Last month, I had a friend approach me with an amazing offer. My friend is definitely a very outgoing person, and long story short, she wanted me to help her design a one day science and technology camp for some really awesome children.

The task: Design a creative and educational camp that would introduce children to robotics through Project Based Learning (PBL) and Problem Based Learning (PBL), and allow them to work together to find solutions to real-world problems through hands-on experience.

Seeing them build, create, and solve was totally worth it!

I would first like to thank my friend, Xiaoman Huang, for approaching me with such an awesome task! And a special thanks to Vanke Co. for providing the materials, the wonderful people, and the beautiful location to be creative!

My Experiences in China

Six years ago, I came to China to teach for what I thought was going to be a year. I had just graduated with my degree in Computer Engineering, had no real experiences outside of the United States, and was looking for something that would broaden my experiences with others outside of my own comfort zone. One year led to two. Two became three. And somehow three became six.

Be excited about doing the things that you love.

Around the second year, some truly inspirational people came into my life and helped me to rethink about what I wanted to do in my life.They inspired me to rethink my career path and to keep learning. I applied for Zhejiang University where I would begin to study machine learning, computer vision, and robotics and begin the next chapter in my life. These years have been daunting, and I have had to revamp my life and my habits just to keep up.

But enough about me. Let’s get back to the camp.

Preparing for the Camp

When getting ready for this camp, we discussed what kind of experience we wanted for the students. Other technology camps and classes can often focus on children following along with the teacher. They more often than not don’t allow for creative thinking, freedom in design, or promoting real-world problem solving skills. We wanted the kids to think about a real-world concept and work as a team to find a solution through robotics. In addition, we only wanted the kids to use basic materials – popsicle sticks, paper, styrofoam, glue – to construct their robots.

Those were the guidelines. For everything else, I had to draw from my own experiences, studies, or do a little research and begin to think about the task. I have designed numerous simple activities and classes over the years, but never something so closely related to robotics. I was super excited!

Breakdown of Camp Schedule

  • 9:30 – 10:00 – Sign in
  • 10:00 – 10:30 – Ice breakers
  • 10:30 – 11:30 – Presentation: What is a robot?
  • 11:30 – 12:30 – Lunch
  • 12:30 – 1:30 – Group Discussions and Robot Designing and Planning
  • 1:30 – 3:00 – Build Robots
  • 3:00 – 3:30 – Robot Competition!

With the schedule planned, the next step was to think about a practical and meaningful project where students could really learn. It was important for students to use the fundamental ideas behind PBL to approach and design a solution.

What is PBL?

There are two kinds of PBL: Problem Based Learning and Project Based Learning. They are both instructional models and often can be a little difficult to differentiate. Given our activity and time-limit, we combined certain aspects of each method for our purposes.

Project Based Learning – A multidisciplinary method that aims for students to be challenged and seek out a solution to solve real-world problems through completion of an actual product. Often the goals in Project Based Learning are set and the time for these kind of projects are longer, as well.

Problem Based Learning – Students can be tasked with solving a problem through active engagement and using the knowledge they already possess, often where there is no one correct answer. The task is to view the problem, assess the parts you don’t understand and find solutions to them, and then try to construct a viable solution.

Designing the Project

During my research at Zhejiang University, I came across numerous research articles about robots designed to solve many different tasks. Robots that were used for service, industry, exploration, agriculture, and numerous other fields. Ones that were designed to solve vision, mobility, localization, and other problems. So I decided to look at the hardware that each student was given and get to work on designing my own robot.

Among all the arts and crafts materials, each team would be given three DC motors. There would be no other hardware or sensors given. We wanted to create a simple activity and more sensors would only convolute the whole thing. My planning was then simplified to designing an activity around mobile robots. I remember studying about that in university, learning about robot planning and localization, and the different kinds of robots – legged, wheeled, robots with tracks, and others that can fly, swim, or slide.

Example slide from the presentation showing kinds of mobile robots.

I began thinking about large companies like Amazon that use robots in their warehouses to move packages, and delivery companies that are starting to use mobile robots. With that in mind, I was able to create a plan.

Activity summary:

Students will attend a one-day science and technology camp. The activity will provide students with a learning environment that will seek them to not only just look at a problem, but think about ways that they can solve them using practical methods and robotics. 

In many modern situations, robots have been tasked with moving large loads over long distances, quickly and efficiently. Many different types of methods have been researched and tested, and today students will explore the ideas, advantages and disadvantages behind some of these methodologies. 

Students will then work together and be given the task of designing their own robots to handle similar tasks, focusing on movement, accuracy and speed. They will finally test their robots in competition against the other teams.

I then began to test out if my plan was feasible with the materials and the time given for the activity and Voila! With a nice, rainy afternoon and some coffee, Little Happy was created.

Able to carry at most three batteries across the room.

After that, I worked on completing the plan for another week and making sure my parts were in order.

The Day of the Camp Arrives

5:50 AM: My alarm is goes off. I wake up and finish the presentation for the camp and make sure all of the materials are together. My stomach is turning a bit, but I am super excited. I walk to the bus stop and begin the hour long trip to the camp.

Worked along some very talented people that day!

9:03 AM: Arrive at the camp. Get everything set up.

9:30 AM: Students start arriving. We check in with the parents and students and make sure every one is there.

10:00 AM: When robots are performing tasks, precision is very important. One error can lead to another, until the robot encounters any number of possible errors. So what simple game also has these same kind of problems where any move can cause everything to topple over? Jenga!

A task that we find easy isn’t always so simple for a robot.

Presentation – What is a Robot?

10:30 AM: I wanted to create a discussion that was engaging, teaching the idea of what makes a robot, what problems robots are being used to solve, how robots can move. I wanted to get them thinking about what the future holds for robotics and maybe what problems they would like to solve.

I believe that the learning environment is very important to promote creative thinking.

After that, we revealed to the students what they would be doing today. They would be tasked with making a robot, but given the following real-world constraints: 1) they must design a delivery robot that can carry at least one block at a time, 2) they must consider accuracy, in this case, being able to go as straight as possible, and 3) consider speed in order to deliver the blocks as quickly as they can.

Robot Designing Process

12:30 PM: After lunch, students got into teams and worked together to design a robot given the constraints. They filled out worksheets with questions to help them to think about what problem they were facing, what didn’t they know, how should they approach the problem, and to help them to exchange ideas amongst themselves.

1:30 PM: This is always my favorite part – building and testing my ideas. And if they don’t work, trying to see where things went wrong and fix them. We all tried to instill this same idea among the students during the building process. One group considered a walking robot during the design, but when it came time to build realized it wasn’t so efficient for the task. Another team thought that more motors equals more power, but hadn’t considered that it would also add weight.

Other problems occurred and we worked to fix and learn from them.

It was nice to be a kid again for a little while.

Competition

3:00 PM: The big moment finally came to see how each team’s idea stacked up against one another in friendly competition. Three separate races tested each group’s robot design. What was really cool was to watch each team try and test the strengths and weaknesses of their robots, testing the max load it could carry, how fast their robots could move, or making last minute modifications to increase performance.

You all were awesome! Thank you!

When it came time to leave that day I walked away with a bounce in my step. I still remember how clear the sky was that afternoon. I bought a cup of coffee soon after and even the coffee tasted better.

What I learned

Breaking things into smaller chunks, rather than trying to take on the whole project. I wasn’t sure where to begin planning this activity and I had so many ideas about what I would like to do. But nothing was coming together and some of my worries were getting the best of me. Until I decided to sit down and just see what kind of materials I had to work with. Once I did that, I knew the direction I was headed in.

I became very intrigued with the way each group worked, and even more so on how each student already had their own styles of working on group projects. When students only follow along with a teacher, they aren’t really given the chance to think for themselves or even find their own path to create a solution. But when you give them a task and then step back and only assist when they need help, their own inner selves come out. Some students were like little managers moving the project along. Others became little engineers testing out all the different parts and seeing how they interacted. Some were more involved during the design phase, but took a step back when it came time to build.

While thinking about the activity, I really began to think about the future of robotics and personal robots. It got me excited thinking about the future of robotics and proud that I am in this field of study.

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