Robotics Events Inspire

Robotics Events Inspire

National Robotics Week 2018 Expands its Reach

“This year was our largest National Robotics Week to date,” says Lisa Freed, STEM Program Manager at iRobot, based in Bedford, MA. “We had close to 350 events in all 50 states from small classroom projects to university competitions and industrial open houses.”

Established by Congress and iRobot in 2010, the 9th annual National Robotics Week kicked off April 7th, 2018. Each year, events take place throughout the month of April that are designed to raise awareness of the critical role of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and how these subjects and robotics will shape the future.

“The breadth of events reflects the enormity of the robotics industry and its strength in the U.S.,” adds Freed. “We are thrilled to see students across the country experience robotics, and be inspired in STEM.”

For the last four years, iRobot has brought its robotics demonstrations to Empow Studios in Lexington to mark the event. “We were so glad iRobot was able to return because we’ve had such an amazing turnout in past years,” says Empow Manager Taylor Tutwiler. “We are always happy to celebrate STEM with our local community and beyond.”

iRobot family at Empow Studios

This year, Empow added more robots and different learning stations. “We decided to go with an “expo” feel this year because it matches our teaching style,” says Tutwiler. “Empow has a very hands-on, project-based curriculum so we love when students can actually handle and control the robots and electronics.”

Jibo catching a ride from iRobot's Roomba at Empow Studios

Robots in the Spotlight

The iRobot demo table was a hit with students, who learned how a hand-held device can operate a robotic gutter cleaner (Looj) from the ground, and how robots are designed to clean floors and avoid disastrous falls.

“I loved learning about the sensors on the Roomba and Braava that stop them from falling off the edge, and also the brain of the robots,” notes 5-year-old Rishik who was impressed with the technology involved and had a chance to test them out. “Rishik kept talking about the event for days,” says his father.

Students were thrilled when a Roomba gave a ride to Jibo, a talking robot that learns from its environment. An assortment of educational games and toys, including the tiniest robot at the event – Anki’s Cozmo –  was brought by MIT researcher Stefania Druga, founder of HacKIDemia, an organization that brings mobile invention labs to inspire students around the globe.

Other popular robots at the event: the Empow LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 snake and a robotic dog that could identify and react to plastic bones based on their color.

“It was great to see the various robot and robot related technologies on display,” says Empow senior instructor Paul Girardo. “I think it showed the kids a wide variety of uses for robots. From intelligent/AI robots like Jibo, to robots they can build themselves using LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 to consumer robots like Roomba from iRobot.”

Other highlights included a demonstration by the all-female robotics team Parity Bits, a FIRST Tech Challenge team based in Lexington, MA.

“We were demonstrating our competition robot!” says 16-year-old team member Khushi Soni. “Every year we get a challenge and have to build a robot to accomplish the tasks in the challenge. We then compete with the robot at various competitions around Massachusetts.”

The team showed each attendee in line how to operate it. “It’s amazing to see the kids’ eyes light up when they see our robot, and they have so much fun driving the robot,” says Soni. “It was really fun!”

Parity Bits robot at Empow Studios during iRobot Robotics Week
Parity Bits female Robotics team at Empow Studios
Parity Bits Robot at Empow Studios during iRobot Robotics Week

Gadgets Galore!

In addition to fully built robots, electronics demonstrations were a big part of the event. “You-Do-It” Electronics Center, an outlet for electronic equipment and supplies in Needham, MA, offered hands-on demonstrations of how to solder, allowing kids to walk away with their own light-up badges.

“Learning to safely solder your own electronic circuits is an excellent STEM skill to have,” says Girardo, who had also prepared a variety of Arduino-based electronics for hands-on play.

“The kids had a lot of fun typing in their names and various messages to then see it scroll across the 8×8 LED matrix in bright red letters,” he adds. “They had a blast playing the four button tone generator making all kinds of sounds. They especially liked turning the variable resistors to get all the changes in frequency/tones while they played it!”

You-do-it Electronics Center demonstrates soldering at Empow Studios

Students also had a chance to try out an electronic gyroscope. Gyroscopes are used to balance robots and guidance systems. “They were amazed at how strong the force was pushing against their hands and wrists as they tried to rotate the gyro to a new position/axis,” notes Girardo. “They had fun watching it balance itself as it “walked” (slowly rolled) itself across the table on its own power using a system of gears/wheels.”  

Next to the electronics activities were a series of LEGO robotic contraptions including an egg decorating machine and candy launching devices. “I really enjoyed catching the M&M’s in my mouth at the end and playing with the snake robot,” says 7-year-old Benjamin. “It was an awesome experience,” he adds. “I can’t wait to go back.”

Boy working with robots during Robotics Week at Empow Studios

Botfest and Beyond

The Empow-built candy catapulting contraption was also featured at a separate event: Botfest, held April 28th at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, MA. In all, sixteen students from Empow’s weekend Advanced Robotics Club put together 10 robot builds and joined students from around the area to demonstrate them a Botfest.

“We chose robots that were cool or fun or both,” says club instructor Pallavi Naravane, a senior instructor at Empow. “It’s great to attend such events because students learn to present their understanding to an eager audience of families and friends in the community.”

In addition to building and testing the robots, club members had presentations prepared complete with printouts of the coding information so they could explain how they did it. Among the robots they built: egg decorator, doodler, music sequencer, cookie icing machine, wall follower, line follower, candy thrower, and a whack-a-mole like device.

“Whack-a-mole calculates the score of the user, and records the time it takes them to complete the given round,” says Naravane. “Obviously the candy thrower and cookie-icer were favorites, and kids would clump around to test and catch Kit-Kats chucked by the machine. I have yet to see a person who doesn’t smile when a chocolate flies at them!”

Another favorite was the Luuma, which is also called the ‘ultimately useless machine’ because it doesn’t follow normal commands.  “It is supposedly useless because it turns itself ON when the user turns it OFF,” laughs Naravane. “It has evasive maneuvers, and it randomly chooses one of six different responses. They learned to use switch cases, data variables, constants, random blocks, math blocks and data wires to build decision based different paths. The kids learned a lot while testing and changing variables in the program while having fun.”

Another highlight of Botfest was a competition called Botball. Standard Botball uses the iRobot Create, a Roomba like programmable mobile robot platform designed for educators and developers. There are also other smaller Botball robots that are free builds. The Empow group had a chance to see several Botball matches.

“It was exciting to watch!” notes Naravane. “The robots have to navigate the play field autonomously in a round of about two minutes. They have to be programmed to start when the table lamp goes on. They grab pompoms and frisbees and place them at certain heights to gain points.”

In addition to the regular Botball matches, four teams of students in grades 4-6 took part in BotBall Jr. They use KIPR Wallaby Controller and C programming.

Naravane says the entire day was a good experience for students – showing the possibilities associated with learning robotics. “Robotics is a tangible platform to learn programming around motors and sensors to achieve your fun goal!,” she says. “The kids put in a lot of effort and it was so worth it when it all came together.”

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