Building Robots at School

June 22, 2011

Jason’s “No-Fun” Guide to Uncrating the Cortex Classroom Lab Kit

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 11:58 pm

The VEX Cortex Classroom Lab kit is the kit I recommend to most teachers wanting to get started with VEX. Add in a copy of EasyC V4 (or a ten seat lab pack if you’re planning to expand beyond one or two robots) and you’re ready to start building some pretty cool robots. You’ll need a few extra parts, some omniwheels, and a few extra motors (maybe a couple of high strength motors?) to build a full-on competition robot, but you can choose those specific parts as you develop your design for the competition. The classroom lab kit, however, forms a great place to start.

There are a few things to watch for when opening a classroom lab kit, and a few things you can do now — easily — that will pay off in the long run. There are also a few common mis-steps, and… as of this writing… some glitches in the manual. So here’s my tips on how to uncrate your Cortex lab kit as efficiently as possible.

UPDATE: The glitches that I mentioned have been fixed. If you are building the “Protobot” or “Tumbler” please read the latest version of the Protobot/Tumbler build instructions. They have been updated with Cortex specific assembly instructions, including using the new two-wire motors and speed controllers.

Step 1: Where are you going to put all this stuff?

There are a LOT of parts packed into that lab pack. If you have a nice, tidy, storage system in advance of the uncrating, then you will put everything into a nice tidy arrangment. At the high end of the line is the Stanley Fat Max, but pretty much any 18″ long toolbox with multiple compartments will be a good start. When I taught at David Thompson each team got one of these hefty beasts. They were heavy, but the fold out compartments were fabulous. No matter how good the toolbox is, however, it won’t be enough to handle all the tiny little parts. My favorite parts boxes cost a little bit more than the cheap ones that have the adjustable dividers, but I find it is worth it as the little dividers inevitably fail, and you end up having a hard time keeping your parts organized. Check out your local hardware store for a solution that you’ll be comfortable with. Having one tool box and one parts organizer ready to go when you open your robot kit will save you time in the long run.

Step 2: How are you going to label all this stuff?

Every VEX part looks like every other VEX part. Your joystick looks exactly the same as the other school’s joystick… your VEXNet keys are identical… and students get them mixed up with each other’s stuff very easily. My adult post-secondary students demonstrated this to me when they took their new robots to an event and came home with extra vex net keys but missing joysticks. It was very sad. Now all our electronic parts… joysticks, batteries, VEXnet keys, chargers… all that expensive stuff that is easy to misplace is labelled. If you’ve got an engraver, that is great… but most VEX people are pretty honest. They won’t pull off labels or erase them… they really do want to get your parts back to you if you leave them at an event. If you want to get really fancy, label and number each of the major parts so you can keep track of them within your classroom. “BCIT 1” is marked on the joystick that goes with the Cortex labelled “BCIT 1”. At least label the electronic parts as they come out of the box, and you’ll be happier. In fact proper labelling is so important that we are considering adding a rule to tech inspection at BC events next year REQUIRING all teams to have their joystick, batteries and VEXnet keys labelled for easy identification. Label makers, engravers, paint pens, sharpies… even just pen on a piece of tape will save you a lot of hassle at some future point. Now enjoy this annoying animated .gif showing how I uncrate a Cortex kit….

Step 3: Open the box!

I know… you immediately skipped over points one and two and have already started pulling things out of the box, haven’t you? That’s okay… I did it too… and after you’ve opened many VEX kits you’ll come to see why I’ve put steps one and two ahead of opening the box. The first order of business after labelling the components should be to put your new batteries on to charge. You are going to be wanting them later.

Take the time to identify your parts, and pay particular attention to the motors and speed controllers. They are new and not described in the manual on how to build the protobot or tumbler projects. The new motors are an improvement, but it will take a while for the manuals to catch up. (The manuals have caught up… see the “Update” above, for the link.) For now, just plug the “two-wire” motors into a speed controller, and then plug them in to the Cortex. They will behave just like the old “three wire” motors did. There are also two special motor ports on the Cortex that you can plug a two-wire motor into directly. This is because there are already two speed controllers built in to the Cortex… see how port 1 and port 10 are different? There is more information on this in chapter 7 of the manual. You may as well read it now… the batteries are charging anyways.

Step 4: Build a Robot

Either the protobot or tumbler are a great starting point. Just remember that your batteries, motors and microcontroller are a little bit different. If you want a Cortex specific model to build, you can check out Carnegie Mellon University’s pages.

Step 5: Pair the Joystick and Cortex

Did you notice the sheet of paper labelled “important”? Many of my students don’t. Then they wonder why the robot doesn’t work. Once your batteries are charged follow the instructions and you will unite your Joystick and Cortex controller so that they will only communicate with each other. (Should you need to match the joystick up with a different controller later, you just repeat the procedure with the new controller.)

Step 5: Try It Out!

Remove the USB cable and insert a VEXNet Key in the Cortex and one in the Joystick. Turn the robot and joystick on. Wait patiently while the LEDs blink. If they all go green, you’re good to go. If your robot doesn’t go, perhaps you need to try plugging the speed controllers in to a different port. Try a few different combinations and you’ll figure it out quickly enough. If you aren’t getting green lights on your Cortex and Joystick, check out the manual, particularly page 8. There is also an outside chance that your school (or some malevolent force) is shutting down unrecognized wi-fi devices. If your school uses a Wireless Intrusion Prevention System, you need to go here, then talk to your IT support folks.

Step 6: Upgrade the Firmware on the Cortex and Joystick

You need to download the latest software updates for your Cortex and Joystick. There should be a .pdf file included in the .zip file that you download that should walk you through this process. Note that for Cortex-specific instructions you jump ahead to page 6 and begin at option “C”. You may need to repeat step five following the upgrade, and if you jumped ahead to step 7 and downloaded your own code, you’ll have to download it again… everything gets “zapped” when you do a firmware upgrade.

Step 7: Get Programming

You can download a trial copy of EasyC here… but it is only good for seven days. If you have purchased an EasyC CD, you can use the code on the CD to validate your downloaded copy, thus ensuring that you have the latest, most up-to-date version of EasyC available. There is a section on programming in your manual, and plenty of assistance available through the VEX Forums.

Step 8: Regret Having Not Followed Step 1 and Step 2

Yeah, right. Like you actually followed that advice to store everything carefully and label all the “easily lost” bits. Now you’re wondering where all the collars have gone, why you can’t find a “motor screw” to save your life, and how you ended up with two Cortex batteries, but are missing a VexNet key. I suppose there are worse problems to have….


June 6, 2011

VEX Workshops for Teachers: Spring 2011

Filed under: education,high school,robotics,robots,teaching,Tech Ed,Vancouver,VEX — dtengineering @ 2:54 pm

For the third consecutive year the Pacific Youth Robotics Society (PYRS) is pleased to present VEX workshops for teachers. This year, thanks to partnership with the BC Year of Science Initiative and our partners in Courtenay and Summerland we are able to offer more opportunities for teachers to learn about VEX and how competitive robotics can benefit their students.

The workshops will introduce teachers to robot design, sensors and programming using the VEX Robotics system and highlight design challenges arising from this year’s VEX game, Gateway. The instructors will be Todd Ablett, who has built the Gladstone Secondary robotics program into the largest and most successful high school robotics program in Western Canada, and Jason Brett, an eight year veteran of robotics competitions and instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. The workshops are interactive and hands-on.

The time, place, and cost of the workshops are:


Gladstone Secondary School
Electronics Shop
Thursday, June 23 and Friday, June 24, 2011
9:00 – 3:30


Summerland Secondary
Monday, June 27 and Tuesday, June 28, 2011
9:00 – 3:30

Workshop Fees and the “Professional Learning Package”

Fees are payable at the beginning of the workshop by cheque in Canadian funds made out to:

Pacific Youth Robotics Society
2528 East 8th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
V5M 1W2

There are three fee options (all prices include HST):

$75     Basic Workshop Package
You are expected to bring your own robot and programming software, or make arrangements in advance to share with another participant.
$175   Basic Workshop Package plus Robot Rental
You will have use of a robot kit for the two-day long workshop. You may share this robot with up to one other individual.
$1,000 Professional Learning Package
You will leave the workshop with a complete VEX Cortex robot kit, manuals and software to continue experimenting and designing over the summer. There are sufficient additional motors and parts included to form the basis of a competitive VEX robot for use during the competition season so you can gain a deeper understanding of robotics as your students experience the thrill of robotics competition. Thanks to the strong Canadian dollar and excellent pricing from iDesign solutions we are able to include the robot, workshop, manuals, shipping, and programming software for the lowest price ever. Note that due to shipping requirements we need confirmation of your intent to purchase the Professional Learning Package by June 10th. Please let us know if you are interested, but cannot meet that deadline.


Registration is now closed for both workshops. Thank you to all our particpants for making these workshops an ongoing success!

Thank you also to our sponsors at:

Also in Vancouver on the Weekend of the Workshop….

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 10:28 am

Coming to Vancouver for the VEX Workshop… why not check out the following events ocurring on the weekend:

The American Society for Engineering Education is hosting their annual conference in Vancouver. ASEE has a strong K-12 education component and are hosting a FREE (if you register by June 10) workshop for high school teachers on Saturday, the 25th.

If you are familiar with MAKE magazine, you’ll know you will want to check out the first Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire, happening all weekend.

If you’re coming to the Summerland workshop and can’t figure out why you might want to spend a few extra days in the Okanagan… well… you need more help than my suggestions will ever be able to provide.

Two Great VEX Videos

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 8:37 am

If you haven’t seen them already, I really like this one, made by BCIT media students at the BC VEX Robotics Championships in March of 2010:

And this one, describing the new VEX game, Gateway:

March 30, 2011

Tethered Mini Sumo Robots

For years now I have been building tethered mini-sumo robots with my junior secondary students.  The robots are a fun way to discuss traction, torque, power, gear ratios, and a raft of other important engineering concepts that all actually come into play in a final competition.  The video on this page represents one of my earlier classes to build the robots, and since then we’ve added a few more rules to make the final projects look a bit better.  For instance I now ban exposed batteries and weights, and limit tape to being used for electrical insulation only.  I also use a piece of welding rod to support the tether wire, as you can see in the very slick looking robot with the rounded front in the video.  We’ve also upgraded to cast polyurethane tires, which give much better coefficients of friction than these store-bought tires do.  The key rule for all mini-sumo robots is that they have to measure less than 100mm long and 100mm wide in their starting position and weigh less than 500g.  To ensure a fair competition in my class, all students start out using a Tamiya Dual Motor Gearbox or a Twin Motor Gearbox.  For more details on where I source materials, and how I implement the project, check out my Tethered Mini Sumo lesson plans and Mini Sumo Design Tips

In the event the video does not show up, try this link:

Mini Sumos can be a lot of fun… give them a try!

January 5, 2011

Material Properties Charts

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 1:51 pm

I can’t claim to have had anything to do with the creation of these charts, but this is too good of a link to not share. There are a number of charts comparing a number of materials and a variety of properties available at The charts are available as an interactive java applet, or in Hi-Res for download.

September 28, 2010

BC and Washington State VEX Tournament Schedule for 2010-2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 9:58 pm

The VEX game for this year is “Round Up”.   Click on the link for a description of the game and its rules, or click here for an animated video describing the game. To see an early season match, look here, or just search youtube.

Just make sure you read the actual rules and related documents, rather than relying on the video to explain the game.

There are currently five VEX events scheduled for the BC/Washington State area this year. They are:

November 20:       Washington State Jump Start Tournament             Redmond, WA
December 11:         BC Season Opener at Cambie Secondary                  Richmond, BC
February 5:           Vancouver Island VEX Championships                    Courtenay, BC

** The Vancouver Island tournament was previously scheduled for an different date, but has changed in order to relocate to a larger gymnasium.

February 26:         Washington State VEX Championships                     Redmond, WA
March 12:               BC Provincial VEX Championships at BCIT              Burnaby, BC

I’ve included links to register for the first three events. For the final two events, and other VEX tournaments, check out

The BC Provincial Championships hosted over fifty teams in two divisions last year, and many other events operated at close to capacity.  Please don’t leave it until the last minute to register.

You can register for the events, and find out more information regarding times and locations at

BC FIRST Lego League Schedule 2010-2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 9:32 pm

Thanks to Brent in the Robotics and Automation program at BCIT for passing along the following bit of information…

The FLL schedule for BC is now up and online with contact information and all that good stuff.

BCIT has been very supportive of student robotics competitions here in BC.

August 4, 2010

Getting Started With Robotics

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 8:57 am

Today I’m giving a talk to a UBC Technology Teacher Education class on the topic of “getting started with robotics in your school.”

It’s a tough topic because there are as many different ways to get started with robotics as there are schools. Each school has a unique combination of students, parents, teachers, administrators and resources that will affect how a program is conceived and grows. That said, I have seen that there are a few common issues that face most teachers as they try to do something good for their students.


The number one issue that comes up when discussing robotics is “where does the money come from”. At a time when schools are struggling to maintain the programs that they already have, it can seem an odd time to try starting something new. The good news, however, is that money is actually one of the easier start-up problems to solve. If you have an enthusiastic teacher, and some excited students, you can often find the funds to get started in a small competition such as VEX, FTC or FIRST Lego League. Even a Skills Canada machine can often be funded from resources available within the school/district. Chances are you’ll never have all the resources available that you WANT, but you can often find the $1,000 or so you need to get a team started and then build from there. As Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you might just find, you’ll get what you need.” I think he was talking about something other than robotics funding, but hey… it works.

So where can you look within the school. A great source for BC teachers is the annual PAC grant. PAC is the Parent Advisory Council and they receive an annual grant from BC lottery funds of about $40 per student at your school. There are specific restrictions on how the money can be spent, and competitive robotics, particularly as an extra-curricular activity, fits those restrictions perfectly! The catch is that the funds are usually disbursed before Christmas, so if you want to access them, you have to act fast in the fall. Casually dropping by a PAC meeting in September just to introduce yourself and say what wonderful students you have and how happy you are to be at the school is a great way to get to know the PAC chair and board. Wait a while before you ask about the PAC grants, though… they know you want grant money, and you know you want grant money, but there is no reason to be vulgar about it. In many schools the principal can also influence PAC grants insomuch as they help the PAC by prioritizing the requests relative to how they help the school meet the school goals. It wouldn’t hurt to drop in to the Principal’s office at some point to discuss your plans and how to structure them to support the school goals. Administrators tend to be big on school goals, and as they are probably the third most important group of employees in the school (after the Office Staff and Engineering Staff, of course) it is great to have their suport. There is no guarantee that you’ll be able to get PAC funding, of course, but typically if you’ve got a good presentation (ask if students can make a presentation on robotics… they are waaayyyyy more convincing than you….) and the support of admin, you should be able to get some funding to get up and running. Ask for $1,500 – $2,000 in your first year if you’re planning to run a VEX team.

The principal also can help you find money from other sources. Even when admin says they don’t have money… they still have a little bit tucked away somehwhere. Keep in mind that you’re typically looking for somewhere around $1,500 – $2,000 to start a team. That is a tiny, TINY fraction of the school’s budget. Sometimes admin will have to be creative with where they find the funds, sometimes you’ll have to get to know someone at the board office, sometimes an experienced teacher can advise you how best to approach your school’s admin, but the number one thing is to keep it positive. Talk about how excited the kids are, what a great opportunity robotics is, and what an advantage other schools have for their students by offering robotics. Although it is easy… too easy… to be cynical about the whole administrative structure, I have NEVER met an administrator at the school or district level who didn’t want to do good things for kids. Keep it positive, don’t whine, and you might be surprised at the little pockets of funds that are hidden here and there within the school. Each school and each district has a different budgeting process, so it will be important to learn how funding works at your location. And remember how I mentioned that the admin was the third most important group? Keep on the school accountant’s good side!


Some robotics projects fit in to existing IRP’s and courses. Tethered mini-sumo bots fit in to just about any junior tech class. Autonomous mini-sumos fit in to electronics. Battlebots and Skills Canada robots are great for metal work. You can be fairly creative about how you fit Lego or VEX robotics in to existing classes. But often, for competitive robotics the best place to start is with a club. Clubs allow you a great deal of flexibility on what you do, who is doing it, and when it is happening. With a class you have to “take all comers” as anyone who signs up for the course usually gets to take it. When you’re starting out, however, you might want to have a smaller, keener group… just to set a high standard. And inevitably the students are going to want some after school time to work on the robot, so you may as well face it… if you’re doing robots, you’re probably not going home at 3:20! (Or whenever your last bell rings.)

Clubs are also a good way to start as they can sometimes access funding more easily than classes. PAC grants are much easier to make for extra curricular activities than for curricular ones, for example. At David Thompson we ran our VEX teams as a club for five years, adding one team (and one kit) every year until we had five kits… enough to run a class of five teams of five students per team. Building slowly, over time, is one way to get past the start up costs of close to $10,000 that it would take to initiate a new class of VEX robotics.

The other benefit to starting as a club is that you might happen to run in to some ananticipated successes that resonate throughout your school. At Gladstone, the now legendary team 721 travelled to the World Championships as grade 10 students working on an extracurricular project and did so well that the whole school community rallied around the robotics program, building it in to the curriculum and supporting it with funding and staffing resources. At Moscrop, when a bulletin notice invited students to join a robotics team, and over 80 students showed up, it made it possible for the teacher to make a really strong argument that two VEX kits weren’t quite enough.

Eventually, however, you are going to want to build a successful robotics program in to the school’s timetable. For that you can either hijack an existing course, as I did with my Engineering 11 class, and other teachers have done with their Electronics classes (actually there is an Electronics 12: Robotics course code out there) but chances are you’ll want something a bit more customized to your school. That’s where BAA courses come in… both my Robotics and Flight 10 class and Engineering 11/12 classes were BAA (Board/Authority Approved) courses. To get a BAA course code you have to go through some paperwork… and it has to be neat, orderly, and convincing… the i’s must be dotted and the t’s crossed. Think of it as preparing a drag car for tech inspection… if you do a good job on the paint and detailing, the inspector is going to have a positive opinion of your car before they even lift the hood. It’s not always as fun to make your documents look sharp, but just jump through the hoops and get it over with. People WILL be looking at your BAA application, and will generally give you approval so long as you give them what they want. Once you’ve got the course code… you’re golden! You will have a great deal of professional latitude as to how strictly you follow it, so long as you provide a meaningful educational experience for the students.


I’ll have to write a bit more on this later… I’ve got to run out to UBC to talk about this now…


June 1, 2010

The Trig Game

Filed under: Uncategorized — dtengineering @ 12:18 pm

Okay… this is not really a robotics thing, per se, but it is a little piece of code that I threw together for my Essentials of Math 10 students to practice their trigonometry skills. It works, but isn’t completely finished in the sense that there are no directions or no start screens, and I want to improve the animations a bit.

But for a few hours work with Game Maker, it does what I needed it to do. And speaking of Game Maker… I’ve used it for two years with Grade 10 and 11 animation students… it is a fabulous way to introduce students to programming. The free download will work for most kids, but the upgrade to the full package is a very good value, too… even within my budget!

Feel free to use the Trig Game, and definitely take time to check out Game Maker. Download Trig Game 4 as a zip file here.

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