Building Robots at School

November 7, 2017

Fourth Time Rookie: Questions from a First Time Rookie

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 10:43 pm

I got a few questions today from a genuine FRC Rookie Mentor. His school has no shop facilities, and while he loves science and tech, and teaches Math and Design, he’s got a few concerns about how he’s going to lead a team of students to build a 150 pound competition robot. I’ve got a few suggestions:

Kickoff 2017

  1. A decade ago, I’d have said you were nuts to build an FRC robot without shop facilities, but three years ago I worked with a team where our first meeting included discussing the difference between a wrench and a pair of pliers. It’s not about where you’re starting, but where you are going. So don’t panic… that team did great and so can you.
  2. AndyMark and VEXPro are your friends. They both produce a number of components that can be used to build sturdy drivetrains and actuators without welding or machining. Got a hacksaw and a wrench? You’ll be okay. In Canada AndyMark products are available from and VEXPro directly from VEX.
  3. Learn CAD — if you can design it, then someone can build it. Very few “real” engineers actually build their own parts. They work with machinists and technicians to turn their ideas into reality. FIRST is very clear that the students do not have to manufacture every single part on the robot, so much as they should be involved in the design and creation of the robot. It is highly recommended to find local machine shops or manufacturing businesses to partner with. They can help you with the parts… and when they find out what you’re doing they’ll want to help you with the design, too. Your students will learn far more working alongside enthusiastic professionals and tradespeople than they will fuddling along trying to figure it all out on their own.
  4. The programming is easier than you think. And harder than you think. It all depends what you want to do… but it is pretty easy to be a competent rookie. There are lots of tutorials and advice on how to make that work. Want a fully automated, vision tracking, PID controlled machine with a co-processor and IMU? You’re reading the wrong blog for that.
  5. Come to kickoff. We’ll get you set up and send you home with a rolling chassis and a good idea of what the game elements are going to look like. All in the first eight hours of build!

I’ve seen lots of teams find lots of ways to be successful at FRC. Whatever challenge you face… isolation, funding, lack of technical skills, lack of community support, or a combination of all that and more, there is a team that faced the same thing and overcame it. You can do this. You’ll work your butt off… but that’s what makes it worthwhile.


Fourth Time Rookie: TLDR Version

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 10:15 pm

Yeah, that previous post was totally “too long, didn’t read”. So here’s a short version of what has happened so far.

Last week I met with a couple of the students who want to organize the FRC team at Templeton. I gave them a tour of BCIT and showed them a few of the cool gadgets that I’ll be sharing with them this year. (Yes, we can waterjet a few parts for your team, too… but we have to plan it in advance.)

I encouraged them to do the following:

Teams make promotional materials to hand out at events. This was one of our button designs.

  1. Set a date for the team’s first meeting, and then promote the meeting by:
    1. Putting notes in teacher’s letter boxes, inviting them to the meeting and encouraging them to mention it to interested students.
    2. Putting announcements in the school bulletin.
    3. Putting a few posters up around the school.
  2. Make in-person invitations to:
    1. Administration
    2. Teachers from a range of specialty areas: Art, English, Business Ed, Media Production, Science, Comp Sci… all have useful FRC skills
    3. Students in grade 9 and 10 who are likely to get excited about the team and carry on the legacy. (see Lesson #2, below.)
    4. Someone who can draw, sketch, cartoon or doodle brilliantly!
    5. Someone who can sew.
    6. Someone who likes to write.
    7. And, of course… the usual future machinists, programmers and engineers who you’d usually expect to get excited about a robot competition.
  3. Plan for your first meeting:
    1. Collect names and contact info from everyone
      1. Apparently e-mail addresses are a bit old fashioned… the students suggested organizing everyone via Slack. Which sounds like a good idea.
    2. Have an agenda:
      1. Show a video of the competition
      2. Discuss timelines for build season and for the competition.
      3. Discuss how the competition is about more than just the robot… it’s kind of like modelling a business around a competitive robot.
      4. Consider team names, logos, colours — look for a unified theme.
        1. How does the team name and logo match your school? How can you build it into:
          1. Uniform design
          2. Pit design
          3. Robot design/decoration
          4. Mascot design.
      5. Don’t expect everyone to agree, and don’t try to come to a decision at this meeting
        1. Listen and record all the ideas
        2. Set a standard for inclusiveness and collaborative decision making
        3. You’re going to have bigger, tougher decisions ahead.
      6. Set the next meeting date. Plan to meet once per week leading up to build date.
  4. Looking for more to do?
    1. Interested students may want to start learning a 3D CAD package. I use Autodesk Inventor (free to schools) but Fusion is also good.
      1. SolidWorks and SolidEdge are also great packages… any of those four are fine, so long as everyone agrees on one.
    2. Start studying FRC team’s uniforms and pits (google “FRC Pit”)
      1. You can’t build a robot until build date, but  you can start building the following critical items:
        1. A “Robot Cart” for moving your robot from pit to playing field.
        2. A “Pit” to organize and occupy your team’s 10’x10′ space at the competition
    3. Read through a previous FRC rulebook.
      1. The game rules change from year to year, but the rest of them are pretty stable.
      2. Reading a few previous game manuals will help you prepare for this year’s game.
    4. Set up an account on ChiefDelphi (you’ll find me there, posting as “dtengineering”.)
    5. Oh, yeah… fundraising ideas. You can never have too much money.

And this brings me to rookie Lesson #6.

Lesson #6: Never name your team “_____botics.” There is another team named _______botics and they’re pretty well known. We thought we were brilliant, combining our school’s mascot, the “Trojan” with the word “Robotics” to get “Trobotics”… at least until the “Trobots” ended up in the pit next to us at a competition. Sure, we might have had the name first, but every single combination of “Robo______”, “______botics”, “Cyber______”, “Techno______” and “______tech” has been used. Yes, the Cyborg Ferrets and Technoticks are teams. If you want to check a team name for originality do a search on the Blue Alliance. You don’t have to be original, of course… but don’t fool yourself into thinking that “Trobotics” will be a unique, memorable name. Look for something that can be part of a larger theme, image, or idea for your team. In retrospect, we should have named our team the “Woodbutchers” or “TreeHuggers”… both would have fit with our wooden robots and proud, B.C. heritage and given us a theme for designing our pits, uniform and mascot. Thumbs up Hephaestus!

Lesson #6b: Don’t take lesson #6 too seriously. Name your team whatever the heck you want. It’s your team, and your name to make your own.

Observation #1: Apparently this is the TLDR version… I’d hate to see the long version!

November 5, 2017

Fourth Time Rookie: Mentoring a New FIRST Robotics Competition Team…. AGAIN.

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 10:59 pm

Fourteen years ago I knew nothing about the FIRST Robotics Competition… except that I had this amazing group of students in my Grade 12 Engineering class who really wanted to take part. They wanted to “Build a robot big enough to chase Grade 8’s down the hallway.” as I recall, and FRC fit the bill. So I became a rookie FRC mentor for the first time, and together we made just about every mistake we could make. We built the robot too heavy, and had to rip it apart halfway through build, we blew up one of our four precious speed controllers, and we made a scissors lift. “Everyone makes a scissors lift…” is my actuator mantra, “Everyone makes a scissors lift once.”

Team 1346’s first match, March 2004. We had NO CLUE what we were doing. We learned… so will you!

We flew out to Toronto for the competition and proceeded to get our butts duly kicked, but in the friendly, co-operative environment that FIRST inspires, we actually figured out how to get the robot to turn (always test your robot on carpet… not linoleum or cement), ditched our floppy grippers and came up with a strategy to help our partners win. I also spent the weekend in a bit of a daze, because I couldn’t believe that an event this awesome existed, let alone that it existed for high school students and the MY students were taking part in it. It was probably the single most significant event of my teaching career.

As will happen with Grade 12 students, however, they all graduated. So when General Motors Canada called me up the following October and said, “We saw your team last year and we’d like to sponsor you.” I was the only person in BC who knew exactly how incredible this opportunity was going to be. I became a rookie coach for a second time, but was able to implement some of the lessons that I had learned the first time around.

Lesson #1: You can do it yourself, but its more fun to share. If you, or the students, can talk one or two other teachers into getting involved then you’re going to have more fun. You’ll have more ideas, more insight, and most importantly someone to kick back with at the end of the year and say, “Wow. I can’t believe we did it.” You can do it by yourself, but no one else will understand what you’ve been through. They’ll smile and nod politely when you tell them how exciting the competition was, and how helpful team 1234 was, and they’ll have absolutely no clue what you’re really talking about. Just having one other staff member involved “as your backup” will make your experience so much more enjoyable. Got an interested administrator at your school? Make them an honorary mentor, just to make sure they have to come to the competition

Lesson #2: Grade 12’s graduate. If you’re going to be a rookie team, you may as well have some rookie kids on the team. Find some promising grade 9’s and 10’s and watch how they develop over the next three or four years. At your first few tournaments you’re not going to believe that the kids actually built the robots… but when you’ve got students doing this for their fourth (or sometimes fifth) year you’ll have rookies thinking the same thing about your team. Draft some youth.

Lesson #3: It ain’t all about the robot. Graphics, media, presentations, applications, fundraising… you can certainly focus on a robot and run a small, robot-centric program based on technical skills… but you’ll be missing out on some of the best parts of FIRST. This is an outlet for artists, musicians, videographers, web designers, animators, writers, and of course, welders, machinists, programmers, wood workers, mechanics and future engineers. Just like you don’t need more teachers involved, you don’t need students doing all of these tasks… but if you’ve got the resources then go for it. We found a ratio of about 12 students per adult teacher or mentor worked okay for us, and I’ve seen successful teams with anywhere from six to sixty students involved. But if you’re just starting out, look for a diverse skill set to build upon.

Thanks to Gregg, Pat, Allan, Thane and other teachers, student teachers and volunteers who were part of the “responsible” adult quotient of our team, as well as the hundreds of kids who took part over the years we went from being second time rookies to winning awards for six straight years. We might never have been great, but we were always good. Just as the kids leave the school, however, so do teachers, and I moved on to teach future teachers at BCIT. With other teachers also considering retirement and career moves, we had to let the team go dormant, but not before it had helped create a highly competitive VEX robotics competition series that would carry on and keep competitive educational robotics alive in BC for the next decade.

A few years ago I discovered that a new FRC team had signed up, Team #5742, the Gators, at Walnut Grove Secondary. I offered to help out and thus became a rookie mentor for the third time. Unfortunately I only had a chance to meet with the team once, just before Christmas break, and discovered that they were going to learn Lesson #2 for themselves. Every kid — save for one Grade 10 student — was in Grade 12. And most of the Grade 12’s were very bright and talented science students who didn’t know a drill bit from a drill press. So I shared Lesson #4.

Lesson #4: Keep it simple. You will have much more fun if your robot does one thing well, rather than three things poorly. FRC now supplies a very functional “kitbot” chassis and vendors such as AndyMark and VEXPro supply components custom made to help build your robot quickly and easily. If all else fails… your robot can be helpful and productive in the game as long as it is moving. Save the fancy stuff for a few years down the road. Reliability, particularly at a smaller, newer regional (like BC is going to be for a few years) will be more important than dazzle.

Lesson #5: Ask for help. When we realized the team was going to need more build time than the two or three afternoons they could schedule each week, I asked for some help from my colleagues and students at BCIT and we brought the team in for a couple weekend build sessions. It was great to get off site and have some fresh eyes take a look at our problems. It must have worked… the Gators went on to win the Rookie Inspiration Award, Top Rookie Seed and finish as Captains of the #5 alliance.

Then the kids, save one, graduated and despite heroic efforts from the one remaining student he was unable to recruit a sufficient number of motivated kids. The Gators moved on to compete in VEX, thus bringing us to 2017 and BC’s first ever FRC Regional event in Victoria this spring. Although I have been occasionally heard to mention that “One should be careful what they wish for, because they might just get it.”, I’ve been wishing for a local event for over a decade and now we’ve got it. I’ve signed on to help team #7190 at Templeton Secondary, just down the road from my house, and will be blogging my experience here in the hopes of sharing a bit of experience with the other rookie coaches who are rookies for the first time. Right now you’re probably a bit overwhelmed and wondering what you’ve got yourself into. Which brings me to the final lesson for this post…

Lesson #6: It’s all worth it. If you don’t doubt that now, then you’ll certainly doubt it during build season… or maybe while organizing the field trip to the competition… or when the budget is a bit tight… but hang in there. Keep at it. Visit the other teams. Share with them and learn from them. Every single year, at least once, we (the “responsible” adults of the team) would promise ourselves that, “This is it! This is our last year! We’re done!”, and then we’d get to the competition. “Next year we’ve got to do it this way….” would become the discussion as we saw not just how our students were growing from the challenge, but how we were growing. Our students didn’t just become better students through our involvement, but we became better teachers… and shared something that until now was pretty unique amongst B.C. teachers. If you’re still reading this… well… you’re probably involved, so welcome to the club. It’s a bit crazy at times, but you’re going to love it here.

November 2, 2017

The Water Piano

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 4:33 pm

Okay… this project isn’t my idea… I’ve got to thank Rob at Walnut Grove Secondary for showing it to me, and he’ll probably point out that it has been making the rounds as the “Drawdio” and other names for years. I mean, really, are there any NEW 555 timer circuits out there? Hasn’t every possible combination been made? In any case, it’s still a really cool project that can be built for a few bucks. Here’s the files:

Water Piano – Schematic

Water Piano – PCB

PCB Design_ Water Piano full sheet

I’ve included 1:1 scale pdf files of the schematic and board. There is a single board to show parts placement and a full sheet of boards for etching a class set. All the information you need for parts is on the schematic.

October 20, 2017

BCTF Superconference PowerPoint Slides

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 12:04 am

The PowerPoint slides for “Building Kids by Building Robots”, presented at the 2017 BCTF Superconference are available for a limited time via this DropBox link.

Thanks for your interest, and looking forward to seeing you at a robotics competition soon!


June 5, 2012

Getting Started In Vex Robotics: What should I buy?

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 7:17 pm

It seems to be a perennial question: “I’ve got a grant of $xxx.xx to start a VEX Robotics team. What should I buy?” I have to say it is a great question… and one I’m always happy to answer because it means another VEX team, and more kids getting a fun experience building and programming. The thing is… I’ve never got the answer “right”, at least not to my satisfaction. Part of that is because VEX is continually updating their product line, and part of that is because I keep getting good ideas and suggestions from VEX coaches, teachers and students. I’m going to put my thoughts on the matter here, but I’m also opening up a thread on this topic on the VEXforum, which is a great place to go for all sorts of VRC related information. <Edit: The form has been really helpful and posted some great suggestions… (see what ‘Sunny” and Paul Copioli have to say for some very complete and thoughtful lists) thank you to everyone who has posted, and keep the good ideas coming!>

I’m going to work on a budget of $1,500 to start one new team in VEX. As I am writing this primarily for our teams in BC, I’m going to factor in the 5% GST and 7%PST, so that quickly drops the budget down to $1,340. I’m also doing all my purchasing in Canadian funds, and ordering from iDesign Solutions as they are a great supporter of our VEX events here in BC. They’ve also been very good with their shipping rates… looking back at some of my previous purchases they have been able to ship some large orders for just $10, although speedier delivery times can cost $60 or more. In any case, I’ll set aside $40 for shipping, and work on an actual budget of $1,300. <Edit: American and overseas teams may want to look at… I’ve been purchasing robot supplies from them and their predecessors, IFI Robotics, for almost a decade now, and they are great to work with, too.>

I should also state that although I know VEX is coming out with some new classroom lab packages and new competition packages, I am writing this as if I were ordering today, in June of 2012. Some of the links will change, as will the parts and prices, but hopefully that thread on the VEXforum will stay alive with new information and ideas.

Item #1: VEX Classroom Competition Kit with Cortex  $1,142, part number 278-2007

This is essentially just a Classroom Lab kit with the Competition Robot Kit added in. There isn’t a great savings to be had by combining the two into one order, but they are both packages that I would have at the top of my “buy” list anyway. With this package a student should be able to design a robot capable of playing the VEX game. Yes, there will be lots of parts to add to make the robot more competitive over time, but given our budget, this is all the hardware I can recommend for now. See my list of “sweet upgrades”. I also feel a bit guilty putting hyperlinks to these items as VEX has already announced that they will be repackaging and renaming the classroom lab kit with a different set of components for the fall. If you look for something on the websiteswith a similar name and price point… you’ve probably found the new kit. (Or just call up and ask Agatha, Andy, or any of the good folks at iDesign.) Note that if you are planning on starting four or more teams at once, that there are special buys available on 4-packs and 8-packs of Competition Robot Kits. Contact your supplier for details.

Item #2: Programming Software $79

There are two main packages: EasyC V4 for Cortex and RobotC. There is a thread on the VEXforum dedicated to their differences, but in a nutshell EasyC is a drag and drop interface that largely eliminates syntax errors, while RobotC is a text based language where knowing your squiggly brackets and semicolons makes a difference. If you (or your students) don’t know what I mean by “squiggly brackets and semicolons”, then get EasyC. On the other hand, if you already know your != from your || operators then consider RobotC. My slight preference (and I’ve programmed in C, Assembler, Fortan, Pascal, Basic, and a few other languages like GameMaker) is EasyC. You can download trial copies of them… RobotC here, and EasyC here and make your own call, though.

The only caveat that I’d put here is that licensing can be a real pain in the butt. Each of these licenses is a single seat licence and is easy to install by itself on a computer, so long as you have control of the computer and it isn’t re-imaging, deep-freezing, or otherwise messing up your work. If you have network installations issues, then I’d suggest talking to your IT department or finding your team a free laptop computer first.

I’d also suggest that if you are planning to expand the number of teams in your organization that you consider purchasing a multi-seat license. RobotC options are available on RobotC’s website, and include either annual or perpetual licenses, as well as the option to add their Robot Virtual Worlds package to practice programming robots in a 3D virtual environment. EasyC is also available in a ten seat licence for $397.

Item #3: Storage Boxes/Tool Kits $80

<Edit: This is one place where the forum posts have convinced me I need to change my suggestions. Toolboxes are great, but for getting started there is no reason you couldn’t hit the grocery store and pick up some ziplock containers for the little parts and a tub with a lid on it for the plastic parts. Fishing tackle boxes are another suggestion, if they happen to be inexpensive where you live. Go cheap on the storage for now, and spend the money on extra motors! (see below for link)> There is no sense buying all this stuff if you don’t have somewhere secure to keep it, and a way of moving it around. My favorite toolbox, the Stanley FatMax, is $99 and breaks our budget just a bit, but it will work well for storing your parts for a long time to come. The FatMax breaks our budget and isn’t very good at storing little parts, so maybe consider a combination of the Deep Pro for $30, and watch the KMS tools flyer to grab one of these on half price (or less) for another $30. If KMS won’t give you a deal on the metal tool box, check out Princess Auto… they have a number of different options such as this 19″ tool box. Just make sure that the inside length of the tool box is at least 18″, so that you can store your 18″ long VEX metal parts in it. If that leaves a little bit of cash left over, either purchase an extra motor for your team, or some hardware to build a VEX Robot sizing/transportation box so that you can safely store and transport your robot, and (if you build the box right) make sure that it is never more than the 18″x18″x18″ dimensions allowed in the VEX rules. If you already have part storage for your robot worked out, I’d make a few extra motors and speed controllers my top priority.

Okay… that’s my $1,300 list. Add taxes and shipping, and we’re at $1,500. Tommorrow I’ll add a “wish list” of things that I’d look for next, as the team continues to grow. <Edit… hey, whaddaya know… it’s tommorrow now!>

What Would I Buy NEXT….?

Once you’ve got this set up, you’ve got the ability to start designing some pretty complex machines… but as your skills grow and your team becomes more competitive, you’re going to want MORE…

Item #4: Foam Playing Field Tiles: $12 to $200

The next item I’d get, however, would have nothing to do with the robot at all. I’d get some field tiles. If you’ve got several teams working in one space, and have a 12’x12′ area to practice, you may as well get a full set of official field tiles for $200. But if you’re just one team, you can get by with a set of four for just $12 at Home Depot, Canadian Tire or equivalent. Having a foam surface that is similar to the playing field is absolutely crucial for testing your robot’s mobility.

Item #5: Additional Batteries: $30 to $40

Official VEX batteries are the only battery packs accepted at competition events. (Sorry, no burning the place down when you overcharge a LiPo pack!) The 3000mAh batteries for $27 seem to be the most popular on the VEX Forum… but you’ve already got an $18 2000mAh battery in your classroom lab kit. Do you want your batteries to all be the same, making them easier to change out on the robot, or do you want the extra run time (and possibly a slight bit of extra power) from the larger ones? Either way, you always want to have a fresh battery waiting and ready to go for your robot…. but don’t go crazy on batteries just yet. One spare should see you through most competitions if you are careful about keeping it topped up. Later on when you start using the power expander, you’ll need a couple more robot batteries, and maybe even an extra charger. You’ll also want a $12 spare set of batteries for your transmitter (and you’ll need a tiny little phillips screwdriver to change them).

December 21, 2011

Robot Suppliers

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 11:24 am

A recent email from Kurtis at FingerTech Robotics reminded me that there are many very cool robotics and robot parts vendors that I don’t know about. I thought it would be worth listing some of my favorites here, and then asking for posts suggesting other sources. It is a bit late for the “holiday shopping season”, but never too late to find some blingy little bits to make your next project just slightly more awesome.

Locally, in Greater Vancouver, I like Lee’s Electronics for all sorts of sensors and connectors. If you’re in the area of Main and 29th, it is worth stopping by. In fact, I’d even say it is worth going there just for a visit to see all the stuff that they have. They are very friendly and helpful, even when the store is packed and busy. I also like Princess Auto, particularly their surplus section. They have bigger stuff, and a suprisingly good selection of pneumatic components at good prices. They have a wide range of #35 and larger chain and sprockets, as well as bearing blocks, so when you are dealing with a robot drive train on a larger machine (and don’t mind using heavier steel parts) you can find a lot of what you might need in stock at decent prices. Located on United Boulevard in Coquitlam, near IKEA and KMS Tools.

As far as Canadian vendors, I have to put iDesign Solutions at the top of my list for anyone interested in VEX parts. They have consistantly had the best prices (in Canadian dollars) for VEX parts over the past five years and have been strong supporters of VEX teams and tournaments in BC.

I’ve also linked to FingerTech, in Saskatoon, which has some very cool mecanum wheels in  a size and quality that I haven’t seen elsewhere, as well as some mini-sumo chassis/kits. I bought my first mini-sumo components from HVW Tech, in Calgary, over a decade ago and have been pleased with their selection and service since. I’m not sure I’d call RobotShop a 100% Canadian operation, but they do have a Canadian presence, with a website offering sales in Canadian dollars and brokerage-free shipping from Quebec, so I guess that counts. They have a very broad range of components.

The list of American suppliers is rather lengthy, so I’ll stick to some of my favorites. Most of these will specialize in the larger, FIRST Robotics Competition (120 pound and up) size robots and parts, but I’ve bought parts from all of them and have been uniformly pleased with the product and support. I’ve watched AndyMark grow from a tiny spin-off operation to a full-fledged business designing and creating some of the coolest “big robot” parts out there. They have a Canadian presence, so if you prefer to purchase in Canadian dollars and have things shipped without brokerage fees, ask them if they can help you out in that regard. Check out their gearboxes (mostly build around the indominitable CIM motor), and wheels… but they have much more than just that. The VEXPro line of components is very cool, too. Their ARM9 controller is on my “wish list” of cool robot stuff. For motors and planetary gearboxes in all sizes and ratios, I recommend BaneBots. I have to also recommend Trossen Robotics as they saved our bacon once in FRC by having the last 32:1 planetary gearbox for a speed 500 motor available in North America. They FedExed it to us overnight and while the shipping cost more than the gearbox, our machine was up and running by the end of the week.

You’ll see me refer to Polulu elsewhere, but they have not only about the cheapest prices that I’ve been able to find on the Tamiya gear boxes, but also a whole swack of other cool stuff, mostly for smaller robots and electronics projects.

Digikey is also a favorite place to shop… they take Canadian dollars and deliver, brokerage-free, faster than a neutrino in an Italian mountain. They also stock the Jaguar motor controller, probably one of the coolest speed controllers on the market.

Like I say, this is hardly a complete list of cool places to buy robot stuff. The Calgary robotics club has an even more comprehensive list, and I’m hoping people will post links to their favorite shops in the comments section. I have a great admiration for all those entrepreneurs who have turned their robot passion into robot profits and am happy to support their hard work and innovation.

October 15, 2011

Surface Mount Soldering Made (Sorta) Easy

Filed under: education,high school,teaching,Tech Ed,Technology — dtengineering @ 1:24 pm

I won’t say this is the simplest and easiest way to do surface mount soldering, but it is working great for me and my students. The trick is to use a very tiny amount of solder paste and a heat gun. The information, circuit board and code that you can download here will take you through the steps to build an SMD board with a PIC16f690, eight resistors and eight LED’s. It will use two capacitive touch pads and a neat little programming trick described in Microchip App Note AN1298, to work as capactive touch sensors. The code can be compiled and edited using Great Cow Graphical Basic.

The guide to surface mount soldering, as presented at the BCTEA Conference in Kamloops, is here.

Note: Links to the full-page printed circuit board and compiled HEX code will be coming shortly, WordPress is not allowing me to upload them due to “Security Reasons”.

October 5, 2011

Congratulations, Mr. Ablett!

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 9:12 pm

My good friend and colleague, Todd Ablett, was in Ottawa today to receive the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. It is Canada’s top award for a K-12 teacher. Todd has had a very significant impact not just on the students at Gladstone Secondary, but also on other schools across BC. It was an honour to nominate him and a delight to see him win. I have attached his nomination here. Thank you to all who provided references and support…. YEAH TODD!!!

To see Todd’s nomination, click here: Todd Ablett Nomination for Prime Ministers Award

September 17, 2011

Registering for VEX in BC: 2011/2012 Version

Filed under: education,high school,Robotics Competitions,robots,teaching,VEX — dtengineering @ 9:36 am

Its hard to believe, but we’re in to another season of VEX Robotics Competition, and all indications are that this year will continue the rapid growth that VEX has seen in the BC/Washington area over the past five years. New schools and organizations are jumping on board not just in the Lower Mainland, but across BC. Alberta has teams and tournaments starting up in Calgary and Edmonton, and team growth in Washington and Oregon promises to help keep the international aspect of our VEX competitions vibrant and engaging.

As part of this growth PYRS (the Pacific Youth Robotics Society) is hosting the first “VEX Ideas Workshop” today to help teams get excited about this year’s game and overcome some of the usual “What the heck do I do NOW?” questions that we’ve all faced in our first season of competition.

So, in some attempt at logical order… here are some steps that you might want to take at an early stage to help guide your team to global VEX Robotics domination.

1) You need a robot. I talk a little more about funding sources in this post. 

2) You need a place to keep the robot parts. I talk a little more about that in this post. If you’ve got a cupboard or back room to store an 18″x18″x18″ robot that will help. Keep in mind that if you start with one robot this year, you could have several more a few years down the road.

3) You need a team. Sometimes this happens before you get the robot. That’s okay, too. A team can take on some of the responsibilities for pitching PAC and admin to help with funding and with sourcing sponsorship and support from the community. Typically teachers will start with a robot club and announce it in their school bulletin. Don’t be surprised when 40 or 50 students show up and you’re wondering how you’re going to manage this with just one robot kit. This is a great way to show admin that there is a demand for robotics at your school and while it is a great problem to have… it is still a problem. If you can’t get more kits then spend a couple weeks working on design problems, studying torque and other important concepts and you’ll find that only the truly hardcore roboteers will remain. Typically a VEX team will consist of one robot and four or five students… but there is no set number. Feel free to be flexible… you have to be when you’re getting started!

4) Register your team. Go to and click on the orange “register a team” button. You’ll have to click on the “log in” button and then create an account. This will be the account you will use to register for events and register additional teams, so make sure you keep track of the password and details. Registration is $75 for the first team from a school or organization, and $25 for each additional team. All teams taking part in VEX competitions must have a registered team number.

5) Register for some events. If you see a label of “registration closed”, don’t panic… that just means that registration for this event hasn’t opened yet. Keep an eye on the events and double check a month or so in advance and you’ll find they are available then. Despite the fact that each event has an “event capacity” that cap is pretty flexible… we haven’t had to turn away a team yet. (Although that may change over the next few years as the number of teams keeps growing.) Note that for events outside Vancouver/Lower Mainland that PYRS typically arranges bus transportation, allowing you to travel in relative comfort on a nice highway coach. If you are on the PYRS email list, you’ll receive notification of upcoming trips.

Here are some  events you might be interested in:

 November 5, Redmond, Washington

December 10, Richmond, BC

January 27, Courtenay, BC

Feb 18, Edmonton, AB

March 9: BC Championships at BCIT “A” Division and “B” Division

Keep an eye out on the main registration page as other dates in Washington State will be added… and, depending on your team, those competitions in Hawaii, California, Florida and overseas might just tickle your fancy one day.

6) Get some game pieces to practice with. No… wait… read the game rules… then get some pieces to practice with. I’d say that the Goal/Object kit is more than sufficient to get started. Note that you’ll also want some foam tiles to practice driving on… but you don’t have to order them from VEX. You can find very similar foam tiles at hardware stores. One or two sets of tiles should be sufficient to get started.

7) Once you’ve got a robot that can move and manipulate a game piece, you might want to contact a nearby school with a full VEX playing field. In the past Gladstone, Cambie and Moscrop have all been more than happy to welcome visitors. Contact the teachers at these schools for more information… it will be a great experience for your students! (And you’ll have fun, too.)




Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at