Friday, December 30, 2005

Back in GEAR!

Happy New Year
January is crunch time! All of my students have very important ELA exams on the seventeenth. You also have our biggest event of the year- the First Lego League Ocean Oddyssey Challenge.

You will probably experience some pressure during January. We all feel pressure. We have to learn how to handle pressure and anxiety in life. Stress is another name for this stuff. Some people like pressure. It makes them perform better. They like deadlines. It helps to motivate them.

Some people do not like pressure. Stress makes them feel overwhelmed. That makes them feel like doing nothing. They work better without all of the anxiety that deadlines and test dates bring. Everyone is different. But as we get older and get more education and more resonsibility, we will get more stress, more pressure and experience more anxiety.

What can we do about it? Everyone will have to develop their own way of dealing with stress and deadlines. Personally, when I was younger I had really bad techniques for dealing with pressure. I would do nothing and procrastinate until the last minute. That created more stress and the work I produced was not as good as it could have been if I had done a little bit at a time.

Now I plan better.
I write out lists and make smaller chunks of things to do.
I also take breaks and exercise.
I try to get enough sleep and rest.
I try to eat healthy food.
And lastly:
I have to balance what my priorities are.

The balance idea is hard. For my students, balance means you can't drop everything else except the ELA test prep. You still have other subjects and other things gong on in your lives that you can not neglect. Yet, there are some important things coming up that you have give a little more effort to. Try to come up with some way of balancing what you have to do.

Maybe you want to comment about everything you have to do in January. I would like to hear from all of my students.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wednesday Wipeout Results

Last week was so much fun and we all learned so much from the added stress of the timer.

So, we have decided to have a weekly timed competition with a new name every week. Last week was the "Smack Down." This week was the Wednesday Wipeout."

Today's results:
  • Galileo run by Daniel 190 pts
  • Coaches run by Mr. Daly 119 pts
  • Cassini run by Gary 86 pts

The earlier part of the session was a riot. We all tuned up our Skype accounts to practice for communicating with our teammates in Spain. So we sat around a big table and Skyped each other. We had conference calls and conference chats going simultaneously- great fun! I posted a challenge "Send a picture file of a Lego gear to everyone in the chat." Skype functions allow file transferring, so first everyone had to search in Google images, then save to the My Pictures folder, and finally Send File. What a total panic! We all got it going but it was chaos because a window pops up for every file sent to each chat member and a window for every file received from every other chat member --so there was a whole bunch of windows going on! Uploading, downloading--crazy! Now we all know how to create conference calls, send files, chat and exchange information. I love this job.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Queens Lego Robotics Competition

What a day! The First Lego League held the Borough of Queens Lego Robotics Competition Saturday, December 17th, 2005. Dozens of schools representing many neighborhoods of Queens showed up early carrying kits, bags of snacks, laptops, spare parts and robots.

Six dedicated members of the I.S.93 team showed with 3 parental units in tow! That was great because parents' are part of our team. My team had "the nerves." Gary and Robert took a bit too long to upgrade to fresh batteries and learned first hand about losing firmware in the RCX. That means they had to reload firmware, which should only take 4 minutes. The laptops display screen malfunctioned so another laptop had to be used. That took many minutes to reboot over and over. The nerves grew worse! Then the firmware gets re-loaded. Done. Next we used a flash drive to get the RCX's original code off the malfunctioning laptop. Since opening a .vi file from Robolab directly from clicking on the file is not an option, the files had to be copied deep into the program vault file, which was very time consuming. Next they read an error message that said we could not load files from a newer version of Robolab into a RCX with older firmware! That meant we loaded the wrong version of the firmware from an un-upgraded computer. Luckily we had a third laptop with compatible firmware and their files with their missions were tediously loaded into the brick again. Gary and Robert were very disappointed by all of that frustrating troubleshooting but the fact is they got it done and competed and did their best to accomplish missions. They even managed to score more points than some of the other schools.

Way to go! That kind of knowledge can not be taught- it's only to be gained by experienced.

Next, Gabby and Daniel did a great job with running their 'bot's missions. The spectators and Gabby's mom cheered when they brought the container to the base during the round. I was very proud of their performances because they showed concentration, a great attitude and scored lots and lots of points! They communicated their strategies over and over to ensure the predictable performance of the robot. The teamwork they showed was noticed by many observers.

The success of their robot was due to several factors which we focus on everyday during Lego Roboitcs at I.S. 93: Compact Robust Design, Flexibility in Design and Programming, Teamwork, Adaptablility, and On-The-Fly Problem Solving. All of these concepts were combined to produce a successful and FUN day of competing.

I was very proud of Daniel and Gabby. They showed enthusiasm and clever planning!

Lastly, Robert and Eugene scored the most points of any school's rounds at the tournament. That earned the I.S. 93 team first place in the competition. Their second round yielded the highest points which was the result of really excellent aiming and concise planning that was enhanced by constant strategizing, feedback and communication.

It is difficult to describe how I feel as a coach during these competitions. But the whole robotics experience makes me very proud. Region 4, NYCBOE supplied the training and resources. Steve Shapinsky and Norm Scott set up the tournament and was staffed by scores of adult volunteers and Long Island City HIgh School student volunteers. Our parents came and supported our students. My kids had every challenge and problem a poor robot could throw at them. They competed with poise and grace. We ate together, cheered together and had intense nervous stomachs together. I am blessed to be involved with such a program and I want to thank every single person there who competed, showed up, volunteered, cleaned up, referreed, mentored or who had anything else to do with the program.

A special thanks to Terry Bader for having the foresight to seek the funds and deliver a comprehensive robotics program region wide.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Cassini WorkGroup Mastering Design

Gary and Eric of the Cassini WorkGroup are demonstrating the slding action of their Robot.
Gary say," The hardest part of building this sliding arm was getting the pieces to touch the touch sensor the way we wanted."

When asked what was the importance of the touch sensor, Eric said, " When the bar pushes the touch sensor, we have it programmed for the motor to run back and forth. That's what makes the slider go back and forth."

They reportedly plan to knock flags over and connect the pipeline and protect the pump with this mechanism in the Ocean Odysey Challenge.

You can see them demonstrating the sliding bar here.

Smackdown Lego Challenge!!

Today at 4:oopm the long awaited Lego Smackdown happens. Mr. Wright/Mr. Daly take on the work groups to practice for competing at the FLL tournament.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Recurring Problems-New Solutions

Hi Everyone,

Several work groups are experiencing the same problems. Some of these problems include, but are not limited to:

-Difficulty traveling in a straight line.
-Turning the exact desired distance or angle.
-Traveling a very precise distance.

When you experience any or all of these three problems you will find that accomplishing ANY mission will seem impossible.

Your group will not likely score any points until you master the ability to get your robot to go across the game field and end up where the mission is set up for you to complete.

Some groups have overcome turning issues by using pivoting wheels- Good idea! Ask the Galileo group how they got their two-pivot design to straighten up. They used the advice of Dr. Antreasian, our mentor, to design in flexiblity. Galilieo uses a two-pivot robot to turn accurately to attempt several missions. They have a hard time getting it to go really straight for some other mission. They have solved this problem with a simple but brilliant solution. Find out what they did.

One last thing today: You may want to change your way of thinking about the following idea. "My robot has a front end and a back end." On Wednesday, you will see a demonstration of letting go of this concept when you see the Mr. Wright/Mr. Daly robot perform in the Wednesday Student Teacher Smackdown MiniChallenge!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

This Week:

Hello Everyone,

This is an important week for Lego Robotics at I.S.93. We have a practice tournament Saturday, December 17th from 9:00am to 2:00pm.

We need to look at this match as a dress rehearsal. This match will be like the FLL meet in January. There will be many rounds. You will be nervous. Things will happen. We have to depend on our brain power to plan, execute our game plan and then most importantly we will have to be able to adapt. We have the smarts to re-build and re-program right on the spot as conditions require. That is our strength as a team and will be the most stressful thing to accomplish.

They do not give awards for the team that enjoys themselves the most but I want to have fun doing this. I plan on having fun! I am very proud of our progress as a team. I hope you are planning to have fun- I do not want it to be an accident.

Last thing. All parents are invited. Ideally for me, there would be at least one parent for every student present. So ask them to come.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Explore Europa with a Robotic Sub!

Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

You guys gave great close guesses. The picture taken by the Galileo spacecraft as it flew by Europa is very similar to those taken in the Artic and Antarctic regions of Earth. The large structures in the picture resemble large ice rafts or icebergs that have broken apart and moved around. The stuff in the middle or between these ice rafts looks like the surface of an ocean that has repeatibly melted and froze many times. Scientists believe "it resembles the disruption of pack-ice on polar seas during spring thaws on Earth" (quoted from JPL webpage). This surface is indeed made up mostly of water ice. Doesn't it look like the surface of a liquid which has become frozen? The lines criss-crossing everywhere are believed to be cracks produced by the pressure exerted on the surface from the tugging by Jupiter's gravity.

These processes on Europa's surface are an extremely important finding for scientists. This image suggests that Europa has an ocean of water lying just beneath this icy surface. It also suggests that Europa has an internal heat source which helps keep the ocean from staying completely frozen. And where you have water and heat, what may you find?


Scientists believe its possible that Europa may harbor extraterrestial life forms in its oceans.

Now there are plans to send a spacecraft back to Jupiter to study Europa in more detail. Ultimately, scientists would like to probe beneath the ice and into this ocean with a Robotic Submarine, but such a mission is extremely expensive and technically challenging.

Will you students be the ones to design that robot when you are older?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Galileo's Success is due to Redundancy & Flexibility in its Design

Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Wow! I'm impressed with the Galileo Group's research into the Galileo mission.

Here a picture of the surface of Europa (second closest major moon of Jupiter). Apart from other evidence, this image shows why scientist believe there's an ocean beneath Europa's surface. What do you think it shows?

This may be beyond the scope of the Lego Ocean Odyssey challenge, but its something you may want to think about when you are designing your robots.

The success of the Galileo mission at Jupiter was due to 2 important design elements that everyone should try to plan into their robot designs. Galileo had redundant systems for critical functions and a versatile computer that was capable of being reprogrammed from Earth.

The Galileo mission was designed to send high volumes of data over its high gain antenna from Jupiter. This antenna was suppose to unfold like an umbrella, from its stowed position after the spacecraft was on its way to Jupiter. However, a few of the pins that held the ribs of the umbrella-shape antenna became permanently stuck and thus the antenna could not open. Fortunately, Galileo also had a redundant low gain antenna, but the rate of data sent back to Earth was only a trickle. The comparison is like the slow drip of a faucet to buckets full of data being sent back to Earth.

To make use of this 'slower' antenna, engineers had to redesign the entire mission with this lower data rate in mind. They programmed algorithms to compress or shrink the size of the images without losing too much information. This helped Galileo send thousands of pictures which otherwise would have been impossible. Furthermore, with the high gain antenna, the spacecraft would essentially relay the images to the ground as they were being shuttered. However, this would not work with the low gain antenna. For the low gain mission, engineers made good use of Galileo's tape recorder. Data from the close observations of the Jupiter's moons were compressed and recorded on the tape recorder. Then the data was read out into the telemetry stream and modulated onto the radio signal sent back to Earth. So the tape recorder was essentially a redundant system for handling the data and its return to Earth.

Now, with the tape recorder becoming a vital part of the redesigned mission, we could not let it fail. Our precise navigation requirements for entering into orbit around Jupiter required us to take optical navigation images of Jupiter's moons. But on the final approach to Jupiter, the tape recorder's tape became stuck. I believe it was pretty much like glued to the tape head. Without these images, Galileo's orbit insertion did not meet the requirements needed to stay on our planned orbital tour of Jupiter. Faced with this possibility beforehand however, we came up with a plan to change the first orbit around Jupiter according to the miss distance from our target and eventually reconnect the orbit to the planned tour. A few months after orbit insertion, the engineers were able to figure a way to unstick the tape and get it working again. They had to be very careful since it would have been very easy to break the tape. Luckily, they had a spare tape recorder at JPL to verify the problem, test their ideas on and verify the fix. According to my memory, this problem happened 3 or 4 more times during Galileo's mission.

I won't go on and on, but there were a few other major problems that Galileo experienced. Despite these problems, engineers and scientists were able to overcome them by making use of Galileo's redundant systems and by reprogramming it from many 100's of millions of miles away. When you can only afford to build one spacecraft and send it to Jupiter, you need to provide your spacecraft with backup systems and allow flexibility in the design of its computer and how it interacts with all its subsystems to control the vehicle.