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Students program robots for a trip to Mars

POSTED AT 07:07 PM ON Jun. 23, 2013  (UPDATED AT 10:11 AM ON Jun. 24, 2013)


On Friday, several autonomous robots were sent to Mars, most of which successfully completed their missions as friends and family of the group of boys who programmed the bots looked on.

Though the bots weren’t actually sent to the red planet, this year’s theme for the summer workshop “Ready, Set, Robots!” was sending an autonomous robot to a re-created Mars location.

The “Mars” in Bloomington consisted of a white and red arena, located in the University Gym, in which the preassembled robots located “minerals,” different color pads on the floor, and returned to the base ship in the middle of the arena.

The time limit for each bot was five minutes.
The teams had two days to complete their robots.

The Lego Mindstorm bots, a series of kits containing software and hardware to create small, customizable and programmable robots, were preassembled, allowing the kids coming from grades 7-12 to focus on the programming aspect of the bots instead of the engineering.

“The robots are preassembled because really what we’re trying to solve is the programming solution and not the engineering solution of the device,” said Nitocris Perez, logistic operations specialist at IU and one of the team leaders for the workshop.

The bots had a series of sensors, such as a touch sensor, infrared sensor, sound sensor and color sensor, which helped them locate the minerals and return to the base ship in the middle of the arena.

The color sensors were located on the bottom of the robots, so as they drove over the color pad on the floor of the arena, it registered the color, the “mineral,” and avoided going over it again.

“There are a lot of different challenges involved with that because you’ve already programmed your robot to avoid things, so you have to figure out, ‘Okay so now how do I go get something, avoid things, how do I keep track of the tape,’ all of those things,” Perez said.

“They have two days to figure it out and on top of that the software itself is a little bit glitchy. In the case of my group they lost a day and a half of work and weren’t able to get it all salvaged because it got corrupt.”

Perez said on the first day, once kids arrived for the workshop, she sat and talked with her team for a couple of hours and discussed what the goal of the workshop was and what they were going to be doing.

“After that they really take over and they work together and you can kind of see the natural leaders emerge,” Perez said.

Robert Ping, education and outreach manager for IU’s UITS Research Technologies division, which supports the workshops, said the kids were able to use a drag-and-drop mechanism, where each code was already embedded in an icon the kids see on their laptop screen, which helped the kids learn the ropes quickly and proficiently, as the workshop only lasted two days.

“It’s good for the kids to write things down and use a lot of problem solving up front to figure out what it is that they want their robot to do rather than just randomly dragging and dropping and seeing what their robot can do,” Ping said.

The workshop culminated in the “Mission Challenge,” in which numerous bots competed to locate all the minerals and dock at the base ship in the allotted 5 minutes of time.

Students from each team faced the crowd and discussed their individualized robot before Ping took the bot and set it down in the arena.

“They vary a lot because the Mindstorm program really lets them be individualized and come up with their own solutions for how they want to complete the mission,” Ping said.

Kristy Kallback-Rose, research technologies principal systems administrator at IU’s Pervasive Technology Institute, said some robots were programmed so that once it found three or four minerals it would stop looking.

Others were programmed to use a certain period of time to locate minerals and the rest of the time to return to the base ship.

For the first time since its creation 6 years ago, the workshop had no girl team
members. However, the workshop taking place next week has a few girls signed up to participate, Kallback-Rose and Ping said. 

“It’s sort of disappointing that that was the case,” Kallback-Rose said. “We’ve been really trying to encourage the parents and students to share the word with girls so that we can get some more girls to come in the future.”

Aside from trying to bring more girls to the workshop, Kallback-Rose said one of the main things she hopes the workshop does is help break the stereotype of what it means to work in information technology.

“I think there’s sort of a stereotype of it being solitary work, that you’re just sitting in front of a computer by yourself, but none of us can say that’s what we do on a daily basis,” Kallback-Rose said. “You’re always interacting with people, having to come to a group consensus, sharing ideas with people, so it’s actually a job that requires a lot of communication.”

Though the teams only had two days to complete the robots, Ping and Kallback-Rose hoped the students learned about both programming and teamwork.

“Part of the reason we take two days is because we want to spend some time with the kids,” Ping said. “If we wanted them to do programming from scratch, like actually writing code and everything like a computer programmer really does in real life, you know you would never be able to learn that and be able to do it in two days.”

Ping also expressed the importance of working together as a team and learning what it means to make decisions together as a group.

Ben James, one of the team members working on the robot “Spirit II,” said although his group had multiple computer crashes and weren’t able to complete the program he will most likely attend the workshop again next year.

James said the thing he likes most about the workshop is “learning more about things I haven’t learned yet and things I’ve tried to figure out on my own and haven’t succeeded in.”

The workshop will have one more session this week and the “Mission Challenge” will be seeing more individualized bots in its arena.


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