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Al Williams

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Robotic Education

February 18, 2010

One thing I enjoy doing is going to schools and other groups of young people and talking to them about engineering. Of course, you have to make it entertaining for the kids, so I usually have them participate in a contest.

The way the contest works is I divide the kids into at least two groups. Ideally,  there are as many adult (or sometimes high school students who know about robotics) as there are groups. Then I set a task for the teams that they will accomplish with a robot. For example, I might say that a robot starts at a charging base, has to get water from a dispenser (which might really be a file cabinet), water a few plants (trash cans), and return to the charging base.

The helpers assist the teams in writing "programs" to do it. They might write a program like:

  • Take two steps forward
  • Turn to 3 o'clock

And so on. When they are done, each team elects a robot and a computer. The robot gets a blindfold and the computer has to read the program exactly as written to the robot. This is usually hilarious as they bump into things and generally miss the mark.

For older kids I will "salt" the competition by having  the helpers guide some teams to do programs like I mentioned (open loop control; take two steps forward). Then other groups will be guided to sense their surroundings (walk until you bump into the table; turn until your foot is even with the wall, etc.). 

Of course, the closed loop control robots do better and that's a good lesson for the kids. It lets me talk about design trades and how engineers have to make choices. They also learn how computers are simple minded and the basic ideas behind writing a program.

The kids have a good time and that helps them remember what you are telling them. Plus you'd be surprised how many kids don't know what an engineer is or that they could be one.

If you ever get a chance to share your passion for your work with kids, take it. Its rewarding and you never know -- you might change a kid's life forever.




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