Author - Art LaFlamme

Herding Robots – the life and times of a robotics coach

Herding Cats

This academic year I have been a coach for a First Tech Challenge (FTC) Team; as the father of a high school student, I stepped in to fill a void – and to spend time with my son

The Mighty Team 10565

I am one of two coaches – Jan is another parent (and a now-retired professor) who has the time and the motivation to help. We’re supported by awesome volunteers. Club manager, Kari, who handles much of the back-end coordination that impacts all four teams, like registration and finances. And true specialists, our technical mentors, who volunteer their time and skills to help the kids with things that range from CAD to programming to machining and building.

Jan and I? We herd the cats. She and I do everything else that is needed – from rides to paperwork to phone calls to rosters. We answer questions, poke and prod. Being a coach meant joining a team of adults that make this happen. 

Great opportunities to talk about the engineering process

As coaches, we start the new year generating knowledge. Some of it is about the FTC challenge itself, since it changes every year. Some of it is about the specifics of the rules – they also change every year. But some of it is invariably about the engineering and design process.

I defer to our technical experts who live, breath, and eat this process every day. They gladly come in and translate the process into simple, easy to understand concepts, terms and language. It’s a review for returning students and an introduction for new kids.

Jan and I took the opportunity at the beginning of the year to lead the team through several rounds of the design process. We focused on the team identifying key requirements for the robot design by phase before they even laid hands on pieces. Team 10565 had two returning members – the rest were new students, mostly freshmen, and we knew this would be important both in giving them goals for their build but also in modeling success they could replicate later.

Jaren getting his build on

Great opportunities to not practice the engineering process.

Team 10565 did not use the engineering and design process much. Jan and I had many laughs about this, and the technical mentors would shake their heads and cover their eyes. The kids were building in accordance with their original designs, but they weren’t evaluating and redesigning based on identified needs for change.

And that was fine. Jan and I had some heart-to-hearts about this. This was our first (and potentially only) year coaching, and while we could bring up the topic of the design process, forcing it would clearly be counterproductive. It wasn’t our robot, it wasn’t our design, it wasn’t ours to fail – it was theirs. We worked with the mentors – who moved between all four teams – discussing what was happening and our concerns, what could be done or what should be done, and even at times how to indirectly influence things.

But our team liked to reinforce failure. They would take a bad design element and keep adding on to it, trying to polish it and polish it, with the hopes that maybe something it’d work out. Why? Because using the engineering and design process is work. Well, it sounds like work. Doing it right is work. It’s super easy if you don’t do it.

And that was our team this year. And that was OK.

The robots? Way cool.

Our robots were incredible anyway. The challenge this year called for figuring out ways to launch over-sized wiffle-balls, lift giant yoga balls up and place them into specific positions, and press buttons on beacons. The bots had to do some of these tasks autonomously. When I was their age, I was throwing rocks at cans, autonomously.

We put no limits on the students. As I mentioned, almost all of the kids of Team 10565 were new to the robotics program, and most had no or little experience with tools and/or power tools. Time to learn. We encouraged them to translate their design ideas into reality through material considerations as well as the use of the rights tools and safety measures.

Our team struggled with throwing the over-sized wiffle-balls. They designed and built seven different mechanisms to address this specific task. Seven. After the competition had ended, they continued to work on it – they’re on version nine as I write this.

The autonomous capabilities of their robot was head and shoulders above that of nearly every other robot they encountered. In the initial design process, the kids had specified autonomous movement as being a key and critical capability, because of how they saw it impacting gameplay. They identified this, and they decided this. And when it came time for the tournaments they were right. They were absolutely right.

Emmett, our team mascot

Is it a club? Is it a class? Is it a sport? Is it a competition?

Team 10565 advanced all the way to the Super-Qualifier Tournament – one of three Wilson High School teams to do so. One other team advanced to the FTC Oregon State Championship, and one advanced to the Western U.S. Super Regional Championship – finishing as one of the top 3% of the FTC robotics teams in the country.

Is that what we’re about?

No. Our program is most definitely a club activity. Wilson only began to offer a “robotics” class this year, but it’s not connected to the club robotics program. Ours is a serious and inclusive program, but it’s a club – a Smash Bros game might break out. The kids vote with their feet. They decide every week if they still want to be involved with their team, and the teams are entirely self-funded through fund-raising efforts.

As a coach? I can nurture that. I vote with my feet every week, too. I roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

Art La Flamme is a former Army officer who spent 25 years working in intelligence. He currently teaches intelligence and security studies at Angelo State University, emphasizing tech not just for spying but for research and collaboration.  Follow him on twitter at @artlaflamme or artlaflamme.com

Bring Parents Into Class Virtually With Video

Vector webinar concept in flat styleI am the opposite of the helicopter parent. I am an Artillery Parent. I get my kids up in the morning, and pack them lunch. I load them in the cannon, shoot them at school, wave at them as they go swooooshing by, and hope they land softly. I assume they’ll find their way home by dark. During their school day, they’re left on their own. As a parent, I’m among the most difficult kind to engage – I don’t want to be at arm’s distance, I want to be at maximum distance.

That’s where video comes in.

Google Hangouts are my best friend. If the principal or my kids’ teachers are having an event and they’ve scheduled it as a live event on Google+ (https://plus.google.com/events), I will very likely make time to sit in and listen. Better still, I’ll likely chime in and ask questions, because it really does feel like I’m sitting at the table at the Council of Elrond. These Google+ Hangouts are a snap to schedule (Google+, to Events, to Plan a Hangout, and then select Event Option, Advance, Event is online-only). Once underway, they allow parents to ask questions in person, or to type in questions. They work on phones, tablets, or anything with a web browser. Google will even record the session to post to YouTube afterwards. Hangouts are great for those planned, forecasted events for which everyone has time to prepare, and it’s great for round-table discussions for which you might need a few slides from a Google Presentation.

online mobile phone camera webcam security surveillance internetPeriscope is a great tool for truly simple broadcasting. You give Periscope a description of your session, press start, and it’s broadcasting live. From there, you only need to get the URL to parents. Periscope (iOS https://goo.gl/tEupwR and Android https://goo.gl/h9i47h) is built on Twitter, and allows viewers to ask questions via text. You can save your broadcasts yourself, but the quality of video isn’t as nice as it is with Google. It is incredibly fast to set up and needs no scheduling or coordination. Periscope is great for all of those little things that happen in the classroom that you want to be able to share with parents. Since Periscope hosts the video for 24 hours you can broadcast activities, but send the URL knowing parents (or aunts and uncles and grandparents) may not see it until they finish their work day.

Blab for when you use translators. Blab (blab.im) allows for up to four people on a video session at a time, but for those four can be publicly viewed by anyone. Blab also features live audience participation through text comments, and the video can be recorded, making this a great gap-filler between Google Hangouts and Periscope. It’s also an easy way to bring translators front and center in order to meet the needs of the whole community. If you regularly partner with translators for engaging with parents, Blab might be your new best friend.  **Ed Note- Blab is no more. Moment of silence for all the electrons we’ve lost.

Educreations for those topics that need a little bit more. Maybe it’s a field trip, or a new block, or the long-term sub – some things need fully interactive presentations and discussions, just like we use in the classroom. Educreations excels at this, in allowing you to build presentations, and deliver them through a range of means (YouTube, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc). While it will allow you to deliver the full, rich content and information to parents that you need, it doesn’t allow for real-time feedback.

Zaption and Edpuzzle for changing video. If you’re making video to share with your students, both Zaption and Edpuzzle are excellent ways to use or repurpose your existing videos (or other videos) by overlaying your own voice, questions, or information, in order to make deliverable content for parents. Both are great parent feedback mechanisms, but also are great tools for easily sharing information. And both are dead-simple to use for you, and also for the parents.

It would be nice to have every parent come in and engage teachers, but the world is filled with artillery parents. Video is a great way to bridge that gap in realtime and in their own time.

LaFlammeArt La Flamme is a former Army officer who spent 25 years working in intelligence. He currently teaches intelligence and security studies at Angelo State University, emphasizing tech not just for spying but for research and collaboration.  Follow him on twitter at @artlaflamme or artlaflamme.com

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