Tag Archives: robotics

Tea with Lee Magpili and the LEGO Mindstorms EV3

Though my schedule being back in the US this summer has been busy, when I learned that Lee Magpili was going to be in town, I cleared my schedule. I first met Lee when I was working with the Bronx FIRST LEGO League initiative several years ago. He was a quiet presence in comparison to the energetic middle school students that attended our workshops to play with LEGO robots, but I quickly learned of his prowess with building with LEGO elements. His rovers navigated the FLL field with ease and used mechanisms that balanced simplicity with effectiveness. Eventually he mentored an FLL team to do exceptionally well. Like all great FLL coaches, however, he insisted on the students doing the work. In our conversations at that time, I quickly understood that Lee believed (and continues to believe) that LEGO is an amazing platform upon which to learn an enormous range of useful skills. Robotics, in particular, capitalizes on the unique blend of play and learning through LEGO to get students to understand the engineering design process. Lee is a believer in the potential for students to be quickly engaged and motivated to work hard when the right tools are around.

It was consequently no surprise when I learned Lee had been selected for a job with LEGO education in Denmark a couple of years ago. He and I wrote back and forth periodically about the position and what it entailed, but for a while our conversations turned noticeably away from the details of his work. I figured this was just a consequence of the distance and I left it at that.

This ended last January with the announcement of the LEGO Mindstorms EV3. When Lee posted a link to the announcement on Facebook, I suddenly understood. It made me realize that like any good designer, he kept his ideas secret until they were ready to share with the world. (I assume a pretty airtight NDA was also involved.)

Lee sat down with me at Saints Alp Teahouse in New York for some bubble tea, snacks, and conversation about the EV3. What struck me was that Lee's enthusiasm for using LEGO as a learning tool hasn't just been maintained, it has grown considerably since becoming part of the EV3 team. As you might also expect, he was excited to show me the bits and pieces of the kit that will be coming out in August.

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From a LEGO designer's perspective, the attention to detail in acknowledging the desires of the LEGO fan community and the limitations of the NXT set will most definitely be appreciated. There are some subtle changes that made me excited given my own experiences building with the curves of the NXT and its parts.

For example, a reshaping of the motor has made it much easier to attach pins and secure it to designs:

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Sensors can be attached using a single pin if needed:

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I also suspect that many people will discover ways that alignment between different components will be much easier with the new set:

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Lee also spoke a lot about the care that he and the team have taken to make the bar for entry with the kit low, and the ceiling high. The education kit will include instructions for building modules that can be used in different designs. A conveyor belt doubles as a set of tracks. A motor-wheel module can be built that is sturdy but easy to build upon. This will help students (and teachers) minimize the frustration that inevitably occurs when straying from build instructions to pursue an idea for a new design. The strengths associated with building with Technics parts will be a lot more intuitive to newcomers that may have only worked with bricks.

I am excited to get my hands on one of these kits. In my robotics class this year, students grew considerably in their ability to conjure up a design and make it happen with the bricks. Students often got frustrated by the curves of the NXT motors getting in the way of their designs. The ease of attaching motors directly to the programmable brick of the EV3 will make it even easier to get students learning programming techniques. The on brick features for prototyping and programming will make things much easier for trying out quick ideas, especially on an FLL field.

It was good catching up with Lee - he is a person to watch in the world of LEGO Education. He was at the FIRST World Festival to demonstrate the EV3 to FIRST LEGO League teams, not to mention members of the Board of Directors at the LEGO group. He told me that his plans include photographing Gyro Boy in Times Square and Washington Square Park. Though he assures me that the robot named 'Evan' that has been touring the world to demonstrate the EV3 is not named after me, I'm going to continue to assume that it is.

Playing with robots - a weekend well spent

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This weekend marked the culmination of a few months of work from my robotics students. We traveled to Shanghai to compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge tournament with 47 other teams. I got involved in FIRST nine years ago when teachers at my school in the Bronx tracked me down after hearing of my engineering background. They had just won the Rookie of the Year award the season before, and were excited to have an engineer around to help. Given that it was my first year teaching, I wasn't able to be nearly as involved as I wanted to be. It was enough of a hook to get me to see how powerful programs like FIRST really are for working on the 'demand' side of the educational system, the problem-solving-hands-on-building stuff that makes students see what the end game of education can be. Playing with robots on a competition field is no more 'real world' than estimating the number of pennies in a pyramid, but the learning opportunities in both are rich and demanding. Nine years later, I am still as convinced as ever that these are the types of activities our students need to understand the context of the skills we teach them in our classrooms.

This weekend, we met stiff competition from our Chinese competitors. They built cascaded elevator systems, scissor lifts, and sensor systems that helped to play this year's game, a tic-tac-toe variant played using colored rings on a set of horizontal pegs. More impressive for me was seeing the mentors noticeably bored and checking their phones while the students were the ones focused on tweaking their robots and fixing programming snafus.

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This, however, was not our main challenge. The biggest issues that we faced were of our own creation - how to achieve consistency in our lifting mechanism using a web of zip-ties, or discovering just how unstable our own lifting mechanism was. The students were constantly sawing different parts of the robots off to make room for the solution to the last problem they created while trying to solve another. Clearing the complex residue of multiple good ideas to leave a simple, capable solution is the ultimate goal of a good design. The overall process of doing this is difficult, even with experience. They are early enough on the curve to know that there is much that they do not know though, and their positive and cheerful manner throughout was inspiring. Even after multiple technical issues and defeats on the field, they left the competition today feeling accomplished and full of ideas.

I was most inspired by my students' reactions to seeing the clever designs of their Chinese counterparts. I have witnessed students wandering the pits at FIRST events and greeting unique and capable designs with accusation as the immediate reaction. "They could do that because they have so much more money" or "the mentors did all the work - it isn't fair because we do everything on our team." I understand the sentiment, but have always passed it off as being overly pessimistic. Some skilled teams make it look easy without always making obvious the associated level of effort required to execute such designs.

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What made me particularly proud of my students this weekend was seeing them look at other designs and go through two stages of processing them. First, they would remark how cool it was that the team was able to solve the problem in such a unique way. Second, with some thinking about just how, they would say something along the lines of we could have done that.

While our ranking was closer to the bottom than I (or they) will reluctantly reveal, I don't care much at this point. The team is young and will hopefully have more opportunities to learn and build together over the next couple of years. Their satisfaction was evident in watching the final matches with a clear sense of accomplishment, even while not being part of them. Their sense of togetherness is stronger than ever.

Our bus lost its headlights on the way back, forcing us to spend an hour and a half at a repair place while the driver and nine other people figured it out while the usual pattern of loud Mandarin was punctuated with hacking and drags off cigarettes. The team, meanwhile, procured a healthy supply of snacks and seemed content to sing along to music played off their school laptops. This is a close group that has only grown closer. Easily the highlight of the whole weekend right there.