Maze solving with a twist


Sometimes I think about not having the classical robotics education in my bag of tricks (educator and Cognitive Psychologist over here, so I’ve spent much more time thinking about humans, rats, philosophy and AI than about Mindstorms in my professional past).

I wanted to learn more in order to better discuss robotics with whip-smart high school students competing in robotics challenges. Most of these students, somewhere along the way, build maze solvers. Why? Well, that’s a little hard to package into a neat, one-sentence answer, but it has a lot to do with Cognition and AI and engineering those qualities into devices.

Here’s our version, with a twist – most robotics is “top down” with a central brain or program controlling sensors and actuators. Cubelets are a parallel and distributed system. So, we set out to make a maze-solver with a plan to use the Bluetooth Cubelet and to program a Cubelets maze solver.

Follow this recipe:

1. First, work at the coolest robotics toy company ever.

2. Build a robot with Cubelets.

2a. Worry that Cubelets don’t have central brains.

3. Decide to reprogram your robot. (This is where the Bluetooth Cubelet comes in)

4. Assemble a crack team to build a maze, define the problem, and iteratively code and test. Spend several hours on this.

5. That night, run this by your best friend who reminds you that often the best way out of a maze is to keep one hand on the wall at all times and just keep following that.

6. Say that to the co-founder of the company.

7. Wait 10 minutes

8. Take this video of the “brainless” robot he built successfully solving our simple maze (without re-programing!). Huzzah!

 

Modular Robotics wins a Tibbie


tibbetts

Everyone likes to win, and we’re no exception. This month, we won the distinguished Tibbetts award, which the USA Small Business Administration gives annually to a handful of the companies that it’s funded through its Small Business Innovative Research grants. The award recognizes companies “for the critical role they play in research and development for the government and for their success in driving innovation and creating new jobs.” This year eighteen companies received Tibbetts awards, which — considering that the SBIR program funds over $2.5 billion each year in eleven government departments and agencies — makes it a pretty big deal. And props back at you, NSF: we wouldn’t be where we are today without our early funding from the National Science Foundation.

STEMosphere


Hi Internet. I’m Nev. I’m an engineer here at Modular Robotics.

Remember this post about the big decision to build a factory here in Boulder, Colorado? I’m one of the results of that decision. I was hired in March to help design and build automation systems to build and test thousands and thousands of tiny robots.

A big part of engineering is understanding the requirements of the customer so that their needs can be met. In the past, I’ve done engineering work for all kinds of folks. I worked on medical devices for a while, so I got to hang out with doctors and nurses and EMTs to learn about how they used existing medical devices and what they’d like to change. Later, I worked with a company building big robots to repair water and oil pipelines, so I met with beefy construction workers and contractors to learn about what kind of abuse a robot might expect on a worksite.

Now I’m making robotic toys for kids, so I spent a day with Christie, Sawyer, and Michael at STEMosphere in Denver, Colorado. This is a free convention to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. There were all kinds of science-y exhibits where kids could do things like rip apart old office electronics, engage in epic robot battle, shoot off pneumatic rockets, learn to solder, and lots more. This was a really cool opportunity, since it gave us a chance to introduce and demonstrate Cubelets to kids, parents, and teachers, and it also let me experience how kids interacted with Cubelets and gave me insight into the most effective ways to build and test the toys.

We showed up early to hang the Cubelets banner above our booth.

Banner Hanging

Perhaps a bit too early.

upsidedown banner

A cup (or three) of coffee later, we were ready to go.

banner success

A short while later, the kids started showing up. In droves. I had heard rumors of the amazing power of Cubelets to draw a crowd, and after only a couple hours our table had been pushed back to the bleachers. We had to clear everyone out for a moment to pick the table up and move it back to the line of booths.

Busy Cubelets table2

I got to build a couple of my favorite robots, like the steering bot and the line follower. The kids got to build a bunch of their favorite robots, like this awesome lighthouse.

One of the coolest things was seeing kids who had never played with Cubelets before figure out how to use them. It starts with pure structure: they stick Cubelets together to make something that looks like what they want to build. Then, as they play more, they start to understand the different functions of each Cubelet, and alter their creations to perform a desired action. This is where one of the really cool things about Cubelets becomes apparent: the form and function of every robot are directly linked. As kids realized this, the robots became more and more advanced.

I think that the most amazing thing was seeing the kids’ reactions change as they played. When they first start building with Cubelets, they are a bit mystified by them. Then maybe a bit of confusion, and some frustration. Then comes understanding, and finally wonder at what they have created.

Seeing this reminded me of why I became an engineer. Sure, part of engineering is about identifying and meeting customer needs as efficiently as possible…but it’s also about playing, learning, and creating. I think it’s wonderful that events like STEMosphere exist to show kids the amazing things science can do, and I’m really proud to be building toys that are helping to create thousands and thousands of tiny engineers.

Deep Space


What does deep space have to do with Cubelets? I have both funny and serious answers to that question.

Serious first: Someday I hope to see students at camps thinking about NASA, space ventures to Mars and beyond, astro-biology, and robotics using Cubelets. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be working here if I didn’t have an almost religious belief in the importance of all students understanding the principles of science. But I have maybe even a stronger desire for all students to appreciate and experience that amazing undertakings are achieved in little steps. Moreover, the greatest feats are accomplished and accumulate most appreciably when teams of dedicated people bring the full weight of their technical expertise, skills and knowledge, and personality to bear on a team. Sometimes I explain Cubelets robots to young children this way – that each function contributes its work to a larger process and becomes part of a “team” that makes a robot. But, if we’re really talking about huge, massive, previously unthinkable accomplishments it would be almost insulting not to mention Curiosity because nothing beats a seriously cool robot landing on Mars or seeing a room full of engineers celebrate years of work coming to fruition. Plus, in case you missed it, one of those engineers is now immortalized as “Mohawk Guy.” Rad.

Now for the less-than-serious: I’m one of the older people here at Modular Robotics and grew up on The Muppets. I really can’t hear the word “space” and not also think “Pigs in.” It was epic, and always one of my favorite segments. Just that echoing voice saying it, “Piiiiigggs Iiiinnn Spaay-yaaccee.” Yes.

So, when we began discussing a collaboration with a business owner who told us his venture was called Deep Space Parker I was a more than a little intrigued. Over the weeks of talking to Deep Space Parker’s founder, Brian, we’ve become good friends and we consider him a great example of a non-traditional educator. As in, he may not have a degree in education or lead a classroom of 2nd graders but that’s not stopping him from wanting to contribute to the local education scene. When he invited us to not only exhibit but to teach a short robot class, of course the answer was yes!

In addition to seeing our good friends and early-adopters of Cubelets, Ameribotics, we also got a chance to interact with other tech and robotics programs for kids including Sharc and FIRST Robotics as well as several others. It’s great to be part of such an esteemed group, but for me the real motivation to do events like this is to put Cubelets into the hands of kids and educators. The best moments are when a child first hooks up a Battery, Sense, and action Cube and they make the classic Oh-My-GOODNESS face of joy and awe as they see they’ve created a robot that does something cool. This moment is always so brief as kids then get down to business – once they’ve made one robot that works they set themselves very quickly to the task of making more, bigger, and more sophisticated robots!

One of the things that’s so great about building robots with Cubelets is that it’s so scalable. Little roboticists, like this 3 year-old, can get a handle on building simple, yet incredibly satisfying, robots.

Pic1

 

At the same time a middle-schooler at our table can be considering what it means to have a robot with multiple senses and multiple actions.

pic2

 

Exhibiting is fun, especially when you’re working with fun team mates

pic5

 

But I was especially psyched to teach a short robotics workshop for parents and kids to build robots together.

Pic4

 

One of the things I love most about the kinds of learning Cubelets robots lends itself to is that parents and kids start out on an equal footing. It’s an awesome feeling to see parents and kids trying ideas together, testing out a theory, making joint design decisions, and teaching each other as they figure out the sense-think-act relationships they’re building.

One of the better moments of the night was when Deep Space Founder, Brian, took some time out from his evening to come and play at our table. He brought along a Cubelets expert, his daughter. She got him up to speed quickly, and then he asked me for some challenges. He and his daughter worked really hard to understand how to best use the Think blocks in their joint robot build.

Pic3

I left them with a challenge and Brian has been emailing me with updates ever since then. Cubelets on the brain, as well as in Deep Space then!

I’m looking forward to seeing how Brian and Deep Space move forward with creating a multi-use space for office-share during the day and a space for after-school programs and events at night. Thanks for having us!

 

A tale of forklifts and team building


Since the first week of my employment with Modular Robotics, I’ve been hearing production staff talk about the process of getting a stencil printer with great enthusiasm. Someone talked to the vendor and mentioned that a stencil printer had been found for a good price on my second or third day here. Then, there was work involved to determine price and how to get it here. More talk of the much-anticipated stencil printer the next week in order to plan going to see it, get a basic training on running it, and make sure it worked. It’s been mentioned in our daily staff meeting roughly once a week, for one reason or another, for the last 12 weeks. But the thing that caused MY ears to perk up was when someone casually mentioned, “Yeah, when we load in a new piece of equipment, we rent a forklift. Wanna drive it? It’s fun.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the stencil printer is a sleek and space-age-looking piece of machinery. I don’t want to diminish the importance of this piece of machinery that’s been awaited so eagerly. ( I have it on good authority that we’ll be blogging about all of the wonderful things it will mean for the incremental upgrade of Cubelets production in the very near future.) But, a stencil printer sits in one place and a forklift not only GOES but lifts things. I cannot tell a lie – I was pretty dern excited about the forklift. Especially after hearing about it for weeks! As it turns out, I didn’t get to drive it (and you’ll see why), but never fear, I know we’ll rent a forklift again. And in the meantime, our forklift fun illustrates some of the things I most adore about working here – the creative and entrepreneurial impulse to just jump in and try things, our collaborative problem solving culture, and our seemingly boundless ability to laugh at ourselves.

Enjoy a re-cap of our stencil printer delivery and forklift fun via these pictures and captions –  it was an interesting week.

April 14, 2013 – On the day before the stencil printer arrived . . .
It started snowing like it meant business, but this deterred no one from cleaning up our factory floor . . . and then jumping in our new dumpster.

April 15th – The Stencil Printer arrived!
And it made Matthew happy. And this was good.

By April 19th, more people had thoughts on what we could do with the forklift.
Such as lifting things up on high and then dropping them with a clamor.

Of course, we’d all forgotten that all of the snow from earlier in the week melted, transforming our lawn into a silent trap for the mighty, but heavy, forklift.

Sadly, our friend the forklift was stuck. But we were good-natured about it, assuming that with all our combined skill-sets we could solve this dilemma. Surely, with the number of engineers here alone, that would take care of it!

We tried pushing the forklift out in two different ways.
It turns out forklifts weigh more than 2 tons! (Who knew!) So, these efforts were in vain.

We tried lifting it UP (Go, go gadget pallet jack!)

And weighing it DOWN (Hi Carl! Hi Michael!)

These attempts were to no avail. So, in a last ditch effort, we tried “polo-malletting” wood under the tires.

We tried lots of things, and though our character building was great, and our critical thinking well-honed, our friend the forklift was still stuck. In the end, the answer was simple.

 Call the tow truck!

 

My Job at Modular Robotics


I just returned to Boulder after a lovely week totally unplugged in Panama.  First off-grid week since 2011!  We snorkeled and surfed and ate fish and fruit.  I read books and relaxed, and barely thought about work at all except for one anagnorisis that happened in the middle of the night.

I woke up and looked out the open sides of our little thatch-roofed cabin to see the moonlight flickering on the ocean swell as it rolled lazily onto the beach.  The thought occurred to me that Modular Robotics was happily functioning while I was gone.  We’ve put together such a great team that I’m not even really necessary for day-to-day functioning of the company.  I can leave, turn off my phone for a week, and we keep pumping out Cubelets.

If I think about our company as a little train, we’ve built the train cars, loaded up on fuel, figured out how to mix drinks in the bar car, and left the station.  It will happily chug along for a while without the need for me to walk up and down its length chatting with passengers and crew and patrolling for problems.  I suppose that I could even just get off the train more often, and I probably will.  The realization here was more profound, though.  With the train carrying on smoothly, I’m free to head to the caboose, pull out some maps, do some reading, and determine where I think the train should go.

I’m the CEO.  It probably seems obvious to you that my role should focus primarily on strategy and direction.  While that seems fairly obvious to me in the abstract, it took a little time away and a different setting to make it seem real in the present.  I think the reason for my slow uptake has everything to do with our growth.  When there were two of us, I designed circuits and sourced magnets and wrote code.  When there were ten, I answered questions and did a lot of hiring and wrangled our bookkeeping.  Strategy and direction happened at interstitial times: at night, over a meal, or during a flight.  Over the last couple of years we’ve made hires sequentially, and each new team member has taken a role that I muddled through, and filled it fully and expertly.  Now that the train is rolling, our next hire is someone to focus not on operations, but on strategy, new products, team building, and design.  That hire is me!

Little Scientists


We have a sign on our production floor that says “Fail early, Fail often.” The application of this idea is simple and manifold in manufacturing Cubelets – it’s vastly better to have any number of parts fail to meet expectations early in the process of building Cubelets than to have a whole Cubelet assembled and then fail to work. This makes perfect sense but applying this strategy to my own “production” of classroom activities and lesson plans was a little challenging. It’s hard to foresee what might NOT work in a plan you’re generating when it’s on paper. And unlike Cubelets, plans on paper are hard to quality test in our factory.

From our Production Floor

So, I headed out to spend a few days in the classrooms of a wonderful school we are lucky to have a great relationship with. I know a little bit about working with a classroom of exuberant 6 year olds, or too-smart-for-their-own-good 9 year olds and lots of ages in between. I’ve taught a variety of topics in a variety of venues to students of a range of ages in the last 18 years. I’ve learned that there is one truth that pervades every class I’ve ever been charged with leading no matter who, what, or where I was teaching. Here it is – are you ready? Whatever you plan to do in a class, you must also plan to do things you hadn’t planned on. In other words, a lesson plan should include the elbow room to pounce on what is moving students closer to the discovery and understanding you’re targeting even if that means re-arranging parts of what you thought you would do. So, as I headed out of our office for a couple of days, my mission was pretty simple – I wanted to teach, using one of my classroom plans for Cubelets, and see for myself how it played out with real students, their real questions, and in a real classroom.

In large part, I was looking for any glaring gaps or problems – places where my lesson plan wasn’t coming in for a landing, or ideas the kids couldn’t connect with the robots they were making. Were my plans too ambitious? Too detailed? Not detailed enough? Fun? Boring? Observing “out in the field” answered all of those questions, raised others, and gave me a clear picture of what ideas students most actively cultured given Cubelets and these challenges.

But it also reminded me of something very fundamental about how I see education. Kids are “little scientists.” Without having the language for it, without a formal research proposal and with no grant money or fancy lab coats, kids are actively engaged in testing theories throughout their days. It’s their primary operating mode and they carry it out tacitly but very seriously in nearly all that they do. Piaget first stated this idea, and as he observed more and more children he added more detail to his proposed stages of child development. The overarching idea, revolutionary at the time, is that children engage in trying to make sense of their environments actively rather than just passively receiving information or being uploaded wholesale information, as onto a blank slate.

Like any theory, Piaget’s isn’t perfect.  There are more articulated versions of it, and less articulated versions, but the idea that kids are capable of developing ideas about what they encounter in the world and then revising them as they obtain more data informed the work of other great thinkers (Chomsky, Vygotsky, and Papert) in fields including Linguistics and Modern Cognition, Child Development, Math, and Computational Thinking and Education.

Watching students ages 5-12 taking on the task of being “robot investigators”  this “Little Scientist” model of how kids learn and reconcile their worlds seemed inescapable. I asked students to use observations of robot “behavior” or reactions to try and work backwards to find the cause. Students engaged deeply in the task of figuring out what their robots liked, would do, and which inputs corresponded with which outputs in order to best understand what their robot was sensing and why their robot was reacting as it did. Part of my lesson plan was about robotics, and part of my lesson plan was about biology and behavior, and a third part was about scientific method and critical thinking. (I’m the kind of educator that thinks learning these skills not only can but should be handled in inter-disciplinary ways.) I was thrilled with how sophisticated students were in proposing methods to test their theories and how industrious and boisterous they were in carrying out their plans and tickled by how gleefully students’ reported “We have a theory!” But what astounded me was that students pressed further into questions about what the robot knows or how the sensor worked. Students posed questions about robotics and behavior that I anticipated but I also got queries about what counts as “knowing” something, questions that pointed towards complexity and emergent behavior, biology, and what counts as “being alive” and impromptu musings on how brains work and what parts of them might be contained in a robot. Philosophy’s deepest conundrums exposed by children under five feet tall, no joke.

Scientists get used to looking for the fault lines in their theories and are trained to lay out their experiment design so that their methods have narrow parameters and their hypothesis are built to be discredited rather than confirmed. Although the “Little Scientists” I worked with didn’t have this training, they were perfectly capable of adapting their ideas to accommodate new information, even if that information complicated or undermined an explanation they had been busily shoring up just moments ago. In some cases I saw students pause in order to deeply reconsider their hypothesis and start over, but in most cases students were visibly excited by having more information, more insight, more to account for, even if it meant scrapping their idea and reworking from the ground up. I know adults, professionals, who could make fabulous use of the enthusiasm these students had for the “Fail early, fail often” principle – they seemed not just to abide it but to welcome the chance to absorb more data and revise.

In that spirit, I returned from my jaunt with a new motivation to look at what I had created  and to re-work, rewrite, and revise. I’d seen six and seven year olds mournfully announce that “this robot is NOT listening to my words. I’m using my words like I’m supposed to and it’s not paying attention” and then be reminded that robots might be sensing other things than words. They immediately re-tasked themselves to find out what the robot could be responding to and to expand their thinking about a plausible explanation. It’s hard to not learn the lesson that testing things out and being willing to keep testing, refining, and amending is the way to be.

With that in mind, here is an open invitation to try out our first Cubelets activities at home, in your classes, at an after-school program, or a camp, and tell us what worked, what you liked, how your students responded, and suggestions you have for improvements or next activities. Last week I used the lesson plans on Robots and Behavior, but I’ve also posted activities for Robots and Sensing, Properties and Characteristics, and Cause and Effect. They can all be found in the Education section of our Forum and start with the title “Cubelets Activity”. It would be wonderful to hear from educators of all varieties as they take a look at these and have thoughts about ways to make them better, suggested next activities, or feedback on how your students and kids responded. We plan on revising and re-working these many times. Theories are made to be tested, and the only way to do it is to get lots of data so we’re actively inviting you to be part of this exciting development with us, test these out, and then talk to us about them! Help us fail – I know from my time with young ones how informative failures can be!

Many, many thanks to The Colorado Springs School for their willingness to let me try things in their classes!

Cubelets Gesture Board


This robot made of only Distance and Flashlight Cubelets (and, of course, a Battery Cubelet) has been on our coffee table at Modular Robotics for weeks. Wave your hands over the surface and the Flashlight Cubelets light up. It’s fun to play with, and can be easily reconfigured to different layouts.

My day at the fair


My first science project involved growing 84 bean plants and measuring how they fared when watered with varied salinity solutions. All I really had to do was measure the salt and water, bottle it, and then grow the plants and water them on schedule. The next year I set my sights on something harder and collaborated with UCONN Avery Point’s Project Oceanology to identify possible ways of obtaining clams. Why clams? Well, I’d done a summer project with Project Oceanology on clam kidney stones indicating water pollution and I wanted to extend my research. More clams! More sites!

There I was, an eighth grader, reaching out to marine research facilities and asking them if they would afford me access to the clams they obtained. I bought fancy paper and wrote letters introducing my previous results and the hypothesis and scope of this project. Then I proposed that if they were doing species collection, could they please give me clams that would otherwise just be counted and thrown back in exchange for sharing my data and results? I learned the term “Principal Investigator” and appealed to those people through the Environmental Protection Agency and state colleges around Connecticut. In addition to writing letters, I learned to interpret water quality data, mastered lab equipment, and I had to make good on my promise to share data and results. I even had an innovative moment because the middle-school science classroom I was in outfitted me to titrate, dissect, centrifuge, and use a microscope, but had nothing powerful enough for me to lever open the clams’ stubborn shells. Problem solved – my friends and I gleefully discovered that dropping the clams from over our heads onto the pavement did the trick – after all, I didn’t need the clams or their shells, just their kidneys.

I think this is the value of doing a science project – the perseverance to follow research through and break it into manageable pieces, the realization that even if you choose a topic you are enamored with you will likely cross discipline lines to bring it to fruition, and the unforeseen problems along the way (I have vivid memories of those kersplatted clams imprinted on my memory). So, when I was offered the chance to judge Boulder Valley School District’s High School and Middle School Science Fair, I leapt at the chance.

Immediately, I thought, What a great opportunity to partner with the schools here while wearing a name-tag that says, “Christie Veitch, Modular Robotics.” But, to be honest, my motivations ran deeper than making contacts in our backyard. We’ve been having this conversation about STEM education during my first month here and discovering over and over that true STEM ed is mostly only happening in ways that are self-selected by students and parents. Because curricula standards still point mostly at Science and Math, and because those are usually taught as separate subjects, there isn’t very much interdisciplinary STEM for all students. While some great schools offer electives in computer programing or in engineering and production or even Pre-engineering Programs,  most are addressing students’ interests in science, technology, engineering, and math through after-school clubs or other out-of-school opportunities. I figured that if Modular Robotics is going to be in the business of trying to re-shape how STEM can be hands-on, fun, and interdisciplinary in school, I wanted to see examples of what students can do when given that opportunity and some resources and support.

As it turns out, they can do a LOT. Some students were apprenticed to college laboratories, and others developed research or engineered and tested new products on their own. Some worked alone and others in teams. I was assigned to judge engineering projects but saw projects as diverse as using Chitosan (ground up shrimp tails!) to create scaffolds for new human tissue to grow on to using algae to produce fuel to cryogenic cooling mechanisms to to biometric gun safety handles to potato cannons and water balloon launchers.

sciencefaircollage

Engineering is a broad category, it seems, and in any case where a student made something new or tested the feasibility of producing a new mechanism, they were considered an “E” project. Time and again, I saw that the best projects, regardless of mentoring or group vs. individual research, were the ones where students had to look beyond one academic discipline – potato cannons require knowledge of physics and chemistry, and while building tissue scaffolds is engineering, it’s also biology. Some of the best projects I saw combined biology or behavioral science with electrical or product engineering. Those students thought clearly about the next steps and potential applications of their research and many had to teach themselves to use Arduino or to program in Python in order to make the leap from concept to producing a working something. As I asked students questions about their designs and tests, I heard many stories of iterative attempts to make a breadboard circuit do their bidding or last-minute trip to Home Depot to get a part they hadn’t anticipated but suddenly realized they needed.

After my day at the fair, as I told stories of algae fuel and biometric firearm safeties or chairs outfitted with a design allowing students to lean back and not fall over, a paraphrase of a response I heard more than a couple of times was, “Hmm, privileged kids/schools have lots of resources to do this.” It’s true – Boulder Valley School district probably offers more resources and support for these STEM-focused students than most public schools in the land. But, for me, the story was, Look what students CAN do when given the opportunity to aim bigger than the assignment for this week or what’s been whittled down into this chapter. See what self-direction and initiative and resources and support can produce – clever engineering that is relevant in today’s world and projects that succeeded precisely because they had little regard for which discipline they belonged to but, instead, voraciously pursued the best methods and answers to their questions and challenges.

To me this is the hopeful story about STEM – it doesn’t have to be divided into its components in order for learning to take place. (In fact, that division is probably an invention of perceived necessity in order to define what is testable; kids care about it not at all.)  But my day at the fair was also an optimistic realization about students – they are  curious about how things work or don’t work, and enthusiastically participate in posing their own solutions. They will dive headlong into their interests, even (and sometimes especially) when it requires research and skills far beyond their experience. It strikes me that seeing what students can do when given access to resources and support and the chance to pose real questions is a better bar to set than matching tests and books up to a list of the minimum objectives, but that’s the subject for another blog post. For now, I’m just honored to have seen some really cool science, and to have met with kids and teachers that believe this kind of student work is not only feasible, but deeply worthwhile.