Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Random and Silly Bits from FIRST Robotics Championships

Random notes and silly thoughts:

· One of the things I like about FIRST coopetitions is the creativity teams show with their uniforms. There is some creativity shown in these. Another thing I think is neat is the tradition of teams creating buttons not only to wear but trade as well. Something I learned the hard way in my team’s regional competition. We had buttons but nowhere near enough. We remedied this when we went to the state competition.

· One act that shows the spirit of coopetition and gracious professionalism is how one American team helped a foreign team with parts and tools to build a new robot when the foreign team’s robot got stuck in customs. Time and again I heard members from one team looking for another team to share batteries, parts, and tools. Very cool!

· FIRST needs to get ESPN to televise this thing. The worldwide leader in sports already televises the National Spelling Bee so educational events is not out of their scope. Add the hard hitting action and strategic planning it could possible draw in the football and hockey crowd. The increased exposure would inspire more students to get involved. Finally, while NASA TV televised the event, ESPN could bring more money to FIRST to spread out to teams in need and calm their fears about what the economy could do to programs.

· Speaking of money, it takes a lot of it to be coopetitive at this level. One former FRC coach told me $50,000 would get you a very competitive robot. Yikes! If I was on the board I would be worried too about how the current economic situation would affect FIRST.

· I know FTC was created for programs that do not have the kind of money or technical help needed for FRC but it is kind of treated like a minor league. While not intended, this attitude might prove counterproductive in the long-term.

· Now speaking of technical expertise, all six finalists came from large industrial or technology parts of the country. In fact almost all of the teams had either been champion or been in the final four. Two programs were hall of fame. Five of the six teams were from around the Detroit, Michigan area and the other one from Silicon Valley. They can draw on adult mentors who eat, sleep, and breathe advanced engineering and science. With this current setup these teams will always have a big competitive advantage over poor teams from rural areas. There is a lottery draw that allows teams to come to the championships but the $5000 entry fee, travel, food, lodging, and shipping costs are a big barrier to entry for some teams.

· General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford all sponsored teams and FIRST in general. Therefore, I guess we can say the U.S. Government besides NASA and the CIA (you read that right) are heavily involved in FIRST. One organization I did not see as a sponsor of any kind was the United Auto Workers. Because they don’t seem to want to give on helping the auto industry they need all the good will they can get. Also, with five of six final teams from around the Detroit area it is a good bet the children of good dues paying UAW members are participating. Don’t tell me the UAW doesn’t have the money. If the union can sponsor a NASCAR race every year they can sponsor some FIRST teams. These kids could help save all those union jobs in the future.

· Instead of sponsoring the finalist teams, General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford should hire these kids – NOW! Apparently they can design, engineer, and build machines that can kick the rear ends of foreign competition. Something current designers and engineers at the big three auto makers seem unable to do. Again, maybe these kids can save the American automotive industry.

Either volunteer with a team or start a team. If you are unable to do that then volunteer to help at a regional, state, or the international competitions. It is hard work but also a lot of fun and you will meet all kinds of interesting people.

FIRST Coopetition at the Georgia Dome

What event would have thousands of screaming spectators flocking to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, to cheer on teams engaged in hard-hitting action to determine a champion? Could it possibly be the Georgia High School League Football state championship? How about the South Eastern Conference championship football game or the Chick-fil-A Bowl? Maybe even the Super Bowl? How about this, it is not a football game. While these events would be excellent guesses the event I am talking about is the FIRST Robotics Championships.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The program was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen as a way to show practical uses of math and science. Teams from all over the world come to Atlanta every year to see what team of middle and high school students can design, build, program, and drive the best robot. However, this is not just a competition; it is a “coopetition” (it’s trademarked) in which students are expected to display “gracious professionalism” (trademarked too). Teams are expected, no required to show teamwork with other teams to reach their championship goals while displaying good sportsmanship.

FIRST robotic coopetitions are broken down into three levels. The FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) or “Big Bots” is high school teams who design and build large, complex robots. Three teams make an alliance and must work together to score points so their alliance can win. These robots compete on a playing area with a trailer attached to the robot. The object is to put as many scoring “rocks” or soccer ball-sized balls into their opponents trailer while preventing “rocks” from getting into their trailers. In the last 20 seconds of a round, there are balls called “super cells” that are worth more points if they are placed into an opponent’s trailer. Rocks can be delivered by human “payload specialists” who try to throw rocks into trailers or robots collecting rocks then dumping them into a trailer. Teams are required to complete some form of community service project and expected to mentor other robotics teams.

The FIRST Technical Challenge or “Little Bots” is designed for high school teams who do not have the money to compete in FRC or just getting a robotics program started at their school. These teams design and build smaller robots using the brain of a Mindstorm and Bluetooth enabled controllers to operate their robots. The coopetition requires teams to work as allies of other teams to complete tasks on their playing grid. This task is usually taking objects to a scoring area while preventing their opponents from doing the same. The alliance with the most points after a round is the winner. Teams are also required to perform some type of community service and mentor teams in elementary or middle/junior high schools.

The FIRST Lego League (FLL) is middle school or junior high teams building robots using the Lego MindstormLego parts. The coopetition consists of programming a robot to carry out a variety of tasks on a specially designed playing field. Playing fields are changed each year depending on the theme of the competition, this year it was “Climate Connections.” Along with the robotic challenge, teams are also required to present a research project based on the theme. I was fortunate enough to have been part of the first place team in Research Presentation for South Carolina. Teams are also scored in teamwork and robot design to determine the winner. robot kits and any official

My original intent was to participate in conference holds in Atlanta along with the competition. However, the FLL coach and fellow Instructional Technology Coach I work with asked if I was willing to volunteer. Somehow I knew I was going to say yes but just to get back at her, I had her explain the switch in plans to my wife who was holed up at my sister-in-law’s house in Snellville. My wife was not happy but agreed to my volunteering. FIRST coopetition volunteer coordinators must work in the personnel branches of the military. You can request a certain position but they are going to put you where they think FIRST needs you. I, with one season of FLL under my belt, was assigned to FRC, about as far away as you can get. My colleague must have bribed someone because she eventually became a FLL Field Resetter. Like the military, I was given the task of handing out safety glasses then promptly switched. On Wednesday evening I helped check-in FRC teams as they delivered their robots to the pits located in the World Congress Center. Then I was told to check back with the volunteer coordinator in the morning. Thursday morning arrived and after prayers of thanksgiving for not having been killed in Atlanta morning traffic I reported to the Volunteer Coordinator. Forget safety glasses, I was sent to the Curie Field to be a resetter.

When I and the other field resetters reported for duty we were introduced to Matt, our team leader. Matt gathered us around and asked if any of us had never seen a FRC match? Everyone stared at me as I quickly found out my hand was the only one up. I tried to gain some credibilty by stating I have only been working with FLL bots. The continued looks told me while FIRST may be one big family, FLL and FRC don’t usually mix. Still, everyone, including Matt, was nice enough and answered any questions I had. For the benefit of the one of me Matt quickly went over the rules and what the duties were.

Thursday was practice rounds and for some reason beyond my comprehension someone scheduled 44 of them. To make sure teams were getting their money’s worth they tried to squeeze 2 matches per round. We didn’t even come close to 88 matches but we did get the 44 in plus some. All during the day Matt must have been fulfilling a secret wish to be a drill sergeant. He kept after us to work faster and faster trying to shave a minute off the turnaround time. Actually, Matt was very positive while working us like galley slaves and pulled his share of the load and helped teams get robots connected to the network. By the end of the day I was exhausted and could barely stand much less walk. Eventually I made it back to my Sister-in-Law’s and collapsed in the bed.

Friday was much better. I guess the coopetition brought the energy level up for everyone involved. Also, I knew I was only working half of the day because I had to head for home. Another thing was Matt was far more positive than the day before. He actually called us a “machine” which I am sure was as good a compliment as we would ever receive from him. As the matches went on, I found myself becoming more and more of a FRC fan. It does not take long to get acquainted with the rules and strategies of each team. Teams scout each other as much or more than any athletic team I have been associated with. Some teams come into a match with an offensive game plan or try to dump as many rocks into an opponent’s trailer as possible. Other teams play more defensively by either avoiding offensive robots or jamming the offensive robots into corners and not let them out. It became so addicting I was glued to my computer at home on Saturday watching the finals which were webcast. I really wished I could have stayed though the finals on Saturday just to experience the excitement firsthand.

At the end of Saturday the champions were crowned and other awards were handed out. Teams shook hands and congratulated each other demonstrating gracious professionalism. That night Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta was host to an after event party. I am sure kids swapped e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch. Others made vows to return next year and win the overall championship. Still more started planning for next year’s robot incorporating what they learned from this experience. Through it all, two things were in all participants’ minds Saturday as the fireworks exploded in the Georgia Spring sky. One, science and math do matter. Two, it was fun!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Live from in front of my china cabinet its....

Recently our district unblocked Twitter for teachers after a short battle with our Internet gatekeepers. One of the terms of the peace accord was I would provide Twitter training for district personnel. Bluffton Today Education Reporter Sara Wright asked if she could participate in one training session for a story which I agreed to. After the training, Sara started using the Twitter account she created in the class. One of her other followers was Holly Bounds, a reporter for WSAV television in Savannah, Georgia. Holly produces a show called "My Lowcountry 3" which covers covers the South Carolina Lowcountry including Beaufort County. Holly contacted me through Twitter requesting an interview.

I agreed to the interview but I must admit I was skeptical. Years ago, a television reporter for another station did, in my opinion, a brutal job of editing some comments I made about a controversial topic which got me into trouble. I learned a hard lesson about TV media which I later put to use in the classroom and won an award for but that is another story. Through Twitter, Holly and I set up a time for her to come by the school which turned out to be the day before Spring Break. At least I would be in a good mood.

Now I was expecting Holly to be one of those divas since she produces and anchors her own show. I envisioned her coming in with entourage in tow. Make-up person constantly fussing over her appearance like I see right before "Fox and Friends." A personal assistant with one hand holding a phone up to one ear and texting into a Black Berry with the other. The rest of the entourage would consist of the camera operator and sound engineer. What I saw when she came really surprised me. Holly was lugging a camera and tripod on her own. Could you see Katie Couric jumping out of a CBS car in Alaska and carrying her own equipment to do her interview with Sara Palin'? I know I am not a Vice Presidential candidate but anchors never carry their own stuff or so I thought.

When I enquired about where the camera and sound people were, Holly replied "I'm it." Just to prove I was not behind the times, I saw a crew at the ETV conference a couple weeks earlier shooting an interview. Holly later told me she also has to do her own editing for her show. Talk about a 21st century learning moment, I bet journalists didn't learn much about videography, sound, and editing in the past. The interview with me and our principal went well in my mind. I offered to be on Twitter when the show aired in the evening which Holly said would be great.

Now comes the fun part. I heard stories about how crazy live TV could be. I even experienced this when an attempt to produce a school show through UStream went awry as it spiralled into failure. Well I was about to get a dose of it on a whole new level. One of the features of My Lowcountry 3 is they try to get the views to participate via Twitter and Facebook. Actually, all reporters at WSAV are required to have both a Twitter and Facebook accounts. Questions are posted each day so viewers can give their opinions with the best read over the air. A very social networked show. Today Gabe, the show's studio producer, decided to try something new. After checking in via Twitter and about 10 minutes before airtime I get a message asking if I had a webcam. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach because I knew where this is probably heading. Live interview from my home.

We agreed to use Skype after I replied yes. Little did I know this was the first time Gabe used Skype to broadcast an live interview on the show. I had race and change out of my old t-shirt and into something more presentable while booting up my webcam equipped netbook. A similar scene had to be played out in the studio. People flying all around trying to get this stunt to work with Holly on set maintaining outward professional composure but probably screaming in her mind, "YOU WANT TO DO THIS NOW!?"She may have to carry her own equipment but Holly, I'm sure, has some professional pride as an anchor. Fortunatly everything worked without a hitch. Actually, it must have worked so good they had me on for two segments. Take that Karl Rove and James Carville. I'm sure Sean Hanity and Keith Olbermann don't give you two segments too often if at all. It was an exciting experience I will soon bore more people with.

Lessons to be learned from this experience? One is more practice talking on podcasts or videos. The ahs just kill me when I do too much. The other lesson is build a set in your spare room or garage because you never know when you may have to do a live television interview in your home. At least Holly liked my wife's china pattern.