Tuesday, February 8, 2011

LEGO Mindstorms 6

 by Joey Pesce –Solvay Middle School(2006) SUNY Oswego (Present)

 LEGO Mindstorms was used in the Solvay School District for the past ten years. They can be used to teach a variety of topics-mechanical design and robot construction, real world programming, and artificial intelligence. These were inexpensive kits that allowed the students to become aware of how common robotics is used throughout their everyday lives. We started our activities by discussing robots in their everyday lives. A car wash that you drive through is a great example that the kids can identify with. We discussed at length how the devices, like the ATM machine, are robotically operated. 

With that as a starting point we then explored the robotic process using the LEGO’s. They are an easy platform to work with because the kids are familiar with the basic LEGO building blocks. They are very quick to construct and with so many of the students all having LEGO’s as one of their childhood toys it is something that they can do immediately and successfully. 
The yellow brick, the “brain” of the system, is the RCX-small computer that controls motors and interprets data from light, touch, and other sensors. These are the only items that they are not familiar with so we spent our time learning how to program the robot and use the sensors. 
The programming language is the same as the basic language that is used by NASA so it allows the students to feel like they are using something relevant from the “real world”. They become engineers that create robots to do certain sets of tasks without human intervention during the process. It teaches them higher level thinking skills and helps them work within parameters and set both long range and short range goals.

The students created their programs by dragging graphic “programmed blocks” into a certain sequence in a kind of flowchart setup. After they write a program they see how their robot responds to their programmed commands. This allows them to assess how effective they are in program design, and to relate how often they had to interfere to get it to work. 

My very first time using them was an immediate success not to mention how much the students couldn’t wait to get their hands on them for the next day and design another one. This was one of those “store bought” activities that a teacher didn’t need to spend endless hours of research to prepare for lessons, activities and such. They just needed to identify a problem that the kids needed to solve, create an introduction to the problem and then 
have them workin teams to solve that problem. 

The students learned about team building and many other life skills that industry and future employers need. With an investment of less than $1000 our school was able to have a robotics program literally as fast as the units were delivered. We were able to buy 5 kits and have enough for a class of 20. We designed, as a class, a common chassis that we were able to use in two separate classes and to share the RCX and sensors. LEGO’s Mindstorms was a great way to experience hands-on learning and to give a child a chance to use design principles and programming. 

Mindstorms disciplines the students by directing them to create descript and distinct goals that are easily evaluated as they are designing and engineering their robots. We also used the robots to compete with each other, working with scenarios that will allow them to problem solve and push themselves and their robots to their limits. The kits also allowed individual exploration in problem solving situations. Every kid, no matter their ability level, was able to have success in working with Lego’s kits. It was great ways to learn and have fun at the same time!

This article is part of a series that Steve Poydock has been gathering and sending over to me for the blog. We will be posting them each week, however we are looking for more contributions. Please consider sending an article of 200-300 words describing your MST, STEM or other TechEd program which have used during the past 25 years.

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