Building Robots at School

September 16, 2008

Building a moving machine: My students’ first VEX challenge.

Filed under: robots,teaching,Tech Ed,VEX — dtengineering @ 4:04 pm

This year I am running five VEX teams as part of my Engineering 11 class here at David Thompson.  There are 20 students in the class, which works out nicely to be four students per team.  Eventually we will be playing this year’s VEX challenge game, but since very few of the students have any experience with robotics (or building stuff, for that matter), I wanted to ease them in to it.  In the past I have just given teams the official challenge and said “go”… but I really do think it is better to lead them through the process one step at a time, and the best place to start is with the drive train… the most important part of any competition robot.

I had all the students put their names in a hat, and we drew names at random to see who would be on which team.  These teams will only be together for a couple of weeks… once we have completed this challenge I will reassign them to new teams with completely different partners for a slightly more complex challenge.  Then they will be able to form their own teams for the “real” game.

The Playing Field

The Playing Field

The first challenge I have given them is fairly simple.  They have five classes to build a robot that can drive the course shown in the photo.  It is a race.  One robot starts, on the cement, at each end of the playing field.  The robots have to navigate between two “slalom” gates marked by bolts.  It doesn’t matter which direction they go through, so long as they go through both gates.  If a robot knocks a bolt over, the driver has to put down their controller and do five pushups.  After the pushups are done then someone else on the driver’s team can take over control, but that driver is “out” for that race.  Contact is allowed… but just pushing and shoving, no flipping or damaging the other team’s machine.  Finally, if a part… any part… should fall off a team’s robot, then EVERYONE on the team has to do five pushups before they can carry on driving.

The course is set up to cover a few basics in VEX design… how to hook up motors, how to set up the transmitter, how to create a simple EasyC program for the robot, how to steer, how to climb over an obstacle, and how to push another robot around.  These are all fundamental skills that will be important in designing a competitive VEX robot.

Rather than provide lecture content and class demonstrations while the teams build (they would really rather be building than listening to me) I ask one person from each team to come to a table at the back of the shop where I demonstrate a topic (today it was battery charging and hooking up the receiver and CPU) to just those five students.  It is then their job to be the group “expert” on that topic and share the information with the rest of their group.  As different students become experts on different topics and move from group to group, hopefully the knowledge will diffuse throughout the class.  And, no, I haven’t quite finalized exactly how I’m going to assess them individually at the end of all this.  Probably some combination of self-assessment, peer assessment, and a quiz or two combined with a liberal helping of marks based on their robot’s performance on the playing field.

It has been interesting to watch the different design paths chosen by the teams.  Some are creating their own design, while others are using the “squarebot” design in the VEX manual.  The teams working on the squarebot design seem to have the easier task, but the squarebot uses just two motors… teams with custom designs are using four motors and jacking up the gear ratio a bit.  Interestingly, so far all of the teams are using the small “roller blade” wheels… but we are only a couple classes in to the building.  It will be interesting to see what comes from a couple days of practice… the first robot made it across the field today after school.

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