Beach Cleaning Robot using the ESP32

How do you build a working robot in a day as a holiday programme? Especially when you have a wide range of students, some of them who have never done any robotics / engineering before!

Bring in Jack Penman, an engineer and parent living on the Kapiti Coast who runs a robotics club at the local college. He had a plan for the day which I was assisting with the proceedings. The idea was to construct ( rather than worry about teaching / learning programming) a very practical robot using simple servos / motors and using an advanced version of the Arduino, called the ESP. The advantage of the chip is the built in WiFi module which you can connect with a simple TCP/UDP app on your Android phone. This takes out the big worry of connectivity, compatibility and installing the Arduino IDE. I believe a web based interface is planned for it too as most students have BYOD policies at their schools which means they usually have a chromebook (rather than iPads, which I have rarely seen in the recent years). 

We also had Jane, Technology teacher at the college who assisted with the mechanics of building the robot. The first part of the day was dedicated to learning the system. Using simple LED’s and a phone, we made them blink using commands over the WiFi (through TCP, but we didn’t get into details of how it all works as the focus was construction). Eventually by morning tea, students were controlling motors and servos through the app. Students had also created designs of their build. We divided them into groups based on the part they were building. Chassis, Arm, Gripper and Controller. They used a range of Lego, Meccano, MDF and metal spares, most of which Jack has recylced over time. 

By early afternoon we had a few of the parts coming along together. The big challenge is the amalgamation of all of the components and ensuring they all work in cohesion. As each of the component had its own ESP module, the commands were simplified for the students so all they had to do to make them talk to each other was something like A1 1(Analog1 turn on)|btp2 (button press 2) |46 (the IP of the other ESP)| etc. This made life simpler to focus only on engineering the robot (courtesy Jack who has spent hours to build the software side of the project). It appeals to students who are interested in constructing and may not have the interest in coding. 

At 5pm, after 8 hours, we had a working robot which was picking rubbish. Well, sort of. 🙂 Finetuning needed especially with driver and controller skills. There is a detailed writeup by Jack on their group page. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or you would like to run a programme like this at your school.

#ACCE2018 My thoughts

Hello Sydney. Good to be back, this time for a digital technology teachers conference called ACCE2018. I arrived in time for the registration on Tuesday night, after Google maps decided to take me the long way ( where the horses usually would enter through).  The evening kicked off with awards handed out to teachers with exceptional service in the field of digital technology education and innovative teaching practices. I also had a chance to meet some of the exhibitors as it was pretty quiet. 

Day one started with a keynote from Prof. Tim Bell (University of Canterbury, NZ). Talking about the ABC of computational thinking, he shared his CS teaching experiences with kids and the importance of ‘people focus’. A very good graphic that he presented shows the ‘ABC’ of terms used which I think could be made into a poster for your classroom! We have to remember that we don’t write programs for computers, but we write programs for people (Tim), and so when we teach kids how to write a program, we also have to focus on the analysis, design, testing and debugging along with the coding. A good stat he displayed was the use of iteration (loops) in Scratch. Most students who make projects on scratch barely use loops and variables (according to the research being done) and that demonstrates the accepted fact that kids use it mainly as an animation software to make Sprites jump around. He summed up by reiterating the importance of a people centred approach in DT education.

The next session was focused on the use of Twitter as a source of teacher PD. Brett and Zeina, who run the #aussieed chat displayed stats of how their tweets have a worldwide reach. They also set out some challenges for newbies to take on twitter for PD. I believe, there will be a time when school administrators will accept Twitter as a source of PD but its not there yet. Personally I have learnt a lot by following certain teachers / PD providers on Twitter and go on to try it in my classroom. 

My interaction with one of the exhibitors was the best experience so far. I personally believe it will be a game changer in DT education. I have been using the Arduino for a long time to teach electronic circuits and programming. A lot of schools also want to kick start an Arduino programme at year 9-10 based on projects that they could build towards a challenge, lets say Brightsparks (https://www.brightsparks.org.nz/) . This exhibitor has combined the newer version of the Arduino called the ESP32 (which is a chip with onboard wifi, traditional Arduino doesn’t have that feature). With collaborative coding features plus a combination of mixed reality features ( all you need is a decent camera phone) and it streams live data to the screen ( yes, all your usual sensors for the Arduino work with it). They are launching at the end of this year. Keep a watch! http://www.kaisclan.ai/

My next breakout session was very useful for my current role in Engineering Outreach. The session, Leading digital technologies professional learning and development by the CSER team at University of Adelaide. The presenters, Suzie and Rebecca spoke about their very successful MOOC program reaching out to 24,000 teachers with a combination of 9 outreach officers who provide ground support. This kind of proves the idea that teachers doing just an online module may not necessary be able to successfully implement what they have learnt. Outreach provides the necessary support to teachers, guiding them in their classroom to implement new concepts they have learnt. I loved their idea of the national lending library ( we have house of science) which provides resources to schools on a rotational basis. I would definitely look into starting this for Wellington region based on sponsorship availability. Creating a customised PD for teachers rather than the usual generic ones will go a long way, along with mutual industry partnerships and leveraging existing resources and opportunities. Great breakout session.

I came across two really useful tools which I plan to use in my outreach work: Metaverse (https://studio.gometa.io/  ) for creating amazing stories and Plickers for doing quick interactive surveys and quizzes.

A focus on creative problem solving was delivered by Clara Galan from Adobe. She spoke on the importance on providing those opportunities in class as students can shape their own learning.

The final day ended with an Industry panel in discussion on a range of topics. They included Ivan from Australia Signals Directorate, Emma from Cisco Australia and Matthew from Optus Business. The first area they were queried on was the area of critical skills that were expected from applicants. It was good to know that apart from technical skills, soft skills – communication, coordination, collaboration, an inquisitive mind and analytical thinking are all areas that they employers were looking in applicants. One good question asked by the audience was whether soft skills had too much importance compared to technical skills which they needed to do the job. As there are different roles to fill, technical jobs are just one area; however, core soft skills will always be key in any field. The conference wrapped up with a walk down nostalgia lane of computing and digital tools history. It was amusing.

I look forward to the next ACCE which will be held in Melbourne.