip and silliness, one girl, one of my awesome programmers, was sitting quietly in the back of the room, assembly something from the NXT kit. She worked by herself for 30 or 40 minutes, calm, happy, focused. I stopped by to see what she was doing. They asked me to make this, she said, indicating a robotic arm. A little while later, she was finished. Many of the kids have trouble following the diagram instructions, and wind up missing pieces or skipping steps. She’d perfectly built the arm, and, I believe, will gain a terrific understanding of how to change the direction of motion, how to use gears, and much more by completing the projects in the book and soaking up the engineering ideas contained within. Look out, world! The next generation of engineers is on the rise…