PCDS Blue Tide Robotics Teams Up with
Submitted by the Blue Tide Robotics team
Last summer, the Upper School Robotics team, Blue Tide, teamed up with PCDS Project Excellence for a five-week course on robotics. Project Excellence is the signature community outreach program of PCDS. Its mission is to enrich, engage, and empower first-generation students (the first in their families to prepare for higher education) from local underserved public schools and partnering organizations, by inviting them to the PCDS campus for academic enrichment during the summer and weekend workshops during the school year.
"A key principle of our robotics team has always been community outreach ― helping other students learn about science and technology through robotics," said Ben Mattinson, the first student-elected president of Blue Tide. "Our school has an excellent outreach program in Project Excellence. What if we could use that as a way to teach robotics to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity?"
After meeting with James Calleroz White, Director of Community Engagement and Assistant Head of School, and Maria Nolasco, Assistant Director of Community Engagement, Ben convinced them that it could be done. For the first time robotics would be taught to Project Excellence students in the summer program, and taught by a PCDS senior, under the supervision of Upper School science teacher Mike Swingler, also a Project Excellence teacher.
"They were very supportive of the whole effort,” Ben said. “While writing the curriculum for the five-week course, I gained a much greater appreciation of all the work our teachers put in to teach us!"
The robotics summer program used a small robot kit called the Boe-Bot (manufactured by Parallax Inc). The12 students in the class, in grades 9-11, worked in teams of two so that all could have a hands-on experience building and programming a robot. Assisting Ben and Mr. Swingler were three Blue Tide Robotics team members ― Amy Aube, Stephen Marquis, and Chris Mattinson, who kindly donated five weeks of their time to help make the class happen.
In the first week introduction, students were taught about a range of basic electronic components ― resistors, capacitors, transistors, potentiometers, LEDs (light emitting diodes), light sensors, and limit switches. Students would use these components during the course to enable their robot to move and perform tasks.
In the second week, the students began building their robots. The electronic components were assembled using a "bread board," a tool used by engineers to allow for fast prototyping. The bread board allowed students to join the components without having to solder them. Students built the robot frame and connected the electric motors. However, they quickly realized that the robot would not do anything unless it was programmed!
During the second and third weeks, students learned how to program in software called PBASIC, a slightly customized form of a common programming language called BASIC. They began with simple routines to move the robot in a straight line and turn. All this was done in what is called the “autonomous mode” ― the robot does what it is pre-programmed to do instead of responding to operator joystick commands. This did not always run smoothly ― several of the robots crashed into the classroom walls.
In the third week, the students participated in one of the games. Students had to move their robot through a wooden maze using dead reckoning (where the robot traveled set times before turning). By the end of the week, the robots were traveling through the maze and the students were clearly excited by their sense of achievement. They had grown so close to their robots by now that they had affectionately named them Emily, Floop, and Bennison III.
Next, students mounted sensors on their robots so that they could “see” their surroundings in much the same way we do with our senses of touch and sight. Students programmed their robots to turn when they touched objects and programmed infrared sensors to detect edges and lines. By the fourth week, they had programmed their robots to follow a white line, even when the line was curved. The robot could complete what looked like a racetrack.
At the Project Excellence Open House on the last day of the program, two teams demonstrated their robots for a crowd of parents and friends in Dorrance Auditorium. They performed flawlessly for the audience, who applauded when each of the robots completed their tasks.
To thank Blue Tide Robotics for their work over the summer, PCDS Project Excellence made a donation to the team. Team members will use the funds to buy a new milling machine, which was needed in the previous competition season.
"Our hope is that this new milling machine will allow our robotics team to get better, attract more people to join the team, and then some of them can do more community outreach to spread the word about science and technology," said Ben.
For more information on the PCDS Blue Tide Robotics team, visit their website at http://www.pcdsrobotics.org.
Pictured (top to bottom):
Students testing a robot; students working with electronics; members of the Blue Tide Robotics team