Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robotics -- How hard could it be?

Posting 13
In the grade nine applied science curriculum in Ontario we study a unit on Earth and Space Science: Space Exploration. One of the overall expectations the students need to master is “analysis of the major challenges and benefits of space exploration, and assess the contributions of Canadians in space.” (The Ontario Curriculum, grades 9 and 10 – Science, 2008)

With this expectation in mind I led my students through some information on the Canadarm and Canadarm2. This included examining static pictures, appropriate grade level reading material and viewing a variety of videos. The students were fairly disinterested in what the text book had to say, I am not sure how many of them actually processed it. However, when I showed them actual video footage they expressed disbelief that the videos were even real. I had to actually show them where I got the videos (from NASA’s and the Canada Space Agency’s official websites) for them to grudgingly accept this was not some sort of a conspiracy theory I was trying to pull on them।

The students were amazed by the concept that the International Space Station (ISS) is really in existence, that it is constantly orbiting the Earth and -- what really blew them away – that astronauts are taking turns traveling to it and living there for months at a time! Now we were getting somewhere!

Using the “official” videos we became familiar with the three components of the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) – Canada’s contribution to the ISS. These components are the Mobile Base movable work platform, the 17 foot long robotic Canadarm2, and Dextre the robot that works in conjunction with the first two components to perform the fine motor skills.

Shockingly, now that the students believed me they adopted a blasé attitude towards this amazing R&D. “Yeah, yeah, Miss, so what? How hard can it be for a bunch of nerdy engineers to design a stupid robot to turn screws in outer space?” OMG! Are you kidding me?! This when I knew we needed to do a robotics lab to give these students a sense of just what robotics entailed but what robotics lab could I possibility do with them that they could perform successfully and I had the equipment for?? (A primary mandate for teaching struggling student is ALWAYS set them up for success!)

Time for the Smarter Science Framework to go back into action!

1. Initiate and Plan (Engage)

“Let’s identify a really simple problem that each one of us does every day that could be performed by a robot!”

Our brainstorm resulted in this list:

· Eating lunch

· Taking notes

· Going to school

· Putting on makeup

· Tying a shoe

· Walking to school

· Cleaning my room

“Is there anything on this list that we could practice right here in the classroom to see how hard it would be for a robot to do it?”

· Not eating lunch because not everyone has one. Besides we would still be hungry, why would we want a robot to eat our lunch?

· Taking notes would be good! I hate taking notes. I never read them after I write them down anyway. I don’t even read them while I am taking them down. Yeh! Taking notes is a good one.

· Going to school is good to, that way we could just stay home all day. No, I like coming to school, I get to see my friends. Not me, I hate coming to school, I would rather send a robot so I could just stay home and chill all day. That wouldn’t work, your mom would kick you out of the house anyway.

· Putting on makeup? It would be good for the girls that use make up. No, it wouldn’t, we like putting on makeup ourselves, and we don’t want some stupid robot to do it.

· Tying shoe is no good, I don’t even have laces I my shoes. I have laces but I just leave them tied all the time, I just slip my shoes on and off. I don’t know how to tie shoes! What! We learned that in kindergarten. The bunny ears go round the hole . . .

· Walking to school? Why not just build a car to drive in?

· Cleaning my room, that’s a good one! Wait, we can’t do that here, you have to be home to clean your room . . .

Okay so identifying a common problem was much more difficult than I thought it would be. Next time I might just identify the problem for them. How much would that affect their learning? Hmmm? Well, “Literacy does float on a sea of talk” and there was some excellent discussion while reviewing the pros and cons of each of the activities . . . If only we had unlimited time!

Like the phoenix rising from the ashes of our discussion our question emerges!

How can we simulate the performance of a robot tying a shoe lace?

This question is the center of our star burst diagram.

Once again we brainstorm different methods we could use to tie a shoe, keeping in mind the equipment that is readily available to us. Four options are agreed to:

1. Blindfolded

2. With eyes open, but wearing gloves (lowered tactile sensation)

3. With eyes open, but using pencils instead of hands. (No tactile sensation.)

4. With eyes open but using tweezers in each hand (still no tactile sensation but pinching is possible)

Our control, or dependent variable, will be how long it takes (TIME) the individual to tie a shoe as they normally would, ie. Wearing the shoe, with their eyes open and using both hands.

Holy cow! We were finally ready to start our investigation and the whole 75 minute period was over, yet highly productive! Also, because we ended on a high and the kids were actively engage in the process of planning the lab they were more likely to show up the next day! It’s win-win!

2. Perform and Record (EXPLORE)

Sure enough, the students come bouncing into the classroom the next day eager to get going on their lab. We refer to the starburst diagram to review what we agreed on for our independent and dependent variables. Before they could get started they needed to construct an observation table to record their data. The data that needed to be measured and recorded was the amount of time each trial took. Using instruments is one of the fundamental skills identified in the Smarter Science framework, however, I have had numerous stopwatches broken, stolen or malfunction over the years so I use this as a teachable moment!

“Everyone take out your cell phones!”

“No way, Miss. This is a trick. We will take them out and you will take them from us. No way!”

“I’m not kidding! Take out your cell phones. We are going to use the stop watches on them to time how long each shoe tying takes! Let’s go! You can absolutely trust me – but no texting!”

“Whoopee! Best teacher ever!”

So there they were with the technology right in their pockets। No more lost or broken stop watches for me! Okay, so I didn’t actually know how to use the stop watch function on a cell phone but that didn’t matter, they quickly taught each other. Because they were working in pairs it didn’t matter that not 100% of the students had a cell phone, those that did were eager to show them off and time each other.

Working in pairs or groups of three the students were completely engaged in the inquiry। As I rotated through the room I continuously drew them back to the original question which was, “How difficult would it be to design a robot that could perform this task?”

3. Analyze and Interpret (EXPLAIN)

The students drew a bar graph as a visual means of comparing their success in tying shoes using the five techniques outlined above. Although some of them still complain about having to draw graphs because it is math and it is not fun, they have become so successful at producing them that the grumbling is minimal now. They actually like selecting the colours they will use to shade in each bar and a surprising amount of thought goes into it. For example, “I will use yellow for the pencils because my pencils are yellow.” “I am using red for the gloves because the gloves I wore were red.” “How about gray for the forceps? They are silver which is sorta like gray.”

I had the opportunity the very next day to demonstrate to the students just how proficient they have become in constructing and analyzing graphs। One of our class clowns, who consistently pretends to not understand anything, was absent for the day of the lab but showed up the next day and actually asked what he had missed yesterday. So we told him and he asked how that had worked out for us. At this point I showed him one of our bar graphs and asked how he thought it had worked out for us.

He peered at the graph intently and quickly looked away with a smart-alex remark forming on his lips. But instead of blurting it out he looked back at the graph and cried “Wait! Wait for it! Hmmmm? Well, Miss, according to this graph,” he began and picked the graph up from the desk where it was lying. As soon as he actually touched the graph I knew I had him!

“This graph, Miss? It shows that it is very quick and easy to tie shoes with your eyes open and using two hands . . . but once you close your eyes it takes longer . . . then, if you put on gloves it will take even longer . . . when you use pencils . . Come on, Miss, who uses pencils to tie their shoes? Yeah, well, if you use pencils to tie your shoes it maybe can’t even be done according to this graph. Hmmm । . .this is interesting. What were you doing in here yesterday? Using forceps to tie shoes? Who uses forceps to tie shoes? Right, this is science! Who knows what those crazy scientists will get up to next? Well, if for some reason you use forceps to tie your shoes it will take 270 seconds and that is just for one shoe so really? Really,. Miss?”


4. Communicate (EXTEND)

This interpretation by our class clown led us directly into the final part of our lab, which is the debriefing, where we discuss, explain and reflect on what we did and what we learned. We orally compared the times required for each task, both individually and between groups. In every instance, the interpretation given by our class clown held true.

Once the students had actually performed the lab they had a much greater understanding of how difficult it would be for a robot to build things in outer space, even when being controlled by a person with a controller (“joy stick”).


It turns out that one of the major difficulties in teaching my grade nine science class about space exploration this semester is their lack of prior knowledge. These teenagers have seen so many special effects in computer games and movies that they have no actual knowledge of what is out there. Instead they believe that anything that is depicted as man made in outer space is just the result of special effects.

Next time I do this inquiry I think I will have the students predict or hypothesize what the outcomes will be। Will that require an extra day of class? Probably? Will it be worth it? Definitely!

Addendum: Here is a photo of me at the Honeywell Space Camp for Educators. In the photo I am in the simulator of the Space Shuttle. Space Camp is one of the best Professional Development opportunities I have ever had and I encourage everyone, from everywhere, to apply. All expenses are covered and it will be the best week of your life!

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