ICT - Programming in motion

15th March 2013 at 00:00
Students get their hands on robots and learn to control them

It could have been a recipe for disaster - a computer science "boot camp" for key stage 3 and 4 students who had no prior experience of robots or programming.

But this three-day Technocamp at Aberystwyth University, run as part of a European project (www.technocamps.com), transformed 22 children into students who could confidently control live robots.

For many years, the university had been taking robots out to local schools, introducing the reality of robotics on serious hardware. The workshops worked well but there is a limit to what you can do in four hours. The boot camp, on the other hand, immersed them.

Participants learned a real language, understood that robots are hard to control, saw that sonar and vision are useful and controllable senses, and began to appreciate that interacting sensors create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. They saw, too, that simulators are a smart way of developing on expensive platforms.

Students were dropped in at the deep end when they were asked to send control instructions and had to read the sonar sensors. The simulator gave them confidence that the programs were "safe" before being run on live hardware via a wireless link. Activities were initiated by role play. A blob-tracker was programmed to move the robot towards a target. If this sounds easy, it's not. You need to learn coordinates, error in direction and sensorcontrol feedback to close in gently.

The three days culminated in running the same program on an all-terrain outdoor robot that ended up chasing the children across a field. Parents joined the class to see what had been done and were pleasantly surprised.

If the children had found the early stages tough then the three days might have been a disaster. But they didn't, and that may be the best thing we all learned: a gang of 11- to 15-year-olds are more than ready to tackle this kind of thing. Compiler error messages are less than helpful and students get frustrated by brackets and semicolons, but help is on hand to work around this. Programs gave instant feedback, which makes debugging more rewarding.

The real result was that all the children managed all the tasks - there is just no substitute for the satisfaction we all had in shouting "Yay! It works." You had to be there to properly enjoy seeing a programmer trying to defeat the robot they have programmed by hiding the target or fooling it with a mirror.

Further boot camps are planned, in which participants will work in serious languages on real hardware. Aberystwyth University will offer "Sailing Robots" and "Digital Clothing". All of the inaugural class asked to be signed up.

Roger Boyle is an author and former professor of computing at the University of Leeds. He now does volunteer work for Computing at School (CAS) and Technocamps projects in Wales. For more information go to the CAS website: www.computingatschool.org.uk

What else?

Check out BBC Class Clips' Introduction to Robotics to see robots at work in a car manufacturing facility and measuring radiation at Chernobyl.

bit.lyRobotsInAction

Engage your class in a round of Robot Wars with TES English's series of lesson plans and activities based on the television programme.

bit.lyRobotWars.

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