Memory: Computer Science presentations & FIRST

About a month ago, one of my engineering introductory elective teachers invited the class to the final project presentations of a 100 level computer science class. They had studied robot behavior and independently functioning systems. Their projects involved getting robots do do things like show moral distress, map and navigate an unknown building, find a hoop and throw a ping-pong ball, fly autonomously (on its own), and in a neat psychology experiment, test subject’s perceptions of robot competence by intentionally failing (sometimes). In short, a quite an undertaking for college students.

I came partly because I was bored, partly because I was interested in the projects, and partly because I was interested what a higher level comp sci course was like, since I was considering minoring in it. What was expected of me?

Apparently, not something that works. The moral distress robot backed away from the color-coded tower of empty soda cans, regardless of whether it was to knock them down with or without protesting. (“I don’t like soda, but I’m drinking it for a school project.”) The navigating robot presentation was a bit rough around the edges, and it took it a while to get going. The ball shooter didn’t round the corner the way it should have, and then missed the shot. The tour bot, which was programmed with a success case, a failure case, and an ambiguous case, spoke in a hard to hear voice, without using the screen (I expected the failure to flash TOUR OVER instead of mumble it). The group even admitted that the “random” parings of subjects to success/failure/ambiguous showed trends. So randomize again, I thought. The four bladed helicopter showed its hardware hackishness by twitching and then sending a piece of a motor across the lawn. It was cold and dark. I went home.

It’s quite something, I realized, to put together a robot that worked. In the introductory class, I had used Lego Mindstorms. These guys were working with, for the most part, a cart that carried around a laptop. Granted, it’s more a software thing, so I guess it’s more fair to say we used LabVIEW and they used, presumably, C++. But still. Building robots is hard work. And when you’re doing custom hardware alongside that, it’s even harder.

And so I realized it’s quite incredible what consumer technology can do. You can keep dozens of doorstoppers on a device as thin as a pencil. You can read The New York Times, and then plan your driving route, on the same device at the kitchen table. You can talk to people on the other side of the planet on a device that fits in your pocket, which costs a fraction of what a far less capable device costed 20 years ago. Welcome to the future. It’s 2011. (That’s pronounced twenty-eleven, thank you very much.)

And everyone who built those insanely cools gadgets did it from scratch. Did it with technologies that didn’t exist a few years ago. And they work, (almost) flawlessly. This is the bar to reach.

And so it’s also quite incredible, looking back at the collegiate failures (or were they just ambiguous?), that in high school I was part of a team that made a functioning robot from scratch. As in, starting with choosing what parts of the task were most important, then selecting mechanical components to accomplish those subtasks, building those components in a garage with other high schoolers, putting them all together (worrying about size, weight, center of gravity, so on), programming the resulting robot, and driving it to victory during competition. And all but the competition happened in a space of six weeks.

Welcome the FIRST robotics, an incredible program for high schoolers to learn so much more than robots. It’s about teamwork, planning, dedication, and “coopertition”. It’s got all the character building of conventional sports, but instead of learning how to move balls around, you’re learning something useful, like how to program or drill or use AutoCAD. Freshmen engineers at Tufts have to take a course on AutoCAD! I went through it, but it was easier because I already thought in terms of fabrication. (I personally did not learn the program in FIRST.) But still, I didn’t have to wonder why the correct precision on a drawing is so important. If it says 1.0″, measure with a ruler and cut with a bandsaw. If it says 1.000″, measure with a caliper and cut with a lathe or mill. If it says 1.000000000″, like the error I had to spot on the exam, God help you.

I walked in not understanding the joke of “Team Resistance: going against the current,” and walked out quite familiar with Ohm’s law – from school. But from my FIRST team, I got a hands-on education that would have otherwise been completely unavailable to me. 

I spent time getting my hands dirty in a machine shop. I walked in not knowing anything beyond flathead vs. Phillips screwdrivers, and I walked out knowing how to use calipers, drill presses, center drills, files, mills, lathes (turning, facing, boring, cutting screw threads), and basically any other process or tool that cuts aluminum.

And tomorrow, it starts over once again – my fifth FIRST – when they unveil the new game. I’ll be helping not one but two teams, making the transition when I fly back to college.

Boy am I excited.


One response to this post.

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