#MVPBuzz Why I Mentor Robotics


David Meego - Click for blog homepageOK, I admit it…. I am a geek. I love gadgets and technology especially when they are fun to play with. I always have, even before I played with my neighbour’s Sinclair ZX-80 computer when I still lived in the UK. I think the first real gadgets for me were Lego.

I would say it started back in 1977 (4 years before my family moved to Perth, Australia) when I bought one of the first Technical Lego sets ever released, the Lego 850 Fork Lift Truck. I still have this set and the associated Lego 870 Power Pack which could be used to add a motor.

So how did a lifetime love of Lego get me into Robotics?

During my childhood years playing with Lego, I would combine Technical Lego with Space Lego sets to make models that “worked”, and while I still have some of those models on the shelf I stopped playing with them as an adult.

How I Started Mentoring

Jump forward some ten years and kids somehow appeared on the scene and I introduced my two sons to Lego and added more sets to the Lego I had kept from my childhood. Jump forward another ten years or so and my eldest son is at school at All Saints College and is building robots using Lego Mindstorms NXT sets and competing in the Robocup Junior Australia competition.

Note: A very important point to make at this time is that the robots used in the Robocup competition must be fully autonomous. No remote control is allowed, this is not glorified remote control cars like Battle Bots on TV. The students in teams (usually of 2 to 5 students) must program the robots to handle all of the obstacles it might face in any sequence and cannot have any interaction with the robot once it is started. Also, while many teams use Lego, Robocup is not limited to Lego, any platform can be used.

As a parent of a student taking part in Robocup, I was allowed to make suggestions and recommendations but I was not allowed to do anything with either the hardware (Lego model) or the software (built using the NXT-G block based language) as of course, the robot must be the students’ work.

As a software developer who loved Lego with a child “who knows better” and wouldn’t try “really good suggestions”, I couldn’t help myself. Even though Lego Mindstorms is expensive, I was an adult who could afford to spend some money “for research purposes”. So I bought my first Lego Mindstorms set.

Now I could build my own robots for the Robocup Junior Australia Rescue Challenge and test out my theories on what makes a good robot (both hardware and software). As Robocup is only open to Primary and Secondary school students, I could not actually compete, but I loved the challenge of building and programming the robot. Robots are really cool as they allow your code to actually do something in the physical world and not just on a screen.

The video below is my first robot that worked well and could finish the Rescue Challenge (For other cool videos, see the links at the bottom of this article):

By creating and testing a robot to complete the challenge, I was able to learn how difficult some aspects of the challenge are and how only the proper combination of hardware and software will work. There is an iterative process involved where continual tweaking of both the Lego model and the software to drive gets ever closer to the most reliable robot that can handle any obstacle placed in its way.

With this knowledge, I offered to go along to the extra-curricular Robotics Club at the school and started mentoring the students. It also gave me an excuse to spend way too much time “playing” with my robots.

It is now ten years later and I have three Mindstorms EV3 robots as well as my original Mindstorms NXT robot. Both my sons have long finished their secondary education after very productive efforts at a number of state and national competitions in both the Rescue and Dance Robocup challenges.

Why I Still Mentor

You might ask why I continue to mentor at the All Saints College Robotics club even though my children are no longer at the school. Well, I have jokingly asked the amazing lady who runs the club, Donna Hatton, if I can leave and she says “No, and I know where you live….”.

But the truth is that I really love mentoring to the students. In my work as running Winthrop Development Consultants, I have found that I really enjoy sharing knowledge. Whether it be responding on forums, presenting at conferences, giving webinars or running training courses, I love it all and this is really no different.

We start with Year 5 students and introduce them to robotics with a Sumo competition. The students are provided with all they need to build a Sumo robot that needs to push another robot out of a white circular ring with a black edge. The program has been written by me for them, but is configurable. This introduction gets the students confident in the building aspect of robotics and is a fun and exciting way to get them hooked.

From Year 6 onwards the students choose to compete in either the Rescue or Onstage Performance (formerly Dance) challenges of Robocup (We don’t do the Soccer challenge at this stage). Now the students must complete both the building and the programming of the robot by themselves.

When you see the absolute joy on a child’s face when the robot they and their team have created and programmed successfully follows a line for the first time, you know that you have them “hooked”. The seed has been planted and the next generation of scientists and engineers is guaranteed. The excitement just gets better each time the team and the robot complete the next part of the course until they have a robot that can complete the entire challenge.

I have a bit of a sense of humour and often joke with the students and it is amazing to see how confident the students become when they challenge you because they know that what you said isn’t quite right.

Having students work respectfully with an adult as a peer, see a challenge and use their minds to work out possible solutions, then test their ideas to find the best answer, and know that I helped guide them and get them started is what keeps me coming back.

Many of the students in their final years at the school no longer need my help and are coming up with ideas I never thought of. They are also working with new languages and moving away from using Lego to use other robotics platforms.

To help further the amazing benefits of the Robocup competition, I joined the Western Australian state committee and am also involved in the National committee as part of the Technical committee for the Rescue challenge.

This year Western Australia will be holding a Robocup State Competition (postponed from August to November due to COVID-19) and I will be head judge for the Rescue Line challenge and will be setting the challenge courses.

Below are some photos of my latest rescue robot designs:

More Information

For more information, articles and videos see the links below. The portal has articles detailing the exploits of my two sons while competing in both the Rescue and Dance challenges as well as lots of information on robot design and programming and videos of other demo robots I have built.

Hopefully this gives you an insight into why I mentor.

David

This article was originally posted on http://www.winthropdc.com/blog.

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