Monday, January 31, 2011

FTC Robotics: The Tournament #1

Yesterday was our very very first time as a team competing in an FTC tournament. Wow, was that exciting! It came down to the wire on Friday and Saturday with marathon sessions to get the robot ready to pass inspection and be allowed to compete. Then bright and early Sunday morning we all piled into the vans and drove to Portland for the tournament.

The first exciting thing is that we passed the hardware and software inspection on our very first try! This is not as easy as it sounds. It involves a long checklist that includes presenting a Bill of Materials for the different items you've used on your robot, having everything mounted securely, fitting the entire robot and attachments inside an 18"x 18" x 18" cube, using the correct length, width, and thickness of materials and only the materials on the approved list (no duct tape allowed! these robots have to be engineered, not slapped together). Also using the approved software templates, having the correct wireless protocols (an alternative to Bluetooth called Samantha that's still in the Beta stages), and having both autonomous and driver controlled "tele-op" programs installed on the robot's NXT brain. Here, Mackenzie and teammate Dustin talk with the inspection judge about the parts used on the robot.

Then we discovered that a huge part of the tournament is in creating alliances and scouting other teams to discover their advantages and disadvantages. You play five matches in the qualifying rounds, and in each match you are allied with one team (randomly selected) and play against two other teams. Each robot and driver team brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the playing field, so each match needs a different strategy. The good teams go around and assess each robot and team early in the day to determine how to play the game to their advantage.

Then comes judging, where several rounds of judges grill the team about the robot, the programming, their community involvement, how they operate as a team, decision-making processes, etc. Part of the point of this exercise is to guarantee that one of the main tenet's of FIRST competitions is upheld: The kids do all the work. It quickly becomes apparent if adult coaches, mentors, and technical advisors have had input into the process, or if the kids on the team have owned all of the decisions (both good and bad) and actually did the work themselves. Also, both the scouting and the judging encourage the kids to develop good communications skills.

After that, it's time for the exciting part of the competition: five rounds on the robot arena, paired with different teams. Despite coming into this competition thinking of it as a "learning experience" since this was our first time, our team did really really well! Our first couple of rounds were a little shaky. Our robot acquitted itself well and our driver team of Mackenzie and Dustin turned out to be outstanding. But penalties caused by our alliance partners wiped out all of the points we gained in the first two rounds, leaving us with a score of 0! It was a little disheartening, but the kids on the team stayed very positive and were having a great time. Then things turned around and they really started getting the hang of how to partner and talk strategy with their alliance teams. By the end of the 4th round, we were in 3rd place! In the last few matches though, the top teams bumped us down and we ended in 7th, but still had a very exciting day overall.

Our most exciting moment was in our last match. We were allied with a good team, but were up against the #1 and #2 teams. It was a really tough match, but ended up very close. In the last few seconds, we managed to balance both ours and our alliance's on this teeter-totter element on the arena that's called "the bridge". That's tough because one robot has to push down the bridge with an attachment, then drive up on it. Then they have to tip it toward the other robot, let them drive on, and then somehow balance it. Meanwhile, the other team was balanced on the bridge and "the mountain". So the end of the match looked like this. All of these balancing places scored points for the teams.

All in all, I haven't seen Mackenzie look so overall excited and happy in forever. He was definitely in his element between the robots, the strategy, the alliances and the game play.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Robotics Team Headed to Competition

I haven't had the time to sneeze lately, let alone keep up with my blogs. So I apologize, especially to those family members who come here looking for kid photos and updates. This weekend is a microcosm of the craziness that is our life these days. Saturday morning I coach the Master's swim team. By noon I need to have Asa at a dance performance. I'm also doing the photography for the dancers. That gets done at 4:30, by 5:00 we're having our last robotics practice before heading to the tournament at 7:00 am Sunday morning.

But the good news is that our robotics team t-shirts arrived and they look awesome! Mackenzie designed the shirt this year, so here he is modeling it. If you think he looks even taller than he did the last time you saw him, you're absolutely right. He's grown over an inch and a half  SINCE CHRISTMAS. No, that is not a typo. He's just a hair taller than Wayne now.

The team spent seven hours today working on the robot, getting it ready for competition. Sunday we'll drive over a hundred miles and spend all day at the competition, returning home around 9:00 pm. So it will be a CRAZY weekend. Wish us luck!

Friday, January 07, 2011


I'm too far gone on this blog to catch up. For some deluded reason, I thought I'd have tons of time over Christmas break to write, download photos, etc. etc. but of course I didn't. So imagine I wrote a bunch of great stuff about Asa in the Nutcracker Remixed, and Mackenzie's robotics stuff and all that. Hopefully I'll get to add in some details later.

For now, I'll leave you with this beautiful Haiku that Asa wrote about her birthday kitty Miguel:
My Cat

Orange blur in the grass
Orange fur in the windy breeze
A warmth on your lap

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Santa Claus, Physics, and More

So I did it this year, I came clean to Asa that there is no Santa Claus. You might think that at age 11, this would be a no-brainer, and of course she already knew. But I've always felt it's important to keep the magical thinking alive as long as the kid wants to. And as somebody who still anthropomorphizes my favorite plaid stuffed hippo, Horace, I'm a sucker for magical thinking. Of course, this means that Mackenzie has to give up his spot as Santa. He's stayed up the last few Christmases, stuffing stockings and having fun being the big brother. I don't know how this Christmas Eve will play out, it's an ever-evolving thing as the kids get older.

For those of you who still have younger kids, or kids interested in physics, or just like this kind of thing, here's a great physics-based proof that Santa Claus really exists.

In other physics news, our FIRST FTC robotics team went up to an event last weekend at Portland State University. In addition to working on their robotics stuff, the kids got to tour a whole bunch of the engineering labs there. We were very impressed! They got to help move a laser (over 800 pounds!), talked with a chemistry grad student about his work detecting nanoparticles in soil and water using an atomic mass spectrometer, saw a wind tunnel where they are testing wind turbine and wind energy farm designs, and best of all they got to spend a lot of time with someone from the robotics department discussing a robot called "Shrödinger's Cat" . Those of you that are physics buffs will understand why that's so funny. The cat lives in a box and is mobile, he runs around the building using two cameras, touch sensors, and other methods for object avoidance. He has a mental map of where he is, and can even go in the elevators and ask people to press the buttons to take him to another floor. He can interact with other robots in the lab, including a talking head of Nils Bohr.

I loved hearing all of the questions our kids came up with for the roboticist. Mackenzie was especially interested in the vision processing algorithms and how he could distinguish between objects and blank space (like a doorway). One of the things this tour really showed me was how much science being involved with FIRST has brought into his life. He already knew about Nanotechnology because back when he was on a FIRST FLL team, they did a research project on Nanoparticles and one of the things they discovered was all about the potential dangers of these particles when they end up in our water and soil. Another year, they did a project on alternative energy and it was his part of the project to research wind generators. So all of the things he was seeing in these science and engineering labs, he had already had a taste of through FIRST.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Homework Into Video Games, By Mackenzie

For science right now, we're studying atoms, molecules, and compounds and their properties. One of the things that the kids are supposed to do for this new Charter School program is to show "mastery" of the subject in many different ways: by writing papers, making models, drawing timelines, making illustrations, doing projects, etc. So when I asked Mackenzie how he wanted to illustrate the properties of matter, he suggested that he write a simple video game that allowed the user to see way the molecules move in the different states of water.

If you want to see it in action, you can download his game from Google Docs. It doesn't have any viruses, I promise. He programmed it in GameMaker 8, which he highly recommends. He says it allows you to do object-oriented programming, it's easy to learn, and you can make stand-alone executables like the simple one that he made for this project. You can even sell them (unlike stuff you make in programs like Scratch).

Leave it to this kid to find a way to turn something into a programming project. I have to say, it's pretty cool though. He wants to say a special thank-you to his Aunty Meese and Uncle Nick who gave him GameMaker for his birthday last year. Obviously, it's been put to good use!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

All Smiles at the Karate Recital

The kids had a karate recital today. Also known as the "belt test", it's where they get to show what they learned this term, and do all of their techniques in front of the black belts who will score them and give them feedback. Throughout most of our time in karate, I haven't gotten to watch them because I'm testing also, but now that the only test looming in front of me is the eventual black belt test, I could just sit in the audience and enjoy seeing them do their thing.

The thing that most strikes me when watching Mackenzie is just how big, strong, and fast he's getting. That and the deep voice that comes out of him when he kiais (the karate "hiya" yell). He is definitely operating at the brown belt level and is moving toward the day when he will test for his black belt too. He's gotten very serious about karate lately, especially since he and I have been going to the more rigorous brown and black belt classes together. Focusing on the basics as well as harder and harder techniques has a way of making everything look sharp.

As for Asa, she is coming into her own as well. Karate is not her main focus like it is for Mackenzie. She saves that for dance, singing, and theatre of course. But I'm glad she has stayed with karate even though her schedule sometimes gets crazy. It's important to me that both of the kids can defend themselves if the need ever arises, and sadly in our society she's more likely to need to do that than Mackenzie. I liked watching her perform the escapes from hand grabs and the take-downs that accompany them.

For both of the kids, our karate dojo is also more like a family than just a class that they attend. They've made lifelong friends here, friends that are in photos from recitals going back almost half a decade now. As they move into the tween and teen years, I see the kids that they're hanging around with and I smile. They're confident, respectful, polite, and nice. Being involved with karate, most specifically at our dojo, has more than a little to do with that. The family-friendly atmosphere and focus on values ensures that the kids grow up with more than just a few fancy moves in their repertoire.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unschoolers Go To School (sort of)

I don't even know where to start with the upside-down topsy-turvy nature of what has happened to our fall so far. Our local homeschool resource center, after years of battling with the local school district (who would like nothing more than to shut them down) ended up re-opening as a charter school. Initially, the claim was that it would operate much like before, with homeschooling families being able to take whatever classes they wanted to, and homeschooling all other subjects. As unschoolers, this suits our family just fine.

But then, the school district amended their charter plans to make things far more structured for us poor homeschoolers. Of course. Because you know, everyone needs to be educated to the same cookie cutter mold. It's not the fault of the charter school, but that's the way things shook out. Still, both of our kids decided that the cost-benefit analysis came out on the side of giving it a try. Mackenzie really really wanted to take Spanish class, and for Asa it means more theatre, horseback riding, choir, and French. So they were willing to jump through the hoops of providing more structured homeschooling than we've ever ever done. They actually agreed to do things like worksheets and spelling lists on a weekly basis, taking home textbooks and studying for quizzes.

Frankly, it's all very fascinating to me, watching these two unschooled kids suddenly thrust into a schoolish style of learning. Especially because they know that at any moment they can simply walk away from it. So far, it's been over a month and they're sticking with it. I think it's probably harder on me than on them, because I have to print out worksheets and spelling lists and make sure they get done with reading in their Social Studies or Science textbooks. All those things I've never really worried about before. Before, all of our learning has just flowed from whatever they're interested in at the moment. I've also had to coach them on how to answer the silly textbook quizzes, because I didn't realize how little they knew about what a "textbook" answer is.

One of the questions this all puts to rest is whether or not you really NEED to teach kids all this stuff for years and years and years in order for them to get it, or whether an unschooler can and will buckle down into more structured learning if they are provided with an incentive that motivates them. The fact is, these kids actually do their homework, turn in their assignments, and take their tests. Because they want to, because the benefits that they're getting out of it obviously outweigh the drawbacks in their minds.

On the other hand, as the unschooling parent I have a lot of trepidations about all of this. When the glamour wears off, will they still want to do it? I don't want to be the one sitting on them to finish this stuff up. And what if it interferes with their natural love of learning and exploration, having to do all of this forced study? I love the way they are always coming up with new things they want to do. They have far less time for that now. More than anything, it's totally wrecked our schedule and we are constantly finding ourselves scrambling to catch up. I hate that feeling of giving up our more relaxed days.

So the great experiment of unschoolers in school is ongoing. I'll let you know how it goes.