Friday, February 5, 2016

Week 2: When Things Get Difficult

Playing with LEGOs is easy, right?  With few rules and plenty left to the imagination, you can build anything you want, and don't have to worry about it not working.  LEGO robotics changes that a little bit, because a robot needs to be structurally sound for it to work, but they're still LEGOs, and we start off with a template for students to build before having them try something on their own.

But then there's the programming.  And that's where things get a little messy.

Programming is not easy for students.  You have to know what commands to use, and in what order to put them.  When the robot doesn't work the way it is supposed to, figuring out which command is the issue or what to adjust in the settings can be a challenge.  Moreover, and something that I bring up often in LEGO League, adding programming into the mix brings up a new consideration:  does the problem require a building solution, a programming solution, or both?  All of these considerations make programming a robot a challenge for any robot newbie, even when they're made out of LEGOs.

So, we approach programming slowly in robotics club.  We start with just one command, the move block, which powers the motors.  And we attempt a few basic challenges based on a simple course on the floor.  There are three iterations of this course.  First, the robot must travel in a straight line, starting with the front two wheels on a blue line and ending with the front two wheels on a blue line.  When they are successful here, students then try to make their robot turn left at a 90 degree angle and end on a different blue line, without leaving the boundaries of the course.  Finally, students make their robot turn and go to the end of the course, then turn around and come back, finishing on the same blue line that they started.  For beginners, this is not easy to do, but it is a useful exercise for a few reasons.  First, it promotes incrementalism, the approach that steps need to be tackled one at a time and tinkered with until they work the way they are supposed to.  Second, it promotes a "fail-forward" culture for learning in robotics club that celebrates the struggle that goes into making a robot work.  Natural ability is not a significant factor when an entire group of people are doing a new thing for the first time, so I need to do everything I can to make sure that robotics club is a safe place to "take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

Still, there is little better than the excitement you see and hear in students when they make a robot move in a straight line.  For all of the video games, gizmos, gadgets, and pure wealth of knowledge they have access to today, the fact that something so simple can be so engaging for young people tells me a lot about how they learn and think, and how we should teach them.

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