Becoming #AnimalAllies! Our projects for #FLL 2016

In the leadup to our recent tournament, the Year 5 and 6 FLL eams were incredibly busy programming, building and testing their robots, while also working on their research projects.

As part of this year’s competition, the girls had to investigate and pose an innovative solution to a real-world problem relating to the interaction between humans and animals.  The Year 5’s sought to reduce the impact of discarded fishing line on river dolphins, while the Year 6’s sought to raise awareness and promote the better treatment of newborn calves in the dairy industry.

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Dolphin Allies

As part of their research, the Year 5s interviewed Sarah Marley, a marine biologist from Curtin University. Sarah is conducting her doctoral research on the impact of human activity on dolphins’ ability to communicate in noisy sound environments. She was able to share her experience and knowledge of the problems arising from the interactions between humans and dolphins.

We learned that:

  • When dolphins get caught in fishing line, their fins get torn off, making it hard for them to swim – Matilda.
  • To help stop dolphins getting caught in discarded fishing line in the Swan River, there are small bins placed alongside the river near popular fishing spots – Elizabeth.
  • The Maui dolphins have rounded fins – Asher.
  • Sarah, a marine biologist, is researching how dolphins communicate – Beth.
  • Dolphins can live for a very long time – Sarah M.

Drawing upon Sarah’s expertise, the Year 5 team voted to focus on the problem of dolphins being caught in discarded fishing line in the nearby Swan River. Their proposed solution was to sell and promote biodegradable fishing line, which would naturally decompose after a certain time of exposure to salt water.

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Investigating Animal Welfare in the Dairy Industry

Prior to this year’s FLL season, I knew very little about the dairy industry, except that Western Australian dairy farmers have been severely struggling financially due to milk producers being paid less than the cost of production by big dairy companies.

With the help of Jess Andony, the Young Dairy Network Coordinator at Western Dairy, the girls investigated some very emotive, complex issues in the dairy industry. We learned a great deal about the dairy industry and were surprised to learn that cows generally enjoy being milked.

The girls ultimately voted to focus on improving the Australian and international practice of separating newborn calves from their mothers shortly after birth. The calves are taken away to be slaughtered as veal. Their solution was to create a website promoting the improved treatment of newborn cows, and supporting a charity dedicated to improving the welfare of dairy cows.

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Creating the prop abbatoir

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Year 6 rehearsing their presentation

Team Building with Fun, Laughter, and Robots

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During the October school holidays, we ran our first holiday robotics workshops. Both our Year 5 and Year 6 FLL teams completed several Core Values challenges (team building activities); invested a few hours into their mission planning and programming; and chose a topic for their research projects. It was a very busy, but wonderful two days.

Core Values Challenges

As mentioned in a previous post, the FLL core values are central to the competition experience. Succeeding in FLL isn’t necessarily about ‘winning’ – it is about learning, solving problems as a team, and having FUN!

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As part of the holiday workshops, the girls completed two core values challenges. The first, the “Towel Turn Over Challenge” (aka Magic Carpet), was a lot more difficult than anyone had anticipated. To complete the challenge, the girls had to stand on a beach towel, and turn it over without their hands or feet touching the floor. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

To succeed in this challenge, the girls had to learn how to communicate effectively within their team. They had to stand back, discuss the problem, and ensure they listened to each other’s suggestions and strategies. The girls also had to develop their resilience and ability to learn from (repeated) failure. This wasn’t easy – although it was very entertaining to watch!

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The second team challenge was to design and build a bridge out of marshmallows and spaghetti. The idea was to create the longest bridge, but I think towers might be more challenging – we’ll try that next year. The marshmallows (and pasta) went down a treat 🙂

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Mission Programming

After spending several weeks working out which missions to focus on for this competition, these workshops provided the girls with their first dedicated opportunity to work on the programming and engineering for the robot game. The girls started by mapping out their algorithms – the sequence of steps required to solve the missions, and prototyping attachments.

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Starting our FLL Projects

As part of their preparation, the students need to identify a real world problem relating to the challenge theme, and come up with an innovative solution to that problem – which they present to the judges at the tournament.

This year, our theme is Animal Allies, and the project focuses on improving the interactions between humans and animals. After much discussion, brainstorming, and debate, the Year 5s have decided to focus on marine animals, and the Year 6s will focus on the dairy industry. As part of their research, the girls will need to seek the advice and expertise of experts in these fields – which we hope to do over the next two weeks.

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With less than six weeks to go before the tournament, we have a LOT of work to do! 

We’d like to thank Ms D (Year 5) for her help running these school holiday workshops; and we’d especially like to thank our parents, who helped provide a wonderful morning tea over the two days 🙂

Getting Started with FLL Animal Allies 2016

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Late last term, The Robotic Rebels (Year 5s) and The Motherboards (Year 6s) were busy preparing for the 2016 “Animal Allies” FIRST LEGO League season. We started by selecting team captains, and volunteering for team roles – engineering, programming, and project. After building the LEGO models, it (quite genuinely) took us three weeks to read the instructions, before brainstorming team mission strategies.

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During the mission strategy meetings, the girls ranked missions in order of difficulty and point values, and brainstormed the order in which they might attempt them. As part of this process, they mapped out possible robot navigation routes across the board.

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In pairs, students pitched their ideas to their team, and voted on the missions they will work on during the season. As the Year 6s will attest, this wasn’t an easy or straightforward process! They had to be guided into making their first compromise of the season over the animal feeding mission.

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An Introduction to FIRST LEGO League!

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Over the past few weeks, the girls have been exploring the requirements of the FIRST LEGO League competition, starting off with a practice run through the 2015 TrashTrek season.

The competition, which starts on September 1st, 2016, involves three key elements:

  1. Project: The students will need to research and design an innovative solution to a real world problem.
  2. Robot Game: The team needs to program and engineer solutions to a number of ‘missions’, earning points.
  3. Core Values: Through their presentations to judges, and demonstration of team identity during the robot game students are expected to uphold the FLL Core Values.

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The FLL Core Values are as follows: 

  • We are a team.
  • We do the work. Our coaches and mentors help us learn, but we find the answers ourselves.
  • We share our experiences and discoveries with others.
  • We are helpful, kind, and show respect when we work, play, and share. We call this Gracious Professionalism®.
  • We are all winners.
  • We have fun!

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Learning the Ropes of the Robot Game

The Robot Game is a major, and very complicated, component of the FLL competition. The game rules run to several thousand words and over 12 pages, and they are incredibly exact. During the course of the robot game, students need to try and compete a number of game missions, earning points. Placing in the top 40% of the robot game scores is a key requirement for qualification for the national FLL competition.

In FLL 2015 “TrashTrek”, the missions included transporting scientists (mini-figurines), removing plastic bags from the ocean environment, sorting trash, and extracting compost from a compost machine. Once the robot leaves the home base in the corner, it is on its own – which means the girls need to program and engineer their mission solutions. We will find out the 2016 Animal Allies missions in just over a week’s time!

The first step in the robot game preparation is the planning and strategy meeting. This involves careful reading and extensive discussions of the mission requirements and rules, identifying their point values and grading their level of difficulty (Easy, Medium, Too Hard). Then the girls need to identify which missions can be grouped together into a robot run, and vote on which missions they will attempt to solve for the season. That’s when the programming and building begin!

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Exploring Robot Design and Engineering

In the limited time we’ve had before the 2016 season starts in earnest, we have only briefly explored robot design & attachment engineering. We have been really grateful to many parents who have joined us during these sessions to learn more about the competition, and we look forward to their future visits and expert assistance during the Animal Allies season.

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Experimenting with a hook attachment

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A prototype sweeper attachment – possibly a little wide?

While this is our first year in this competition, I am now more confident that our girls have prepared well for this year’s challenge, and I am sure they will do themselves proud when they arrive at the WA FLL tournament in late November. With less than a week to go before Animal Allies begins, things are about to get interesting (and busy)!

Good luck girls!

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And just for fun …

It was seriously depressing how many of our robotics girls didn’t know what this little robot was :(. And to top it off, our Principal didn’t know either! The poor coach, and his fellow Whovian students, were very disappointed!

 

Pushing Boundaries – Navigating with Ultrasonic & Colour (Light) Sensors

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When we started our LEGO robotics program a few months ago, I wasn’t sure how far we could push our FLL girls’ programming skills this year. Time and time again; however, they have surprised me with their persistence, curiosity, and drive to solve the problems I have put in front of them. This was especially true with our forays into the use of ultrasonic and colour (light) sensors, which I had originally planned to introduce next year.

The Ultrasonic Sensor

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The ultrasonic sensor, rather appropriately, functions as a set of ‘eyes’ for the Mindstorms robot. It bounces sound waves to accurately detect the distance from an obstacle – in a similar fashion to how sonar works in a submarine. In the limited time we had, only a few students experimented with this sensor this year. I am hopeful that one or two might have a go at learning how to use it in the upcoming FLL season, but it will definitely be a focus for Year 6 robotics in 2017.

The Colour Sensor

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The colour sensor can be used to detect different coloured lines & the colours of obstacles on the mat. Our primary focus this year was introducing a few key team members to basic black line following using the colour sensor and the switch (IF/ELSE) programming block. This wasn’t an easy process to learn (or teach)!

With their current line following program, the Year 6 girls can follow straight and slightly wavy lines, but struggle following very curved lines (which requires two colour sensors & more advanced programming skills). We will return to line following later in the year.

“Robots and Walls don’t Mix!”

Miele robot vacuum, IFA 2015Creative Commons License Kārlis Dambrāns via Compfight

Have you ever wondered how a robot vacuum cleaner detects and avoids obstacles? This was a question our girls sought to answer when they began exploring the role of sensors in aiding robot navigation.

The first sensor we worked with was the touch sensor, which is ‘activated’ by a ‘push’, being ‘released’, or with a ‘bump’. As the girls discovered, this sensor can be extremely useful for detecting obstacles in front of the robot.

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The first challenge required the girls to work out the difference between the ‘push’ and ‘bump’ sensor states. They had to program their robot to move forward until a team member ‘bumped’ the sensor with their hand. The resulting code looked something like this:

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Move Forward –> Wait Until Touch Sensor is ‘bumped” –> Play “Sorry” —> Move Back 1 rotation.

Robots and Walls don’t Mix!

The next challenge proved to be rather entertaining. The girls were asked to program their robot to move until it detected a wall, reverse 20cm or so, and then turn 90 degrees. Then after adding a loop, they had to create a physical obstacle course for the robot to navigate through. Judging by the number of robots trying to drive through (and climb) walls, this wasn’t an easy challenge. 🙂

The key to success relies on understanding the difference between the ‘bump’ and the ‘push’ states when using the touch sensor. A bump could be likened to a quick tap; however, the ‘push’ is activated when the sensor detects a firm pushing force (e.g. what happens when you hit a wall).

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And, in one of the funniest pre-season moments to date … 

  • Student: “Mr Graffin, our touch sensor doesn’t work! Our robot is stupid!”
  • Teammate: “Have you tried plugging it in …?”

They had to pick me up off the floor after that one, 🙂

Robots and LEGO – Just two of our favourite things!

It has been a very busy few weeks, with some big changes happening down in the robotics lab.

FLL 2016 Team Names – The votes are in!

The Year 5 team will be known as the “Robotic Rebels”, and the Year 6 team voted for “The Motherboards”. Well done girls!

Our Competition Practice Table has Arrived

With the help of Mr B, our school groundsman, our FIRST LEGO League competition practice table has now been built and installed. At about 2.5m x 1.4m, it wasn’t a small (or light) addition – and it is only half the size of the full competition table! The girls will be using it regularly from the start of next term, as they participate in a practice FLL season using the 2015 Trash Trek missions and models.

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Speaking of models, we had no idea how hard it would be to construct our FLL mission models, or how long it would take. The girls have spent weeks trying to decipher the build instructions, constructing a LEGO trash sorter, power station, cars, and a compost machine. One of the greatest lessons we have learnt so far is that we need to follow the instructions to the letter – if you don’t, the models simply don’t work!

Given we have a whole new set of LEGO models to build for the 2016 Animal Allies season, it looks like we’ll be scheduling some lunchtime and after-school building sessions come early September …

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We welcomed (and named) some new robots! 

A few weeks ago, we took delivery of some new EV3 Mindstorms robots, enabling us to return our two loaned LEGO NXT robots to Curtin University. Our thanks go to Tim Keely, from the Curtin University Engineering Outreach team, whose loan & support made our program possible.

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Our new robots, with names including “Bubbles” and “Alice”!

Wrapping up our focus on programming for now. 

As Term 2 drew to a close, we finished up our programming work with a series of challenges focused on how to use touch, ultrasonic, and colour sensors to aid robot navigation. I’ll share more about these in future posts.

As we move into our last week, the girls are beginning to learn about basic robot structural design and gearing. The next step will be introducing and exploring the engineering design process, as the teams start to familiarise themselves with the FLL competition format & robot building challenges next term.

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Rotating Robots, Squares, and Mazes – Programming Turns

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90 degree turns

For the first few weeks of Term 2, the girls explored how to program their robots to turn at a 90 degree angle. As they quickly discovered, this wasn’t as simple as it first appeared! The ability to program precise turns is an essential skill for FIRST LEGO League, where students have to navigate around obstacles on a large game board.

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Robot Squared!

After working out how to program the 90 degree turn, students were challenged to program their robot to move in a square. To complete this challenge, students were introduced to the concept of written algorithms – a sequence of written instructions required to perform a task.

For example, to program their robot to move in a square, students needed to identify and code the component steps:

  1. Start
  2. Move Forward – 4 rotations
  3. Turn 90 degrees right
  4. Move Forward – 4 rotations
  5. Turn 90 degrees right
  6. Move Forward – 4 rotations
  7. Turn 90 degrees right
  8. Move Forward – 4 rotations
  9. Brake.

In the EV3 Mindstorms software, this program looked something like this:

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Introducing Loops 

As many students quickly realised, programming repeating actions can be quite painful – as the added complexity opens up new opportunities for bugs (problems with the code) to arise. There had to be a simpler way!

To quote our newest Year 6 team member, “Where’s the loop block?”

In computer programming, the loop or ‘repeat’ function is used to repeat an action. In the case of the robot square, the complicated algorithm above can be simplified to the following:

Start

REPEAT (Loop) – 4 times

  1. Move Forward – 4 rotations
  2. Turn 90 degrees right

END (Brake)

The resulting Mindstorms program looked something like this:

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Solve The Maze!

The final challenge enabled students to apply their learning about Straight Moves and Turns to navigate their robot through a maze. Who would have thought masking tape would be so useful in a robotics class?

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Each group could choose their start and end points, and students were encouraged to physically step out the movements through the maze, writing out their algorithms. They then had to code and test their solutions, revising them (debugging) along the way. Almost all of our students managed to complete this challenge successfully!

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Making Headway

The Turns & Curved Moved Challenges were a turning point for our beginner FLL teams – no pun intended. Over the course of the 2-3 weeks we spent on this topic, the girls began to fly. They have become confident problem solvers, and are learning how to work effectively with different team members across a range of tasks.

As we begin to ramp up our FLL pre-season preparations, I’d like to thank our parents for their amazing support for this program, particularly for the before-school robotics workshops which we began this week. Your daughters are living proof of our motto “We believe you don’t need to be a boy to be good at robotics!”

Drag Racing Robots!

Towards the end of last term, both the Year 5s and Year 6s had their first taste of programming with the LEGO Mindstorms software. Their first challenge was to work out how to program their robots to move forwards and backwards; and how to measure distances with the units of seconds, degrees, and rotations.

The second part of the challenge was the robot drag race. Students had to program their robot to move forward, stop precisely on the line for one second, and then go backwards and stop precisely on the start line. As the videos below show – this wasn’t as easy as we thought!

Here are some of the highlights of our first Move Straight Challenge!

(If you’re subscribed by email, click the link at the bottom of the post to view the online version).

Oh, and as an aside, check out the new posters in our lab! IMG_20160314_190558

What is a robot?

Last term, as an introduction to the new Iona Robotics program, the Year 6 students sought to answer the question – “What is a robot?”

The students chose a robot to investigate, exploring their component hardware and software, and how they can be programmed to perform certain tasks, sense their environment, and sometimes make autonomous decisions based on sensor input.