Archive for the ‘FIRST’ Category

The Atlantic Live: Technologies in Education Forum

The Atlantic hosted a series of panels today in Washington. Panelists were drawn from government, higher education and nonprofit organizations. The topic was twofold: STEM education, and STEM in education. The first is how to improve our education learn science and math, the second is to use science and math to improve how our children learn.

The Khan Academy was brought up a few times in passing, and I have blogged about it and TED-Ed on this blog before. In short, online videos are an innovative (or at least new – don’t confuse the two) distribution method, but the pedagogy remains rooted in the lecture and standardized testing. Khan in particular is old wine in a new bottle. For further criticism, I direct you to Frank Noschese. High school physics teachers like him were conspicuously absent from the panel, along with actual programmers, mathematicians, and engineers.

Most of the discussion focussed on video games, both as a means of conveying information and a tool to teach programming. While there is some semblance of content in educational games, the real learning occurs only for the game maker, not the game player. Some panelists even advocated non-educational games. Joel Levin of TeacherGaming LLC talked about a version of Minecraft marketed towards the education market. He discussed how issues of digital citizenship and law emerged from the game’s cooperative construction mechanic. Most panelists agreed that the games did not foster these positive experiences without the involvement of a trained teacher, and would otherwise devolve into a “Lord of the Flies scenario”.

What I see is the separation of the many good elements we want to teach our children, falling roughly in to two camps. Videos like Khan’s presents advanced content, and videos prompt individual contemplation and mechanistic skills. Games like Levin’s promote problem solving, critical thinking, social interaction, and motivation. Each side lacks the qualities of the other. Physics in games is incorrect; physics in videos is boring. Games inspire; videos empower.

Is there anything that can bridge this gap? Indeed there is, and I did not see it mentioned at the conference. FIRST is a robotics program for children that is as motivating as it is educational. There are multiple leagues for different ages and budgets, but the one I’m familiar presents high school students with a non-trivial (real-world) game, almost a sport, with a field and game pieces. Six weeks later, they are expected to ship a robot that plays that game. In between, they must analyze the game, critically assessing possible strategies. Unlike student project video games, there is enough work for a dozens of kids, facilitating teamwork and organization. But there’s plenty of practical knowledge to be learned and used: everything from mechanical engineering and computer programming to machine shop skills and accounting. Of particular interest is that although the panelists extolled the internet’s ability to distribute and equalize information, and as a platform for games and simulations, FIRST takes place in the real, physical world. FIRST is not a simulation of an engineering project, it is an engineering project, complete with deadlines, budgets, height and weight limits, industrial materials, a difficult challenge.

I’ve written related posts, one on adaptive learning technologies, games, and FIRST, and another on what I really learned from a video game.

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How to save the world

The end of World War I was a bad time to be an optimist. It wasn’t that millions of young men had died or that western Europe had been transfigured into a hellish bombed-out landscape, although that was certainly true. It was the inescapable philosophical consideration that civilization had done this to itself. The “progress” of the industrial revolution and German unification led inexorably to total war. Civilization itself was fundamentally flawed and unsustainable; the only alternative was to admit Rousseau was right and go back to the trees.

Of course, that’s not what happened, and twenty years later they were at it again. The technology changed dramatically, but it didn’t change the fact that people were still killing each other, only how they did it. The changes that mattered were the social institutions built afterwards. Instead of the outrageous reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, there was the conciliatory Marshall Plan. Instead of the League of Nations, there was the United Nations. It wasn’t technological improvements that saved lives and improved the quality of living after the war. It was the people, with their resiliency, their forgiveness, and their intent not to make the same mistake twice.

We now find ourselves, once again, on the brink of destruction. It is not destruction by military means, but rather, economic and environmental means. Natural resources are being depleted faster than they can be renewed, if they can be renewed at all. Industrialization has spread concrete, steel, and chemicals across previously untouched land. The established political institutions are being challenged by forces as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The economy is still largely in shambles. And then there’s the small matter of climate change. And so on. We’ve heard it all before. At TED 2012, this grim view was presented by Paul Gilding (talk, follow-up blog post). He’s pretty blunt about it: the earth is full.

Around a third of the world lives on less the two dollars a day. They have dramatically different cultures, education, living conditions, access to technology than the typical American or European. You honestly think that they’re the ones that are going to fix the problems? The people who are illiterate, innumerate, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from are going to fix climate change?

Depending on your answer, I have two different responses. I’ll give both of them, but you might want to think about it first. Continue reading

Algorithms, Games, Robots

A blog post in three parts.

It’s not a secret that education is they key to success in life and just maybe changing the world. But unlike almost everything else, teaching methods haven’t changed in the last century. We still educate using the factory model, or as Ken Robinson puts it, “in batches”. Students sit at the same desks using largely the same tools to learn the same material in the same way. The old system of two-dozen kids and one adult never worked particularly well. The classroom isn’t good at accommodating personalization, even though every child learns differently. Not just at quantitatively different rates but in qualitatively different styles. The only way to bring to classroom into the 21st century is to use – gasp! – technology.

I am a little concerned with handing over our youth’s education to a machine. Isn’t the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation one of the core ideas that make us human? We could invest in hundreds of thousands of tutor-teachers to personalize lessons for each child. It would certainly create jobs, but at a cost of millions of dollars and years of training. So that’s out. But whatever technology we use needs to be intelligent and capable. The best way to do that is with an algorithm.

“Cook for five minutes or until golden brown” is a example of a simple algorithm. Actually, it’s two algorithms: “cook for five minutes” and “cook until golden brown”. The two stopping conditions are crucially different. The former is an inflexible process, while the latter requires a change in behavior based on observation. In a word, it’s adaptive, which is the difference between watching the timer and watching the toast. So for education, we want  an algorithm to focus on the brains, not the bits. Continue reading

Why Grant Imahara is wrong (about FIRST robot design)

I’m not going to endorse grabbing aluminum with no plan, but I think the amount of time and effort he expects teams to be able to spend on design is unreasonable. In particular, in my experience it takes at least four and a half of the six weeks to fabricate the robot. That varies by what qualifies as fabrication (wiring? last minute modifications?) but you still need time at the end to test the programing, practice driving, and ship the robot. So basically, if your team is not cutting aluminum a week in, you’re in trouble. There is simply not time for the computerized, iterative design process that Imahara advocates.

Continue reading

Design: invented or discovered?

“Dave, it’s like your taking all the mechanisms from the last four years worth of robots and sticking them all on to one robot.”

“Max, this is our ‘bag of tricks’. I’m taking everything we’ve learned from the last fifteen years and sticking it on one robot.”
Continue reading

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.