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San Domenico School News & Events

Robotics Co-Curricular: Controlling the Bot!

Although San Domenico has had a robotics club before, the co-curricular is in a sense new this year as I am new to leading it, and all of the students are new to the class, with the majority of them freshmen. The students come in with a range of existing knowledge, from having some electronics and coding experience to having none at all. So a major part of our goal this year is to develop a base of knowledge about robotics together—including electronics and coding—that we can carry forward into future years, which might include fielding teams for national robotics challenges, like the “First Tech Challenge”. Rather than go with a predefined curriculum, the students are directing how we program and then build our robots. 

We have begun by taking a microcontroller (basically, a very small computer) called the micro:bit and using it to control a small robot car called the cutebot. This robot includes a lot of the same parts that we will be building into our own robots, including ultrasonic and light sensors. In the first few weeks, students figured out how to program the robot to move autonomously without crashing, which involved learning how to use a code library, understanding the order of execution and scheduling of code on a deep level, and a lot of research and experimentation. Students really led the way with that effort and brought a lot of ideas to me, rather than just the other way around (I provided background knowledge and some coding tutorials). Recently, the goal is to deeply map out the technical specifications of the robot in order to be able to write code that corrects for all of its idiosyncrasies, another important tool for any robot we build ourselves. 

One group mapped out the exact range and shape of the sensor. They found that the actual detection of the sensor differed from how it was coded, and independently came up with the idea to graph their results. Students then used that data to develop a function to calculate the range to give the cutebot in code for a given actual desired range of the sensor. Another group calculated the speed of the cutebot at different engine powers and worked on how to correct for some cutebots whose motors run at slightly different speeds, causing curvature. A third group used math and their own data collection methods to work out the rotational speed of the robot on different surfaces and figure out code to create perfect 90° turns on different surfaces. Because the Ninth Grade Computer Science class will also be using the cutebot, the robotics students' work is creating a base of knowledge and even a library of code functions that the broader Ninth Grade class will receive.

The goal for the next couple of weeks is to use the data the students have collected to code the robot as the students wish, again working in teams with different projects. Options include coding it to autonomously follow a line on the floor using its light sensors, to navigate obstacle courses using a remote control, and/or using servos and motors to control an arm to pick things up. We will then, according to the students' interests, extend the micro:bit with additional chips and employ the many robotics materials that we have at San Domenico (motors, batteries, chips, sensors, materials for the chassis and appendages, etc.) to create an original robot. Some students will focus on different aspects of the coding, others on organizing and obtaining materials, others on building the chassis, etc. The robot's goal might be to pick things up or to shoot things with Nerf darts or something else... 

It's up to them!

— Allison Mages, STEAM Integration Specialist, Computer Science teacher