# The Plastic Brain

## 10 Ways to Use Lego Robotics to Teach Things Other Than Robotics

I met Rob Torok today at the Google Digital Curriculum Summit. Along with Damien Kee, his online resources helped to kick-start my learning journey with Lego NXT Robotics. I was talking to him about some of the things we have done or could do at my school, using NXT robotics in the curriculum. He challenged me to provide a list of 10 things we could use robots for, that wasn’t primarily about teaching robotics. Challenge accepted!

[1] Mathematics: Coordinate Graphing – program robots with y=3x+2 equation. Each group gets a different x value. Robots drive forward y rotations. What pattern do they end up in?

[2] Physics: Energy transformation – Use sound sensor to record the sound of a bouncing ball. Use peak intervals and decay to discuss conservation (and loss) of energy (hat tip to Damien Kee)

[3] Art/Maths: Drawing systems – attach pens to Domabots and program to drive in complex, recursive patterns.

[4] Biology: Coordination of Body Systems – combine an NXT kit with a chemistry kit to control the flow of liquids. Model bladder fill/empty feedback system (see here)

[5] Mathematics: Interpreting graphs – Use light or sound sensor to record input over a long period. Analysise data retrospectively. What do you think happened in the room over time, when? (hat tip to Damien Kee)

[6] Biology: Ribosomes – The ribosome is an amazing piece of biochemical engineering which translates messenger RNA codons (three-letter sequences) into a strand of amino acids to make protein. I have planned, but never built, a device which would take a paper strip as an input, and read grey scaled boxes (light sensor) or colour patches (colour sensor) in groups of three, then translate them into an amino acid letter sequence. The hardware build wouldn’t be too hard and the program should be fairly straight-forward. It would use the ‘genetic code’ as its reference.

[7] Chemistry: Reaction rates – We already have reactions which turn cloudy, and students use a black cross under the beaker to determine when it is too cloudy to see. This gives you a single time point used to estimate a reaction rate. Using the light sensor on one side of the beaker, and an LED on the other would give a data log of the whole process of precipitate formation (in real time).

[8] Physics: Sustainable energy – When teaching Year 7 students about sustainable energy they came up with the idea of using the light sensor to track the sun across the sky. By using this to rotate a solar panel, maximum power generation can be achieved.

[9] Computer Science: Data transmission – Encode a message in binary and send out bits using the light or sound output. Use the corresponding sensor on a recipient device to record the signal, then decode.

[10] Earth sciences: Building Earthquake Test-table. This device was used to generate oscillation for a shake table. We tested different building designs for their ability to withstand increasing levels of vibration, controlled by the NXT device (see video for full set-up).

## Five Lessons Learned from a Week in Industry

Recently, I’ve had a lot on my mind. In the last week, I have been taken out of my usual context, and been given the opportunity to look my teaching from a new vantage point. The results have been profound.

But before I talk about this week, I’d like to look back at the last month. I’ve been reading a lot of literature, attended a conference and had discussions with colleagues on pedagogies, mindsets and positive education. It has been revolutionary, and changed the way I approach my teaching. It has coincided with a particularly busy phase in our pastoral care program: course counselling for our Year 10s as they head into their final two years of schooling (the SACE). This, in a way, sets the scene.

In separate part of my  job, I have been working in a team to develop innovating and interesting projects to increase student engagement in STEM subjects. In particular, our STEM team has just finished our second 10-week course for primary students. The STEM Initiative aims to introduce students to our high school, and provide enrichment and extension for students interested in Science, Maths and Technology. Funding to support the STEM Initiative has come through the Advanced Technology Project (sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation). As part of their work to link teachers with industry, they recently awarded me an Industry Placement, which brings me back to this week.

My placement is at SAGE Automation, a national company (founded in SA) which provides automation solutions for a variety of projects and industries, including the Arnotts, SA Water, Southern Expressway, Holden, Mining companies and big defence contracts like the Air Warfare Destroyer. When I started my week-long placement on Monday I expected to learn about their business, and take some ideas back to school about what industry employers are looking for and hopefully generate some authentic Maths and Science tasks. However, I had no idea how the concepts of mindsets and positive education would link to the engineering and management practices at SAGE.

Here are some of the lessons I will be taking away with me:

## 1. The Importance of Mindsets

One of the key goals of my placement was to find out from industry what they need in graduates, and what we can do to better prepare our students for the work force. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time this week talking to employees (“What do you think got you this job?”) and managers (“What do you look for in your employees?”). Without exception, every answer has centred on the attributes outlined by Dweck in her work on growth mindsets. The ability to grow, adapt and learn from mistakes in key.

“SAGE…only hired people who shared the passion to drive exceptional outcomes for our clients….

Loyal and diligent employees live our core values and are empowered to deliver certainty for our clients. It’s an exceptional culture and one of which we are fiercely proud.”

Founder and MD, Andrew Downs.

The other area of my reading which is implicitly practiced in the workforce is Seligman’s Signature Strengths. Every person I’ve met at SAGE seems to embody the notion of working with your Strengths to generate meaning and purpose. Each member of their teams is passionate about what they do, and is given the opportunity to work with their strengths to make their contribution to the overall project. All of this works synergistically to promote that ever elusive state: flow.

## 2. Attitude and Adaptability

Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it? So what advice do they have for students who want to land a job in such a hi-tech, innovative industry? Work on your attitude. Being persistent, but friendly, reliable and punctual are the keys to the steely gates of HR. Form emails just don’t cut it. Pick up the phone, meet and greet, put yourself out there and do whatever you can to make a good name for yourself. Also, don’t expect to always have the same job. Employees in industries like this need to be flexible. Projects can be short or long, come from a range of sectors, and require a range of skills. While the managers do an excellent job of tracking expertise and allocating human resources, every job involves a degree of learning and adaptability. What’s more, clients can be temperamental and change specifications mid-project. You need to be able to adapt and rework your solutions. In teacher-speak, they are looking for life-long learners. [As an aside, I was talking with one of the managers, only half-jokingly, about how changing the assessment criteria one week into a summative task would be a good life lesson for students.]

## 3. The Maths that Matters

SAGE employs a lot of software, electronics, mechatronics and robotics engineers. Engineers are heavily into the maths subjects at school and university – in fact engineering courses are the most prerequisite-heavy courses in the SATAC guide. We can’t hope to, or should even try to, teach middle school students the maths they would need in some of these high-end career paths. However, certain skills seemed to stand out as key foundational requirements:

• Ratios, rates and conversions: this week I’ve seen a lot of this: Gearing ratios, scaling, flow rates, belt speeds, pay rates, converting Bars to kPa, microseconds to milliseconds and Euler angles to Quaternions (yeah, look it up, I had to).
• Boolean logic: Despite its ubiquity in all computer science, which is fundamental to the way we live today, Boolean logic is virtually absent in the Australian Curriculum.
• Schematics: The process of reducing complex visual information down to schematics, and the reverse operation of reading diagrams and applying understandings to complex systems is fundamental in engineering. Align with this are the skills of reductionism and integration.
• Interpreting data: In the Maths classroom, numbers usually float freely, only occasionally being linked to context. In industry, numbers are data. They always have meaning and significance. They may be money, dimensions, hours worked, rates, flows or instrument readings. Knowing if the numbers are within an expected range matters and being able to identify trends and investigate patterns is paramount.

## 4. Project Management and PBL

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning has not been what they do at SAGE (which has been very interesting and informative) but how they do it. As you may have gathered from the above, SAGE’s business runs on the basis of Projects. Each has a unique number,  a Project Manager, a number of engineers and other staff assigned to it. In order to keep everything running smoothly and everyone on the same page, they use a defined set of procedures called the TEP (Technical Execution Practice). The TEP is based on the “V model” below.

V model

The V model starts by looking at your requirements, and designing a solution. On the downside of the V, you break that down to smaller and small tasks which you achieve. In the instance above, that relates to developing IT solutions. On the upside of the V you integrate those small pieces, constantly check back to your design and requirements to see that you are meeting those initial requirements. The final stage is the delivery of the finished product – in this case a finished IT platform.

I’ve been interested in Project-based (PBL) learning for a while, and I’ve completed a couple of units which may be considered PBL (although everyone seems to have a different definition of what qualifies as PBL). One of my key reflections has been how difficult it can be for the students to know what is required and where they are up to. This would lead to major issues in industry, so naturally they have developed structures to avoid this (hence the V model and the TEP). Inspired by the TEP, I have been working on generating supporting documentation and a new “project vocabulary” for managing PBL. It also ties in beautifully with the trend for using design-based thinking and the IB MYP Design Cycle. Not only should adopting these models improve the PBL process, but can be used to explicitly teach highly transferrable workforce skills.

## 5. Change management

SAGE is a business which is interested in growth and innovation. Change is an essential part of their operations. One of the most valuable sessions I had during the week was with the Engineering Operations Manager. He ran through the process of change management which he had learnt from his guru, and which he was enacting at SAGE. It seemed simple, but therein lies the genius:

1. Set a clear and common vision for the organisation
2. Have short-run (in this case 100-day) Strategic Projects (SPs) which take you closer to that vision
3. Work in teams to achieve projects in a transparent way*
4. Celebrate your successes.

* Everyone knows what the teams are, what they are doing, and why, and can see the progress they are making. This is achieved by literally printing the SPs on A3 sheets and pinning them up in a common staff area. Online seems good – but people just won’t check it.

Even if the aims of each SP are small, incremental progress is evident, morale grows and directed change is happening.

## Lasting lessons

I will certainly come away with what I was hoping for. I have some great videos and resources, contact with potential guest speakers, and am writing new activities and assessments. However, I will also come away from my experience at SAGE with a new outlook on not only what can be achieved in the classroom, but what can be achieved within organisations. The company expertise is in making things work effectively and efficiently. Their practices provide a model for both students and teachers.

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Thank you to all of the staff at SAGE, who have been so welcoming, patient and generous.

Nimbus MkIII – Pareidolic Robot

Design project by Neil Usher that identifies faces in clouds:

Robots are designed to perform precise and repetitive operations with relentless efficiency, performing the tasks we find too laborious or  dangerous. However, could these robots be deployed to improve the efficiency of our leisure time by performing tasks we enjoy? Could intelligent machines bird watch for us or look for four-leaf clovers? Could they optimise our pastimes, searching for patterns and spectacle in nature that would be imperceptible or too time-consuming for us to find for ourselves?

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Got this at the end of last year. Four months in, the population of Robot City is looking good.

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Another example of how gaming is helping to move technology forward. Plus – Can I have for Christmas?

Title: Flying Machine Arena

Category:  #physicalinteraction #kinect

Author: Armin Ambühl, ETH Zurich

Year: 2011

Description: They are looking for ways to make interaction with our vehicles natural and intuitive. They implemented a demo about dynamic interaction with a quadrotor vehicle using the Kinect in the Flying Machine Arena.

Title: Flexible Robot Crawls in Tight Spaces

Category: #soft-bodiedrobots

Author: George M. Whitesides, Harvard team

Year: 2011

Description: Harvard scientists have built a new type of flexible robot that is limber enough to wiggle and worm through tight spaces. It’s the latest prototype in the growing field of soft-bodied robots. Researchers are increasingly drawing inspiration from nature to create machines that are more bendable and versatile than those made of metal.

Source: responsivesarchitectures