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What a Robotics Team Provides for Students

What specific sorts of science and math activities do the students do as they build the robot?

Advanced concepts become significantly easier with a tangible application, like a subsection of a robot, to work on.

Students are exposed to a wide variety of math:

Algebra is used extensively by the programming and mechanical teams for timing, unit conversion and derivation of size scaling and more advanced equations.

Geometry and Trigonometry are used to determine the precision shapes of the mechanical design and for navigation and trajectories by the programming team.

Calculus is secretly used by the programming team by introducing the concepts of integrals and derivatives in control programs. Programming an integral is simply an average. Programming a derivative is simply a difference of the current value minus the previous value. The fact that this is the principle theorem of calculus is discussed after the student understands the application because students often have an inherent, but unnecessary, fear of “Calculus”.

Linear Algebra (Matrix theory) is used extensively for image processing by the FRC programming team.

Students are encounter to classic Newtonian physics at the same time to solve a real problem.

Everything in the robotic design is related to:

Force = Mass x Acceleration,

Work = Force x Distance,

Power = work/time

Position = change in distance/time

Speed = change in distance/time

Acceleration = Change in Speed/time

The robots work almost entirely by converting the rotational force, torque, into linear force to achieve a purpose. Center of gravity is a very important concept to understand as the robots will topple over easily if the design does not directly account for it.

Programming provides the opportunity to remove the potentially ugly and scary math notation and expose the real meaning of all of these terms and concepts. The students learn firsthand how fast computers actually are in relation to the real world and how to handle events in the real world with computer programs. Real time programming concepts are introduced and understood by the members of the programming department.

Students working on the mechanical design have the opportunity to develop hands on experience and really understand the practicalities of design choices. Torque and other forces leave the textbook and homework page and become a reality to work with. Understanding the principles of simple machines like levers and gears are fundamental to achieving a functional robotic design. The students learn that a design is driven by the purpose of the specified task. Fundamental building blocks are integrated into a cohesive system to achieve a specific purpose.

The students have a unique opportunity to engage in the physical building of their design. Team members learn how to operate power equipment, like milling machines, safely and effectively. Students are responsible for all of the hands on construction of the robot. In many engineering curriculums students are taught how to develop and analyze designs, but are rarely provided the opportunity to build the end result. Much of what students learn in traditional curriculum is unnecessarily compartmentalized with little connection to other related topics. The robotics programs provide a unified, cohesive experience where students learn the fine details of fabrication which will greatly aid in design for manufacturability when they become engineering professionals.

Math concepts can be subtly introduced with the robotics. One of the really wonderful opportunities that robotic programs provide is exposure to advanced concepts through hands on experiences. Students have the opportunity to immediately develop and apply skills on real problems.

System level understanding is perhaps the best result that the robotic programs provide. Most academic programs focus on compartmentalized specifics with little connection between disciplines. Robotic programs provide interdisciplinary goals where students must use math, physics and communication skills to solve problems as a team. Students work alongside professionals to solve open ended problems that are very different than the types of problems they encounter in traditional school work. Science, technology, engineering and math related Homework and tests are often “right answer” oriented. Students in the robotics programs are introduced to the concept that in the real world there are many different potential solutions to the same problem. The robotic competitions provide a very exciting glimpse and exposure to diversity of thought; how many different amazing ideas and solutions can be developed for the same problem.

The business-math-related activities the kids do on the fundraising/business side of the team

Budget management and the ordering process are important details that the teams go through. Running the team isn’t just another class project with imaginary money. Running the team involves real money with real bank accounts and real income and expenditures. In addition to the $5000 entry fee for the large robot the teams are allowed an additional $3000 in integrated parts with no individual part to exceed $400. The numbers are open information to students and the buying process involves the students identifying and justifying items needed for the robot to the head mentors who then do the actual ordering. This justification process is identical to the requisition process a practicing engineer will encounter in almost any organization.

The teams are largely funded through grants and several grants require essay’s from students.

The marketing department is responsible for the team’s unified and professional image. Students have the opportunity to see firsthand how budgets that seem large to an individual are actually quite small when it’s time to order 200 button blanks, 40 team t-shirt’s, order all of the logo’s from a professional printer, and manage monthly expenses associated with web hosting, internet and several other recurring costs.

The game challenge/building the robot and how it helps students learn about the investigative process.

The investigative process is a key element of the design process. Students learn how to develop system requirements by examining the annual challenge and then break the system requirements into sub-sections and then further down into individual tasks to be delegated to team members.

This year’s FRC robot is being designed to throw Frisbee’s into goals similar to disc golf.

The robot will be able to:

Use geometry to find and range multiple known targets in a real time image provided by an onboard camera. This involves communicating with a camera. Understanding how an image is represented in a computer. Understanding how a known pattern can be identified in a stored image.

Using the location information from the image the robot will use geometry and physics to calculate: What angle the robot needs to turn.

The robot could use rotary encoders, which count fractions of degrees turned by dividing a full rotation into integer multiples, like 1440 counts/revolution, and geometry to determine how much to turn.

The turning process involves real time feedback control typically encountered in senior level collegiate engineering courses. Because there is a real application, the advanced mathematics can be abstracted during the introduction to the concepts and introduced after the students have a general understanding of the system.

The angle of inclination the launcher will need to be at to properly hit the selected target.

Electrical engineering principles of proportional signal measurement will be used to indicate the rotational position and inclination of the launching mechanism. An analog to digital converter will be used to read back a voltage measured from a potentiometer in real time. The potentiometer has a proportional resistance to the physical position of the output shaft. The voltage predictably changes in proportion to the mechanical location providing a degrees/volt output.

The force needed to launch the Frisbee a known distance.

The challenge provides a multidisciplinary task for the students to develop a solution for as a team. The programming group must coordinate with the mechanical group and the strategy group to develop a well-rounded solution based on what each individual group, comprised of individuals, is capable of delivering within the specific time frame allotted to the build season.

How does the game challenge/building the robot/participating on a team affect the following things:

Improving students’ competence in science and math

As mentioned, students are introduced to concepts first and then, if necessary, introduced to the math that can assist in predicting or controlling the response. The students are shown how the broad exposure they are receiving in their coursework is relevant to many applications. At the same time, students learn that a design concept may only involve a single math concept in minor or major detail. The tangible application provides a real system to experiment with and develop detailed understanding which can significantly help with a student’s self-confidence.

 Nurturing student enthusiasm for science and math

It’s wonderful to see a student’s enthusiasm for these topics as they gain experience and develop self confidence that they are in fact generating valid solutions for problems. Students often are unsure if their solution is indeed a valid solution but many of the world’s problems can be addressed in a wonderful example of diversity. As student work through successive seasons of open ended designs they begin to see that there are many right answers and gain confidence to express their ideas.

Interesting students in pursuing careers in research or other science-related areas?

Students that may have gone into non-STEM related fields are now actively engaged in solving the world’s problems. Students often remark that they had no idea what an engineer did before working side by side with engineers on the robotics team. The engineers are able to collaborate and elucidate various career paths and opportunities in the engineering fields. At the collegiate level most students expect to be design engineers even though their particular personal interest may be much better suited to technical marketing or field applications. The engineering mentors provide students with a direct contact to ask the “what-if” questions and a savvy friend who can help them select a career path best suited to their own personal interests. Students get to try out various paths and see if they enjoy building things with their hands in the real world, or dig into the detailed design of a computer program and electrical circuits. Many choose to do both and attend colleges that have rich interdisciplinary offerings.

•         Tell me a little about what it is like on the team –

The atmosphere/collaboration of the kids working together

The atmosphere is often controlled chaos with very energetic individuals being taught to focus energy on solving problems. A tangible goal with a finite timeline provides a real purpose for the students to work towards. Students are encouraged to express their ideas and listen to other teammate’s ideas with an open and objective mind. Students are encouraged to recognize that the best possible end result is the desired outcome and that other people ideas can be just as good, sometimes better than their own. The students are taught that the selection process should be objective based on what will provide the best overall system instead of personal or politically motivated.

Are these kids together for several years?

There are programs for all ages and students can grow together into new challenges. The FTC and FRC programs are open to all high school students. Students have the opportunity to participate all 4 years of high school on either program. The competitions goals intentionally change every season so students never have to solve the same problem over again like they would if they went to the same camp, or took the same class with a project multiple times.

Are there new kids each year?

The programs and teams are always open to new members and there are robotic programs designed for students from K-12. Students are encouraged to train and mentor other students in a trickle down manner allowing the mentors to continually strive to expand team capabilities and provide fresh challenges for advanced members. The club aspect with mentoring ideally provides a structure without a glass ceiling for students. Unlike typically classes that must be taught for all students, the teams can provide individualized experiences for any member willing to put in the time, effort and open mind necessary.

Do you see a change in how the kids relate to each other, and in the confidence they gain?

The most important thing is for students to learn to weed, prune and hone their ideas into a streamlined solution. New students to the team often see a big problem as a forest, unsure where to even begin. Through experience over several seasons students are enabled to develop practical solutions that can be implemented in the allowed timeline. Several students have blossomed from diminutive participants into team leaders over several years in the program. These students emerge from the program confident and ready to tackle collegiate life.

The energy and excitement about the challenge

The challenges are announced as part of a kickoff event with great excitement and fanfare for thousands of teams across the country. The games provide a unique challenge every year while also providing the opportunity to use building block skills from previous years. Life is entirely about experiences and every individual brings an entirely unique set of experiences with them as the approach problems. The diversity of experience provides multitudes of insights and approaches that may have never been attempted before. All of this contributes to high energy and excitement particularly as teams see the final result that they have poured hours and hours into competing on the game field. A bond of commonality can also be seen among veteran teams when students and mentors begin to realize that they have uniquely has the same experience as another team across the state, country or even the world. This fraternity of competition provides a fusion reaction that helps the programs continue to grow.

What are the high points?

Seeing ideas come to life for the first time. Seeing that “it” really does work like that. Seeing the robot, that so much time was put into, perform on the competition field. Talking and commiserating with other veterans about build season and competition experiences. Overall the sense of accomplishment associated with achieving something seemingly impossible. Watching students’ progress over the years from bright individuals unable to do anything to accomplished college students.

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges are currently sustainability, program acceptance and inculcating the spirit and values of gracious professionalism, encouraged by FIRST, into new team members. New members often expect the programs to be a traditional competition environment where secrecy is the key to success. In the FIRST programs the challenge is so grand that it’s absolutely necessary to openly communicate, receive assistance and assist competitors. It’s the type of open source community that enables society to expand at a much greater pace than when people hoard knowledge for profit.

Another challenge can be recruiting technical mentors who will work well with the students. People have very diverse ideas when it comes to education. A sense of ownership is important for students to really gain something from the program. Students quickly loose interest if they feel like mentors are doing all of the work and they aren’t contributing.

What have I not asked you that you would like to include that would really help me see and understand robotics and the value to students of having these experiences?

Concept first, then math.

People writing textbooks already have a detailed understanding that they arrived at through years of experience. The experience allowed them to understand the system well enough to derive and apply mathematical expressions to predict the control of the system. The math they use is based on the work of individuals before them and the systems they are describing are often comprised of fundamental building blocks being used to solve the problems of their unique system.

Scientists and engineers don’t set out to write math equations, they set out to be able to predict the system behavior they are working on. Once the system can be described in detail mathematically, the person or people designing the system then have a much better idea of which input variables affect the system. 

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