Day 44: Robot Mayhem

Time for a cool surprise: I’m letting one of the Secret Plans out.

Today was pretty low-key (projects at home, and some time spent with our smart fun neighbors, discussing things which must remain secret).

So new rule: Any time I have a low-key day with no photos or dangerous activities, I’ll shed light on one of the items in the Secret Plans list.

Secret Plan #31: Wacky Robot Races

What if you could teach robotics concepts to a second-grade class? It turns out you can. In 1997 and 1998, I was the “robot guy” at the El Granada Elementary School science day. Afterward, I set up this website as a contact point for anyone who had follow-up questions.

Having no kids doesn’t get you out of science fair duty, unless you also have no neighbors.

The first year, I modified Buggo, a robot I had already built. I set him up with a system where 16 kids can drive at once, democratically.

wrr year 1 buggo

I also brought Max, and old Hero 1 robot, and disassembled him for the class, showing all of his parts and talking about what they’re for.

Lessons learned year 1:

    • Having kids shout out “Left! Right!” is less effective if they’re not all clear on which is which.
    • Robots can malfunction, but kids can too.
    • Keep the activities simple. Sixteen kids driving one robot are not sixteen times as efficient as one kid driving a robot.
    • Have a spare robot handy.
    • Rechargeable batteries are great for normal robot use, but use alkalines for special events like this. They last longer, and you can replace them easily.
    • If there is any way to make it operate without a tether, it’s a really good idea.
    • Teachers have the hardest jobs in the world.

The second year, I built three brand new robots, Pluggo, Cricket 1 and Cricket 2. These were all “light seekers”; shine a flashlight at them, and they’ll rush toward you (or away from you, depending on the setting).

pluggo cricket1 cricket2

Lessons learned year 2:

    • Kids really love flashlights. Don’t pass them out until you’re ready to start.
    • Talk first, then play. The two cannot be done in reverse order.
    • Teachers really do have the hardest jobs in the world.

Where are they now?

  • The kids: It’s eleven years later, so I guess all of those little kids are over 18. Yikes! Hopefully their memories of the Wacky Robot Races are as fond as mine.
  • The robots: Cricket 1 and Cricket 2 are dusty, but in good shape. They might even work. Buggo and Pluggo have long since had most of their important parts borrowed for other projects. Max needs a tune-up.

Here’s what they all look like today:

original brain is missing. I can’t remember which project it ended up in. It’s here somewhere.

had the same brain as the Crickets, but with a bigger platform. Now it’s essentially just a mobile platform with proximity sensors.

Cricket 1
and Cricket 2 probably still work. They were built in about a week, and their “brain” is really no more than a set of hardwired reflexes, based on a circuit board I etched in the bathroom sink at home.

is special. He needs a serious tune-up. His arm is in a box, and the last time he was actually powered up was to say something charming to my muse, when we were first dating.

Tip: Getting a home-built robot to tell her she’s beautiful works better then you’d think.

Random assertion: If you ever give 30 kids 30 flashlights, expect to lose control of the situation immediately.

Steganographic data: 1880/0.4

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