Category Archives: robotics

Geekiest cake ever…


My camera’s in the shop, hence the lack of visuals lately. The cake is chocolate butter cake, with lightly mint-flavored buttercream frosting, for the last day of LEGO robotics tomorrow. I couldn’t stay true to the NXT colors, no one wants to eat grey! Yuck.


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Filed under food, New York, photos, robotics, teaching

More LEGO coolness on YouTube…

This one’s an assembly line making little LEGO cars.  I wonder, if you had enough LEGOs and enough engineers, could you make robots make robots?  LOL.


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Five is a Handful

Sometimes, you need a little Moxie. One of my colleagues brought some back for each of us from a trip to Maine. A little research reveals that we’ve had Moxie since 1884 with nary a pause: it’s “the oldest continuously produced soft drink in the US.” Oddly, Moxie came up in my comments today, too, but this one’s a parenting blog. Go figure.


After reading a review in this week’s New Yorker, I’m totally psyched to pick up Peter Carey’s new novel, His Illegal Self. You may know Carey from the True History of the Kelly Gang or possibly Oscar & Lucinda). It’s a little weird to quote from a book I haven’t yet read, but I cannot resist a book with lines like this: “Plans have changed, she said, getting all busy with a cigarette.”


And speaking of reading, it’s all about the brain, senses, learning right now: This is Your Brain on Music, The Emperor of Scent, and this article about how the brain perceives number, and how we learn to do things with numbers (more New Yorker for ya):

Dehaene’s work centered on an apparently simple question: How do we know whether numbers are bigger or smaller than one another? If you are asked to choose which of a pair of Arabic numerals—4 and 7, say—stands for the bigger number, you respond “seven” in a split second, and one might think that any two digits could be compared in the same very brief period of time. Yet in Dehaene’s experiments, while subjects answered quickly and accurately when the digits were far apart, like 2 and 9, they slowed down when the digits were closer together, like 5 and 6. Performance also got worse as the digits grew larger: 2 and 3 were much easier to compare than 7 and 8. When Dehaene tested some of the best mathematics students at the École Normale, the students were amazed to find themselves slowing down and making errors when asked whether 8 or 9 was the larger number.

Plus, Oliver Sacks has a new one out about sound and the brain, and Donald Plaff is investigating how the golden rule may be (somewhat) hardwired into our brains (this would have been a neat lecture but who can make it from the Bronx to Battery Park by 6:00 pm? Not me). But there’s a larger post in all this, because “Scent” was one of those life-changing books.


I’m taking my enrichment cluster kids to a violin-maker’s studio in March. We’re also going to Sony WonderLab.


My LEGO kids unbuilt the mission models which took us so long to build. It wasn’t destructive, just the outcome of days and days of play, of stealing pieces for other projects. Which would be fine except we’re entering an exhibition/tournament in early April, and suddenly we need to build what we unbuilt. And the pieces are all mixed together with pieces from previous years. Live & learn?


Nevermind that last bit, the REAL #5 is this:


Filed under article, books, food, music, randomness, robotics


In which the seemingly impossible becomes possible.

a non-robotic friend
Forgive me for posting so much about robotics and so little about education in general. It’s what I’m most excited about at the moment (the excitement is contagious – three kids showed up at my door today asking to be let into the club). It’s reached a point where the program nearly runs itself. Without the pressure of a tournament approaching, I’m taking a laissez-faire attitude towards students who just want to build stuff out of LEGOs (see photo). Now that we’ve mostly worked out our laptop difficulties – it was touch-and-go for a while – most of the kids are actively engaged. We’ve settled into a routine; they spend a few minutes at the start chatting and eating snack, if someone brings one, and I take attendance and sit down for 10 minutes. Then I propose the day’s challenge, and the teams take out the LEGOs and get to work. Today, all the kids were raring to go, it was striking how eager they were to dig in on a new challenge: to score a “field goal” by catapulting a ball through goal posts I created in honor of the Super Bowl. Once they get started, I do nearly nothing. I sit nearby and observe, do some work if I’m under a lot of pressure, help out when they need it, but mostly just watch and listen. Occasionally I point something out that they should consider, or make a suggestion… but mostly, I let them explore and teach themselves and each other.

Today it seemed obvious that we’ve made some real breakthroughs in the last few months since the tournament ended. Once, if I asked them to do something involving a robotic arm, it would have taken several weeks and many poorly-designed attempts. They didn’t have much intuition regarding engineering or how to accomplish tasks with the specific types of pieces available. Now, without any explicit teaching on my part, they just set to work and a few minutes later, a catapult has been built, complete with a bar for the arm to hit against when it snaps forward, and, at the other table, a robotic arm featuring a scoop-like claw, which is quickly modified when it turns out that the ball falls out of the claw. I suppose I could hasten the pace by presenting stuff about gears and other aspects of engineering, but I like this way better. Anything I could do would seem sort of abstract and out-of-context; now they are learning in, to use some seriously nerdy ed-psych jargon, their zone of proximal development. One day’s accomplishment is the foundation for the next, solutions are considered, tested, rejected or improved upon or accepted, ideas are even discussed and weighed against one another.

Neither group’s catapult scored the field goal today, in part because I made them throw from so far from the goal that it might be a nearly impossible challenge. Thursday I’ll ask them if they want to continue as is, move the throwing line forward a bit and keep going with new conditions, or move on to a new challenge. Both groups improved their designs significantly over the course of the day so in my mind, the real challenge has been accomplished. But investment requires closure, so if they want to see the ball fly through the goal posts, they should keep at it.

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My school has been slowly implementing something called SEM, or the “Schoolwide Enrichment Model” over the last few years.  We are far from being a model of this idea, but some aspects are starting to take hold.  For example, each of our students (except the lowest performing math kids, but that’s another whole post) gets to choose an enrichment cluster for last period Friday.  These are high-interest mini-courses offered based on assessment of teacher and student interests; they last 8-12 weeks and then we start a new cycle.  Most of the kids get their first or second choice of cluster, the class sizes are small, and in theory, they are less teacher-directed and more a collaborative exploration of a new topic by the students with the teacher.

I sat out the first round, as it’s technically my period to do team leader stuff.  But I had a million ideas for things I’d been dying to try, and after all, I am one of the teachers who attended Confratute, the University of Connecticut’s weeklong training for SEM, and anyway, it’s hard to help other teachers implement something that you’ve never done yourself.  So this time around, I offered a cluster, the Science of Sound.  I’ve wanted to teach this for years, even though I’m not that knowledgeable about music or the physics of music or how instruments work or any of it; I figured this format of exploration would be perfect for learning about something along with the kids.

It is rapidly becoming one of my favorite hours of the week.  Most of the kids in the group are excited to be there, and the class is tiny thanks to the removal of the low-performing math kids.  At least one boy has come alive in a way that I’ve never seen in him before; he makes higher level connections all the time in this class, and reveals random bits of knowledge about music that I would never have guessed he possesses.  The first couple of weeks, I tried to have them select a project from a book on sound & science, write up a plan, and then build it, but in the end we mostly just played around using the book as a basis and junk I collected from teachers and students as our raw material.  One group built a shoebox guitar complete with toothpick frets (when you press the strings near a fret, it really does alter the sound), another group built a single string bass (there’s a better name for this but I forget it), one boy made a “telephone” by tying a string between two plastic cups.  The kids are fascinated by their projects.  I try to ask questions prompting them to think about what is causing sound to vary between one rubber band and the next, one tube and the next, and so on.

Yesterday, I gave an impromptu lecture on waves, starting out with general stuff like amplitude, frequency, wavelength, and so on, veering into a brief conversation about am versus fm radio (something I don’t know a ton about), then going into why helium makes our voices higher and how there are gases that work the opposite way, making our voices lower.  The kids connected the discussion of vibration of molecules to the work on air pressure that we’ve been doing in regular science.  One boy suddenly raised his hand and said, Oh so frequency gives you pitch?!  Which, yes, it pretty much does.  (Though I’m reading a pretty neat book called This is Your Brain on Music, which proposes that pitch is really created by the brain’s processing of frequency… but I think that’s a bit much for the first go-round on the topic).

All of which brings me around to the incredible amounts of learning that can go on when you do something that kids are excited about, keep a good balance between exploration and inquiry and expectation of specific outcomes, and broaden rather than narrowing the curriculum.  My favorite parts of the week are robotics and my enrichment cluster; and I have a feeling that these are things my kids will remember 20 years from now.

By the way, that one boy who is so excited about my enrichment cluster has also become fascinated by scientific vocabulary.  He and some other boys were giggling about a post-it note at the end of class the other day.  I asked to see it.  It said “Compression” and had a list of students’ names, some with checkmarks beside them.  Incomprehensible.  Is this inappropriate?  I asked.  What is it?  The boy laughed.  Compression is when I squeeze someone’s head, he said, into a smaller space, like molecules.  He’s not a violent kid, and no one was complaining, so I just laughed, gave it back, and told him that I wasn’t responsible if he distracted others and got in trouble for it.  Later when I introduced compression waves I said it was his favorite word, and the whole class giggled.  Finally, on the way downstairs, he said, We just dropped some altitude, right Ms. F.?  I love quirky kids.

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Filed under education, robotics, science, teaching

Bot Basketball & Other School Stories

bot basketball 1
(Sorry the picture’s so blurry). After a few slow sessions in which one of our laptops vanished, we picked up again today with a new challenge: carry a ball from behind one line to another line, then dump the ball into a box behind the second line. It didn’t seem like the teams were working very hard, and I kept chastising them for gossiping and joking around instead of getting anything done… but the next thing you know, they came together and each team had a robot ready to test. The RCX team technically won this challenge, getting the ball into the box on their very first try with a simple design and even simpler robot. The NXT team came very close but their robot needed a lot of tweaking before it finally worked, and even then was not very reliable. For some reason our NXT robots always seem to wander to the right even when they are supposed to go straight. Anyway, we invited the administrators to come check it out, and they brought the quality reviewer, so it was a nice little moment of showing off. Then a couple of other afterschool groups came to see, and they were really excited for my kids. Great stuff. They finished the challenge early and were eager for the next one; I think it will be getting a ball into a smaller, higher target.

Meanwhile my whole seventh period class had to be checked for lice (and there was at least one positive) and it’s been all I can do to stop feeling paranoidly itchy since then. Yuck. Yuck yuck yuck YUCK. I’ve never been the kind of teacher who is totally “hands-off” – I’ll give a kid a hug or a pat on the shoulder or whatever, despite the ubiquitous warnings about false accusations, etc. But man, this lice business might be the thing that finally keeps me from hugging kids!

The kids are super excited about their science fair projects, and after a couple of slow, slow lessons in which it seemed like they’d never buckle down to design their projects, today they finally figured it out (thanks to more explicit modeling from me?). Many teams got projects approved and others are close. This time of year is so stressful because there are so many management challenges – but the excitement is inspiring.

If only the kids would just start being nice to each other. If only.

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The Lego Zone

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…


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