Our latest students

Three students, with 3 different objectives, but no Python programming experience, built and programmed their robots in our November robot weekend.  Callum is looking to study robotics at university, David came just for fun, and Helene came to learn so she can teach kids at CoderDojos.

We have robots!

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More Robots – Records Smashed!!

Our Robot Half Term week saw records tumble.  Not only did we have our two youngest students ever (aged 11), but the records for the obstacle course and the line following course were both broken due to a combination of inspired last-minute code tweaking, favourable weather conditions, and a bit of good luck.  (I bet you are wondering how the weather affects an indoor competition, but it does!).  Check out the updated leader board for details.  In the meantime, I’m going back to the drawing board to see how I can reclaim top spot…


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Robot Weekend

We’ve just finished our robot weekend.  Four students came, robots were designed, wood was cut, numbers were crunched, formulae were derived, algorithms were tweaked, code was written, and two working robots emerged, ready for combat.  Congratulations to Charlie, Alan, Jozef and Danica on some ingenious engineering to build the tiniest robots we’ve had so far.  Both robots took on the obstacle course challenge, but were unable to threaten the pace setters from our summer school, as you can see from the updated leader board.

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Most amazing spreadsheet ever?

I’m researching good resources to explain to students how CPUs work.  I came across a book called “But How Do It Know? – The Basic Principles of Computers for Everyone”, which seems to cover the subject really well, with more specific detail than most other resources (which offer over-simplified descriptions of “Fetch-Decode-Execute” cycles making it difficult to appreciate what’s really happening inside the CPU).

The book talks through a conceptual processor, the Scott CPU.  Some people have created emulations of the Scott CPU, including this one created in an Excel spreadsheet.  Now, I’ve seen some amazing things done in Excel, but this one is unbelievable.  Watch the video and be amazed as it churns through assembly code and lights up bus lines and registers to show the instructions being executed.

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Will it explode?

I’m planning a session entitled “computer autopsy” in which we will take apart various computers to see how they work. One device I’ve dismantled is my old Nook HD+ tablet. It still works fine, but it’s painfully slow to use.  So I am sacrificing it for the greater good of education.  With the macro lens on my camera I can take some nice close-up pictures, such as this one of the CPU:

When I removed the back cover I found that the battery was stuck to the inside of the cover with the world’s stickiest sticky tape.  Using a plastic spatula I managed to prise it off, but bent one end.  Being aware that lithium ion batteries can be a fire risk I googled around to check and found plenty of videos such as this one, showing a damaged battery exploding.  Of course, the infamous example is the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery.  This all shouldn’t be too surprising;  lithium is a pretty reactive metal, which fizzes away when you drop it into plain water.   But it did receive some good press recently, with scientists at the University of Copenhagen suggesting the addition of lithium to our drinking water to protect the population from dementia.  They do say that more research is needed, so I held back from actually eating my battery for now.

Not being one to take risks, I’ve wrapped the battery in a plastic bag and put it in my bike shed.  So far, no explosion.  If you happen to be in Ealing and see bits of bicycle flying through the air you’ll know what happened…

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Summer School Roundup

So our summer school is now over.  I really enjoyed teaching the students.  They came back for the second week, so I think they enjoyed it too!  You can see all the photos in the gallery here.

We started day 1 learning about programming and Python.  By day 2 all the students had built a simple music library application which played their own mp3 files.

On days 3 and 4 we got stuck into physical computing with the Raspberry Pi, and ended having built 3 remote controlled robots, controlled using Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 controllers:

Summer School 2017 Robots

Summer School 2017 Robots

There were some tricky Python coding challenges, in particular mapping the range of values coming from the joystick controls to control the speed and direction of the motors.  But by the end of day 4 all students were tweaking and optimising their code to enter the competition challenge.  Well done to Joel for guiding his robot, Barry, to top place in our leader board for that challenge.

The obstacle course

The obstacle course

In a busy day 5 we took on the challenge to make the robots follow a line.  Using infrared sensors, the students were able to detect a black line on white paper.  They then worked to make their robots respond to the various states that the robot can find itself whilst navigating.  Again, the coding was in Python and the day ended with a timed challenge.  Barry The Robot again managed to take top spot on the day, just ahead of Samuel and Mikel’s “Mk I” (who managed the best time when travelling clockwise around the course).

The line following course

The line following course

It was a pretty hectic day, probably because of the long lunch of homemade pizzas (sadly, no photos as the pizza was all consumed in a flash!).  But to end with most of the robots completing the course with no penalties was very satisfying.

In week 2 students were encouraged to create their own project.  Over 4 days we had top trump games, noughts-and-crosses, and a quite amazing and very nearly completed maze following robot.  Here are the students painting their maze:

Designing a maze

Designing a maze

For the maze, the idea was that the robot navigated from the starting position to the end.  The maze included some dead-ends, and the aim was to make a first run to map out the nodes, including the dead-ends, and a second run to optimise the run, eliminating turns into dead-ends.  The students managed the first run, generating the in-memory map of the maze nodes, and we managed to dry-run the algorithm for the second run, seeing how the generated map could be used to do an optimal run.  Sadly, we ran out of time to see the robot complete the second run.  It was very encouraging to see the students set themselves such a difficult challenge and get so close to completing it.  I really didn’t expect to see such an advanced project undertaken in the 2 weeks.  I hope they take this project away and work on it to completion.

So, at the end of 2 weeks, I have some tidying up to do, a lot of robot bits to recycle, a couple of fried ultrasonics sensors to discard (that’s what happens when you wire them the wrong way around), and some thinking to do to raise the bar for the next robot week at half term…

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Leader boards

I’ve now published the leader boards for the robot competition.  Students on the robotics courses undertake timed challenges to test their robots.  The results from the summer school are now posted here.  Some lessons learnt by the students:

  • Bigger is not necessarily better
  • Faster is not necessarily better
  • A robot driving backwards can behave differently to one going forward
  • The ultrasonics sensor is not 100% reliable
  • The wheels may rotate at different speeds
  • Battery packs can add a fair amount of weight
  • Driving a robot with a wired controller is very tricky
  • Nuts and bolts fall off if you don’t tighten them
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