There is something about the sight of a life size robot that piques the interest of people of all ages. The metallic build. The LED eyes, the motorized sound and movement that just hypnotizes the brain and makes you want to be a kid again.
Over the last week I have heard this message spoken time and time again as educators wish to be a kid again and during weekend Sciencefests people cannot help but touch the robot.
The robot I am speaking about is none other than Mr. Robot. We were lucky to be able to purchase Mr. Robot a few years ago when our school implemented a new robotics program. We brought in 165 LEGO EV3 kits and an unassembled Mr. Robot.
Over the course of that school year various students came in my room to build Mr. Robot. After 100 hours of building, rebuilding, and rebuilding again we had success and Mr. Robot was a moving machine controlled through a NXT brick. Over time without being able to manipulate code and blowing out the fuses Mr. Robot became part of the background to my room and nothing more.
This had to change.
Over the course of the last two years the robot has lead to conversation and students begging to work on the robot. We finally had to make it happen. And we did.
Mr. Robot is a robot that ignites excitement, passion, and curiosity. What if the robot did this or that or both? We now have goals and answers we are trying to solve. Our end game is to now write our own code to control Mr. Robot to deliver coffee to teachers in our building. How are we going to do this challenge? With a lot of work, documentation, trial and error, and perseverance.
Over the last month we have a group of students who come in early to school every single day and also stay after school for a few hours when available to work on the robot. This robot has fueled an excitement that educators beg for in their own classrooms. We are witnessing students work on their own time, research solutions to issues, work collectively as a team, and not give up when things don’t work. It has been one of the most powerful journeys I have been part of in my teaching career and we are just getting started.
What have we done with Mr. Robot?
The first thing we did was put out an announcement to all students in the building. We wanted to make sure everyone had an opportunity. The students that met with me were then given their first task to code their own website as part of the Choose to Code project hosted by Microsoft. I wanted to see that students were serious and could work through some basic coding functions. As students complete this task they are then allowed to come in and work with us on the robot. I had to put in a few barriers as the robot is an expensive piece of equipment.
With the core group who works diligently on the robot we had to go through and test all wires, look for exposed wire, study and understand schematics, and basically understand how the robot operates. For this students had to study on their own. In the mornings we would talk and discuss to make sure we were on the same page.
Next we had to swap out the NXT. We no longer have software or any cables or chargers for NXT. This placed us back at ground zero. We began working to figure out how to control the robot with an EV3. After importing two blocks from Tetrix we had access to the DC motor controllers and the servo controllers. Once this was established we had to process how we would wire the robot to allow us to control. We drew a diagram on the board to keep notes of our wiring. We also began to label parts of the robot as well as keep a detailed log of what we are doing each day.
It was not long before we had the robot moving and controlling all four DC motors. We realized that two motors were installed backwards so we had to swap them around and also reconnect some faulty wires. We were then back in business and had him moving around the room.
We invested in a label maker to indicate key motors and servos. Other things we have discovered is that the loop block works really well to increase reliability. When working to understand how to turn we started by turning one motor, then one leg. We also sampled using degrees and estimating and calculating what data we needed for precise turns. We also experimented with rotations, but we have had trouble going backwards. We still have some glitches in our code that we are working through such as we have moments where the code will stop running, but the robot does not. We need further understanding of the motor controls to command better and more effectively.
Last, we have created a path to move the robot from one side of the room to the doorway. We will continue to understand coding principles until our pieces and controller arrive.
How Mr. Robot Acts Like An Educator
As an educator I treat Mr. Robot like a guest speaker in my Makerspace. He brings in so many questions and ideas to students. Can he do this? Can he do that? The answer to all of their questions are YES if you want to make it happen. What Mr. Robot has done is create an authentic audience in himself by students wanting to bring him alive(so to speak).
Additionally, he is an educator. I don’t have the answers. I am simply a guide. The students are learning so many things on their own as they work to hack the robot. I have watched students spend so much time trying to build a hand that operates with a servo motor. This was the best gear lesson this student could have received. I have students who were once afraid to code studying code and creating commands I did not even know were possible to have him move and operate. He is a big science experiment where we just cannot wait to run a program and see if it works.
If you were a kid would you not love to bring a 5 foot robot to life? Back in December 2015 we posted our goals for our robot. This was exciting because I have a group of 5-6 students who come in every single morning and often times after school to work on the robot for not other reason than passion, interest, and a willingness to learn. The students have made this happen. Not me. I simply guide and provide an adult presence in the room.
If you were to ask me if we would have completed what we have by now I would have laughed. I am amazed by what these students have done in the few short hours of disrupted work on this robot.
What started off as a poorly built robot that did not work back in 2014 has now turned into one of the greatest and most powerful learning platforms I have been part of as an educator.
The students had to start off by studying the robot and learning how it moved and operated. They jumped into this project with zero experience. The only experience they had was with First Lego League and simple programming with EV3. After a month of learning the wiring, studying schematics, and processing how servo and dc motor controller servers work they began to clean things up. We had to rebuild practically every joint of the robot. Nothing worked. They had to rewire most of the robot and after a month we finally had power.
The next step was to swap out the NXT brick with an EV3 brick. This might not seem like a big deal, but it was huge. This allowed us to move away from Mr. Robot being a toy to a learning platform. At this point we could now begin to program the robot. We soon learned that we had to download some blocks to give us the ability to program and code the robot using EV3 base code.
After about a month we began to understand how to program and how to make the robot move. During this time we also began to think about adding a Raspberry Pi to the robot to achieve our ultimate goal of delivering coffee to teachers. We put in a pretty big order of parts to make this robot respond to the environment(as of this post our parts have still not arrived).
Our next big step was the delivery of a new bluetooth controller. We now have the ability to control the robot. Up until this point all of our experiments were simply to have the robot follow commands. With a controller we can now program the robot to do what we want. We had sample code sent to us from Pitsco and once we studied and learned how the code worked the kids started hacking it right away. They are now adding their own voice outputs, changing how it maneuvers, how he responds, and more. It has been so exciting watching these kids push their learning every single day. They are to the point where I honestly believe they know more than me.
Here is a quick rundown of what they have done the last few weeks.
- properly attached the head and other body parts
- got the robot to start smoking on the shoulder(not intentional!)
- hooked the robot up to a PS2
- made person recordings for the EV3 brick to say
- Hooked up a EV3 brick and removed NXT
- tightened up 2 of the treads on his feet as he was not moving on the cement floors very well
- figured out his arm is not strong enough to pick up a more than half used roll of tape. We are brainstorming new ways to improve strength
- gave him a name – Twitch
- signed him up for Gmail
- created a website – will be shared soon
By April of 2016 we hope to have him fully functioning with the LEGO EV3 coding as well as Python coding with the Raspberry Pi. We have two demonstrations and expos in April where we will be unveiling him to the public for the first time. We have a lot of work to do between now and then, but with the inspiration of Mr. Robot and the determination of the students to bring him to life I have no doubt our goals will be met.
I have been working with the students to understand how important it is to document this process online. They need a digital footprint for the work they are doing as 7th graders. The world needs to know about them. They have developed a website, a YouTube channel, worked with another teacher to develop a logo, and soon to have a Twitter account for the robot. The robot has moved from Mr. Robot to Twitch. He has his own personality and brand. There are so many life lessons taking place with this robot. For me, my goal is to help understand how to document their learning, share their learning, and walk out of middle school connected with the experts and companies that can make their dreams a reality.
In another week we will update everyone on the robot. We have a ton planned and once we launch all of our online channels you can follow through these sites.
In the meantime, please follow our journey. This is most impressive story of the power of students, the power of personalized learning, and what can be achieved when you can help students work on something they love. Just wait until our components finally arrive!