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Setting Up Robots – LEGO Edition

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SettingUpLEGONow that the physical robot kits are in the classroom and ROBOTC is installed and activated, you should be ready to build the physical robots for your classroom. One of the best features of a LEGO Mindstorms educational robotics kit is that they allow students to create a nearly limitless range of robots; the downside of this, however, is maintaining student-created robots in a classroom. To help with this, ROBOTC and their related Video Trainer Curriculum support several standard models to help keep a baseline in the classroom.

cutout_rem_gripper_T_300The first of such robots we will look at is the NXT REMbot (which stands for ‘Robotics Education Model), the standard NXT that is used in the ROBOTC Curriculum for TETRIX and LEGO MINDSTORMS. The REMbot utilizes three NXT motors (two for driving, one for the (optional) arm), a Light Sensor mounted below the robot, a Touch Sensor mounted in the front, a Sonar Sensor positioned above the robot, and a Sound Sensor on the side of the REMBot. This model allows for a variety of tasks to be completed and is designed to work with all of the challenges in the ROBOTC Curriculum.

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If your classroom will be utilizing the TETRIX kit, the Mantis Robot standard model would be the build of choice. The Mantis Robot utilizes the TETRIX kit to add two TETRIX DC motors (for driving) and a TETRIX Servo (for the arm), as well as the respective motor and servo controllers; all of which are fully programmable in ROBOTC. Sensors can be added using any of the remaining sensor ports (one of which is used by the HiTechnic Motor/Servo controller chain).

Users of the MATRIX kits are not left in the dark however! MATRIX also has several options to use in the classroom, but the Quick Start Rover stands out from the pack. Combined with The Little Gripper, the MATRIX kits can be quickly and effectively set up for a standard robotics classroom. Like the TETRIX bots, the Quick Start Rover can be outfitted with NXT sensors on any of the remaining sensor ports for added versatility. It uses two MATRIX motors for movement and a MATRIX servo for The Little Gripper (all controlled through one MATRIX controller), all of which is fully programmable in ROBOTC.

Visit CMU’s Robotics Academy LEGO site for more information on the different kits available and to find build instructions.

 
 

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Written by John Watson

September 10th, 2013 at 2:33 pm

ROBOTC Curriculum Breakdown

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ROBOTC-BreakdownA curriculum pacing guide is something that teachers have to consider whenever they examine their curriculum. This fact does not escape teachers of <a href=”http://www.robotc.net”>ROBOTC</a>. Whenever I come across teachers who are just starting to use the ROBOTC curriculum, often their first question revolves around how long the curriculum will take. Once again, teachers are used to having some type of pacing guide that delineates how a subject is to be taught. The ROBOTC curriculum is not organized in that fashion. Instead, the curriculum is organized by topic. The topics include basic programming fundamentals, robot movement, robot sensing, etc. The teacher is then free to spend an appropriate amount of time within each topic.

As teachers, this freedom is welcome. It is welcome because the pacing that comes with most textbooks is an impossible guide to follow. In order to create a true pacing guide, student background knowledge would have to be taken into account. Since every classroom is different (sometimes within the same grade, within the same school), it is impossible to gauge how quickly the students are going to master the concepts as they are presented. Screenshot-2013-09-05_15.11.12Additionally, as the teacher becomes more familiar with ROBOTC, they will find that they spend more time on particular concepts then they did the first time they taught the curriculum. For example, when I first taught ROBOTC, I spent 20 minutes discussing Flowcharts and Pseudocode. Experience has now taught me to spend a significant amount of time on these topics. I also spend much more time talking about Errors. Specifically, what should a student do when they get the dreaded compiler errors in their program? Experience has taught me to spend much more time on thinking about the logic of a program before the writing of ROBOTC and on debugging strategies once the code has been written.

Screenshot-2013-08-05_15.01.181Each of the aforementioned sections of the ROBOTC curriculum contains a programming challenge. The programming challenged is designed to showcase the skills that were emphasized in that section. Each section also contains an assortment of “mini challenges”. These challenges can be used at the teacher’s discretion. They all do not have to be completed. However, they can be very useful. For example, after the students have spent a day or two learning a topic, I will begin the following class with one of these mini challenges. They might not know all of the skills needed to complete the section challenge, but the mini challenge is a good assessment of what has been presented so far in that section. This also serves as a good change of pace for the class. Simply, you can’t learn to program without actually programming. In order to really understand the applications of while loops or if/else statements, students need to apply them. The mini challenges found within the ROBOTC curriculum serve as a great opportunity to scaffold skills toward their more challenging applications.

A beginning teacher of ROBOTC could teach the basic ROBOTC curriculum in one semester. By including many of the mini challenges, the curriculum can be stretched easily over a semester. I often tell teachers who are teaching the class for a year to do this, and then to end the year with a larger programming challenge. After the students have made it through the ROBOTC curriculum, I enjoy introducing them to Multi-Robot Communication. The sensor needed (NXTBee) is inexpensive, and there are a lot of great ideas for activities and programming challenges.

 


 

If you have a stronger background in computer science, and maybe you are teaching older students, you may be able to navigate through the curriculum much faster. What then do you do with students if you have them for an entire year? Luckily, there are many great ROBOTC projects on robotc.net. Moreover, the ROBOTC forum is also a wonderful place to look for ideas for projects, in-class competitions, and programming challenges.

Teaching robotics and ROBOTC is a lot of fun. The ability to watch your students apply what they learn in the ROBOTC curriculum in such engaging and open-ended activities is one of the main reasons why.

Setting up ROBOTC and RVW for the Classroom

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Setting-Up-ClassroomOnce the physical hardware (robotics kits) are secured for a classroom, the next step is to install the software (ROBOTC and Robot Virtual Worlds). It would be nearly impossible to cover every single specific setup that could be encountered on a classroom’s computers, but this blog post will cover the basic installation steps and some of the more common installation issues that educators may run into when installing ROBOTC in a classroom.

The first thing you will need to do is install ROBOTC on the computers in your classroom. To do this, always make sure to grab the latest version of ROBOTC that your license supports from the correct ROBOTC download page. If the wrong version is downloaded and installed, or if there is already a different up-to-date version of ROBOTC installed on the computers, you will not need to uninstall and reinstall the program; instead, you will simply need to activate your license in ROBOTC (more on this later). During the download process, ROBOTC will also attempt to install the necessary drivers for communications with physical robots. Depending on the level of security on the computers, you may need to get your IT department involved in order to ensure that the drivers are installed properly.

Activating_ManageOnce ROBOTC and the appropriate drivers have been installed, you will need to activate ROBOTC on each computer manually. The license activation ‘unlocks’ the ability to download code to either a physical robot or a Virtual World, depending on which license is used.  When ROBOTC is installed on a computer, all versions of ROBOTC (including different robotics platforms, such as the VEX and LEGO platforms, and different compiler options, such as Virtual Worlds compiler options) are installed at the same time. Instead of installing additional copies of the software  on the same computer (or opening a new program every time you would like to change the compiler target), the additional platforms and compiler options are ‘unlocked’ by activating their respective keys.

Before we move on to the next blog (Setting up the Robots), here a couple more tips that may come in handy when setting up ROBOTC in a classroom:

  • Depending on the programs, policies, and restrictions in place on the machines, your school’s IT department may need to be present for the installation or activation of ROBOTC, Virtual Worlds, or the installation of any drivers for the physical robots.
  • If your school’s IT department images and deploys the classroom’s computers, make sure they reference the ROBOTC Deployment Guide on the ROBOTC wiki for important help and information.
  • Make sure to check the computers’ hardware to the minimum requirements for ROBOTC or Robot Virtual Worlds before
  • Always test one computer first! If there is a problem with the installation, it is better to find out about it early and fix it before they same issue appears on a classroom full of computers.

- John Watson

Reviewing ROBOTC Concepts After a Summer Off

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There is a bevy of materials to help a teacher get started teaching the ROBOTC Curriculum. But what about the teacher that has made it through the curriculum and has a robotics class returning at the beginning of the school year? Whether that teacher is preparing to enter a robotics competition or is planning on creating a cool ROBOTC project, the teacher will still need to determine what the students have retained from the previous year.

Default-Objects-copyStudents that have made it through the ROBOTC curriculum should be able to use variables and functions in their programs. A great way to assess this would be to utilize the Robot Virtual Worlds. Students can spend the first week of school trying complete all of the missions within Operation Reset. Working with Operation Reset affords teachers the opportunity to differentiate this beginning diagnostic. Students that have retained more information can work independently, while those students that need more assistance can get the help they need. This is just another great application of Robot Virtual Worlds in the robotics classroom.

If Robot Virtual Worlds is not an option, you can apply the same concept with a physical robot. For students that are already proficient with ROBOTC, a good challenge to begin the year with would be the Chasm Detection.

 

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Another great tool that a teacher can utilize is the debugging of code. This can serve as a good one or two day review of ROBOTC syntax and logic. If a teacher is anxious to get started with a project and wants a quick review, this may be the way to go. One of the nice things about using code is the teacher can get some quick and individual feedback from the students. If time allows, a teacher may use one or two examples of code, see where the students are, and then design a challenge for them. Here is an example of code that the students could troubleshoot.

 

trouble-shooting-code

 

Hopefully this gives you some ideas of how you can reintroduce ROBOTC to your students. A seamless beginning to the school year will help with all of the projects and activities that you may have planned for the rest of the school year.

- Jason McKenna

Which Robotics Kit Should I Use? VEX Edition

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VEXiq-109Now more than ever, robotics educators are faced with the important question of which kit they should purchase and use. This key question has been made even more intricate in the 2013-2014 school year due to the addition of the new robotics kits, VEX IQ kits. This article will help break down each VEX kit, their capabilities and target audiences, and allow you, the educator, to make an informed decision on which kit is best for your particular classroom.

The VEX IQ system is the brand-new robotics system from Innovation First International (IFI for short, makers of the VEX Robotics Design System). The VEX IQ can be used with any of the all-new hardware and sensors, including a unique plastic snap-fit structural system.

 

 

 

 

  • Sensors include a gyroscope, color sensor, potentiometer, touch LED, and ultrasonic sensor.
  • The base kits (either Sensor or Controller kits) are provided with over 650 structural components, 4 plug-and-play ‘smart motors’, at least 2 touch sensors (or more, depending on kit), and the VEX IQ microcontroller (more information on all available kits can be found here).
  • The IQ contains 12 smart ports that can be used to control either analog sensors, digital sensors, or servos/motors; the ports are non-typed and can be used to control any piece of VEX IQ compatible hardware that is plugged into it.
  • It also includes a micro-USB port for IQ-to-computer communication and a ‘tether’ port for direct connections to an VEX IQ Controller.
  • Debugging and programming information can be displayed on the backlit LCD information to increase ease-of-use in real time.
  • Wireless communication between the VEX IQ microcontroller and a VEX IQ controller is provided via a set of 900 MHz radio adapters.
  • The VEX IQ system will be fully legal in the new VEX IQ Challenge (designed specifically for the VEX IQ system), for students ages 8-14.
  • Recommended use: Middle School.

cortex-robotOne of the mainstays of the educational robotics world is the VEX Cortex platform. Originally released in 2010 by IFI, the Cortex can be used with the VEX Robotics Design System’s hardware and sensors.

  • Includes over 300 metal structural parts, 4 powerful DC motors, the VEX Cortex microcontroller, and a wide variety of fasteners, gears, and other miscellaneous hardware.
  • Sensors include touch sensors, an ultrasonic sensor, integrated motor encoders, line following sensors, and a potentiometer; additional sensors are available outside of the base kits.
  • Wireless communication between a VEX Cortex and a VEXNet Joystick Controller is possible by using the 802.11b/g VEXNet USB Adapter Keys.
  • The VEX Cortex system can be used in the VEX Robotics Challenge (Middle, High School, and College divisions).
  • Recommended use: advanced Middle School, High School or College.

We understand that choosing a robotics kit is a tough decision. The number one factor in determining which kit is right for you is the students; depending on the skill level of the students, it may be better to challenge them with a more advanced kit (VEX Cortex) or they made need to start with a simpler kit (VEX IQ.) No matter which kit you decide to use, though, you can rest easy knowing ROBOTC will fully support all of these platforms.


 
 
 

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Written by John Watson

August 27th, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Which Robotics Kit Should I Use? LEGO Edition

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EV3-Cutout-01-copyNow more than ever, robotics educators are faced with the important question of which kit they should purchase and use. This key question has been made even more intricate in the 2013-2014 school year due to the addition of the new robotics kit, LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3. This article will help break down LEGO’s kits, their capabilities and target audiences, and allow you, the educator, to make an informed decision on which kit is best for your particular classroom.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 is the all-new robotics kit from LEGO Education (creators of the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT system). It is fully compatible with previous NXT hardware (except for the battery), including all plastic structural pieces and sensors.

 

 

 

 

  • Compatibility with the MATRIX and TETRIX metal systems is expected in fall 2013.
  • Those starting a classroom from scratch need not worry; the EV3 comes with a total of 541 elements, including a multitude of structural parts (beams, connectors, wheels, gears, etc), 4 different sensor types (color sensor, gyroscopic sensor,  ultrasonic sensor, and touch sensor), 3 motors, and the EV3 micocontroller or ‘brain’.
  • The EV3 microcontroller sports 4 sensor ports, 4 motor ports, a internal Bluetooth adapter, and a USB slot which can be used with a WiFi adapter for wireless connectivity (as well as microSDHC card slot which supports cards up to 32GB in size).
  • It utilizes a Linux-based firmware which allows for on-brick programming and datalogging.
  • The EV3 will be legal in the 2013 First Lego League (ages 9-14) and the 2014-2015 First Tech Challenge (High School) competitions.
  • Recommended use: Middle School (EV3) or High School (with MATRIX or TETRIX kit).

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Now, let’s take a look at the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT V2.0. Released in 2009, the NXT platform utilizes a plastic snap-fit hardware structure system, with 431 elements included in the base kit.

  • These elements consist of both structural pieces (beams, connectors, and axles, to name a few), three interactive servo motors, the NXT microcontroller, and ultrasonic, light, sound, and two touch sensors included.
  • There are also many third-party sensors available from sites such as Hitechnic, Dexter Industries, and Mindsensors.
  • The NXT is also fully compatible with the MATRIX and TETRIX metal systems.
  • Wireless capabilities include built-in Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity (provided by an external Samantha Module adapter).
  • The NXT is currently a legal microcontroller for both the First Lego League (FLL, ages 9-14) and First Tech Challenge (High School) challenges.
  • Recommended use: Middle School or High School (with MATRIX or TETRIX metal kit).

We understand that choosing a robotics kit is a tough decision. The number one factor in determining which kit is right for you will come down to the students; depending on the skill level of the students, it may be better to challenge them with a more advanced kit  (MATRIX or TETRIX kits) or they made need to start with a simpler kit (LEGO NXT or EV3 kits). No matter which kit you decide to use, though, you can rest easy knowing ROBOTC will fully support all of these platforms.


 
 

 
 

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Written by John Watson

August 27th, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Organizing a Robotics Classroom

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IMG_4201Getting your classroom organized for the beginning of the school year is an arduous task for even the most experienced teacher.  It can be even more demanding for those that teach robotics.  You’ve got the robot kits, you’ve been trained in ROBOTC, but how do you set up your class for the first day of school?  The goal of this article is to help answer the question for both new robotic teachers and teachers that have been teaching robotics for years.

As we all know, a robotics kit is more expensive than a textbook.  Moreover, because robotics kits contain so many small pieces, they can be much more difficult to take care of than a textbook.  As a result, keeping your kits organized is crucial.  If using a Lego Mindstorms or Tetrix robot, one way that I have found that can be very helpful is to name the NXT brick.  Then, give the same name to the kit. Now, assign the kit to the group of students in your class.  If the students know that over-tablethey are responsible for that kit, it goes a long way towards them acting more responsibly with the kit. If using a VEX robot, you won’t have the same ability to name your brick, but you can still able to label your robotics kit.

Which students are assigned to work together is also something that the teacher must put some thought into.  Once again, maintaining the kits is of the utmost importance.  Therefore, I am not going to allow students to work together if I feel that will not take care of the kit.  Some students are more organized and careful with the kits than others.  I always try to have one of those students in a group.  I try to have the kits named and assigned before the first day of school.  If I don’t know the students, then I may have to adjust the groups as we progress throughout the beginning of the school year.

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Once the kits are organized, the teacher can then start to think about how their curriculum items are going to be accessed and utilized.  A math teacher has a plan for when their students have a question about a topic, or when a student is confused about a particular concept.  A robotics teacher has to have the same type of plan in mind.  The beauty of teaching robotics lies in the fact that students are intrinsically motivated to find answers to their problems because they are highly engaged.  Some students will still be conditioned, however, to try to elicit the answer from the teacher instead of reasoning through a problem on their own.  Robotics teachers need to create a plan so the students can work towards being independent and productive problem solvers.

To that end, a good approach to a complex challenge is to examine what needs to be done before the challenge, during the challenge, and after the challenge is complete.  Before the challenge, students should be focusing on create flowcharts to organize their program and writing pseudocode to reflect those flowcharts.  During the challenge, students should focus on commenting their code and debugging techniques.  Afterwards, students should be afforded the opportunity to reflect and respond to what went well, what went not so well, and what they learned throughout the process.

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Giving students a little bit of structure while they engage a challenging task will go a long way towards ensuring that the students’ high level of engagement does not turn into a high level of frustration.  Engagement works both ways in that sense: High engagement leads to students that are focused on their task, but can also lead to high levels of frustration because the students desperately want to finish that task.  To avoid the frustration,teachers should provide a structure that the students can rely on when needed.  Before the school year begins, teachers should spend some time planning students’ work, and then the students can spend time during school working their plan.

The beginning of the school year is always a challenge.  As teachers, we understand that unforeseen difficulties will always arise.  However, going into the school year with as much planned and organized as possible helps us to focus on those unpredictable events that will undoubtedly occur.

Check out how we organize robot parts at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy:


-Jason McKenna

Robotics Back to School Blog Series

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SCHOOL-BUS-DRIVERIt is that time of year again … backpacks on our backs, buses on the streets, and lessons being planned. Yes, we are going back to school! To kick start the school year, we are introducing a six week robotics back to school blog series that highlights the technical and pedagogical side of planning for your robotics classroom. John Watson, from ROBOTC customer support, and Jason McKenna, a K-8 Gifted Support Teacher in the Hopewell Area School District outside of Pittsburgh, PA, will be sharing with you tips, tricks, advice, and recommendations on prepping your robotics classroom and curriculum.

As each blog is posted, the topics below will turn into hyperlinks, so feel free to bookmark this page!

Topics

If you have any questions or would like to start a conversation on any of the topics, feel free to leave us a comment below!

A Teacher’s POV: My Child Wrote Code?

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Zany Animals Camp 2013

Originally posted on Grow a Generation Blog

by Dr. Ellen Cavanaugh

I took Grow a Generation to a recent Zumbathon fundraiser for the Yellow Ribbon Girls.  Several kids meandered over to the table while the moms were working out. I invited them to play around with the Scratch programming window that was opened on the computer.  One girl, I think about 10 or 11, became enamored with Scratch, asking how to make the cat she choose as a sprite move around the screen.  I showed her a few command codes and encouraged her to experiment.  Intent, she focused as hard on that screen as the 200+ moms focused on their workout. When the workout was over, her mom, exhausted and drenched, came to grab her hand and walk off. It took several attempts by me to convince the mom to actually look, and several more attempts to explain the daughter had not been playing a game, rather programming a new one. She had programmed her cat to dance a Zumba workout.  Even then, the mom didn’t seem to understand and finally looked closer to let her child explain the code she had put in place.  The mom was incredulous, “You mean my daughter actually programmed this?”

AliceI spent this week working with some brilliant young people as they were introduced to Alice 2, a free drag and drop educational programming language that allows students to create computer animations using 3D models. Our theme was Zany Animals and each student was tasked with inventing a creature and animating it with special qualities. J.K. Rowlings inventive imagination supplied fuel for our creativity while we looked at the etymology and origins of some great Harry Potter creatures (Basilisk, Phoenix, Hippogriff, Boggart, and Thestrals). The Discovery channel demonstrated some very real incredible animals and provided a template for our short nature documentaries. We discussed the ethics of animal experimentation and watch some videos of the current status on cloning, using animal to create pharmaceuticals and synthetic proteins, and grafting technology onto animals.

One of the uncles (a young man in his late twenties) stopped mid-week and looked around at the fun we were having.  He shared his remembrances of computer science class in high school, a black screen with detailed code he could not make work.  He had walked away from high school convinced Programming was something he could not learn.

His comments, alongside the mom’s at the Zumbathon, have me wondering about marketing.  Only five students enrolled in the camp.  While other factors played a part, how do I advertise to a generation who cannot conceive a child can begin to write code (and have fun doing it)?  How can we work to allow not just the technology teacher and the media lab director, but also the classroom teacher encourage computer programming and the creation of digital artifacts in the creative expression of their students.

I have had to journey my own learning curve this summer.  I am taking the CS2N Summer of Learning class in ROBOTC.  The Alice 2 tutorials I did in class were adapted from the CS2N Introduction to Alice class that is available free on their website. I learned alongside the kids and eagerly accepted the wonderful help of two area middle school STEM heroes who run their own programming classes in the homeschool network – Fiona and Joseph Chaney.

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The camp was such fun.  The kids learned to select an environment and create an establishing shot for their animals habitat.  They then created their creature by selecting the object of an animal and changing colors, textures, ear size, nose size, arm length, etc. They started animating their animal to demonstrate its incredible abilities and changing camera angles to tell a story. Finally, they added sound and narration to their animation.  All of this was done while learning basic computer care, where to save and recover files, and how to deal with constant messaging of “Alice thinks you made an error” and carry on through frustration.  The kids will be using the animations they created to enter the CS2N Nature Doc-u-mentary competition.

Two learning leap moments stood out.  The first was a child who had originally placed two dragons into the scene and they create a ‘method’ called fight.  He dragged the method into the editor box and couldn’t figure out why they weren’t fighting.  He had not yet connected the need to write the script for each movement of each dragon to create the method.  The rest of his week was spent focused on getting a dragon to flap his wings. It tied in beautifully with a video on the last day about how computer animation team created the Thestral flight scene in the Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix movie. This boy was breaking down the abstract concepts of ‘fight’ and ‘fly’ and beginning to think in terms of modeling, algorithms, and sequence.

Another moment came when a student wanted to have a turtle disappear into his shell. I found a brief tutorial online (the Alice tutorials are out there, but they are not as easy to find as the Scratch tutorials) and he was able to follow it.  When I checked back in to examine his code, I was so impressed how he could walk me through the control structures he put in place for sequence, conditions, and parallel execution!

High points included sitting outside on a gorgeous rain free day in the shade under the tree at a picnic table at Baden Academy as students typed away on their netbooks creating their animals, inspired by the new surroundings and summer breeze.  Another was the look of such pride as parents and grandparents applauded to see the student creations on the screen in the lab at the end of the week.

Embarrassment of the week – despite a Ph.D., I could not visualize the need to invert the image on the iron on for the shirts – so if you see a smiling child wearing a shirt with a picture of their Zany Animal and all the text is backwards, know that you are looking yet another erratum of Dr. Ellen.

I close with a recent Facebook post from a mom: “John made this video in his computer class this past week. It is short but he has never done anything like this in the past. Wish the class was longer than five days. He loved it.”

Enjoy the kids work – and don’t forget to add your comments!

Bob Bobson

Crackfire

FireBall the Devious Hamster Crook

Moon Dragon

Turtle Chase

 

Written by Cara Friez

July 31st, 2013 at 5:40 pm

ROBOTC Teacher – Jeff Maxwell

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JeffMaxwellWe’ve featured a couple of robotics students the last few weeks, but this week we showcase a robotics teacher who uses ROBOTC and Robot Virtual Worlds in the classroom. Check out Jeff Maxwell’s interview on why and how he uses Robot Virtual Worlds with his students …