Archive for Engineering

Mar 24

The definition of robotics changes based on ubiquity (definition).

Thanks to modern technology and a thriving IT-economy which demands STEM education at earlier ages, we have a growing marketplace which provide robotics at earlier ages with the following core themes which continue to evolve today:

    1. Robots MOVE: Since the creation of the word “Robot” in 1920 meaning “labour,” all robots are expected to move. Pitsco Education offers a Hydraulic Robot which would create a discussion of whether it is a robot at all, because it does provide movement and power (hydraulic), but sensing and intelligence could be discussed with spirited results.

      Pitsco Hydraulic Robot Arm

    2. Robots ARE INTELLIGENT: Robots are indisputably intelligent, and with our already-ubiquitous proliferation of Smartphones and Mobile computing devices making the difference between a computer and a robot drawn between a thin line of MOVEMENT. I still own a Valiant Roamer robot where directions must be plugged into the bot ahead of time in order to create movement, but if not programmed correctly, the bot will bump into locations.

      Valiant Roamer Robot

    3. Robots NEED POWER: Like lifeforms, robots need a power source. Theo Jansen has appeared on TED several times for his creation of “a new form of life,” but if you view the video I believe he has created robots with a unique power system.
    4. Robots HAVE SENSORS: This would be the newest editions to the lines of robotics. In a previous post I talked about the BirdBrain Technologies LLC Robotic Finches, which for $99 have Light, temperature, and obstacle sensors
      Accelerometers and Motors
      Buzzer and Full-color beak LED

Do you need all FOUR in order to have a ROBOT? This would be the same argument as saying “classic cars are not CARS.” Modern robots offer much more than their classic counterparts.

Changing Culture through “Coopertition”

The Boy Scouts Offer a Robotics Patch Starting in 2011, and one of the criteria are to:

“6. Competitions. Do ONE of the following.
Attend a robotics competition and report to your counselor what you saw and learned about the competition and how teams are organized and managed.
Learn about three youth robotics competitions. Tell your counselor about these, including the type of competition, time commitment, age of the participants, and how many teams are involved.”

I can think of no better Competition that values Cooperation and “Gracious Professionalism” (called “Coopertition”) than the FIRST Robotics Competition Lines.  FIRST stands For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

  1. Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL) (Ages 6-9): Robots are built using a LEGO® base kit.
  2. FIRST LEGO League (FLL) (Ages 9-16): This competition uses the LEGO Robotics Series.
  3. FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) (Middle and High School): Robots are built using a TETRIX® platform.
  4. FIRST Robotics Competition (High School): This competition uses some of the most sophisticated hardware and software available.
Dec 06

On November 2, 2013, The Atlee High School Robotics Team and Computer Club collaborated together to host a Pilot “Boy Scout/Girl Scout Badgeathon/Patchathon” for robotics and programming.

The goal of the program is to have boys and girls together to satisfy the same badge or patch requirements:

Badges for Boy Scouts:
1. Robotics – 2011
2. Programming – New 2013
3. Computer Badge to be replaced by Digital Technology in 2014

Patches/Badges for Girl Scouts:
1. Juniors only – Entertainment Technology Badge
2. Brownies only – Computer Expert Badge
3. Allowed to do a “Make Your Own Badge” every year to satisfy the patches/badges about programming and robotics that are no longer in the girl scout program: “Girl Scout badges were recently refreshed to reflect girls’ interests and to focus on 21st century skills.”

The customized patch created reflected combining robotics and programming skills utilizing BirdBrain Technologies, LLC Finch Robots.

Tom Lauwers, Owner of BirdBrain Technologies LLC supported our pilot by providing 50 Finch Robots from the Finch Loan Program BEFORE the Computer Science Education Week December 9-15 scheduled launch of the Hour of Code.

The Hour of Code program is a “one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify ‘code’ and show that anyone can learn the basics to be a maker, a creator, an innovator.”

Robotic Finches cost $99.00 each and can be ordered from the Finch Robot site.

Scouts programmed using Snap! programming with a BirdBrain Robot Server for Windows. Other system environments (Mac, etc.) are available here.




I created a set of Snap! Finch Cards for Scouts of the youngest ages to be able to program:


00_BirdBrainRobotServer This gives the directions on uploading the software to have your computer recognize the finch robot.


01_ActivateFinchRobot Once the BirdBrainRobotServer software is loaded, this gives directions on how the physically tether your finch robot and launch the Snap! robot programming window. Snap is a programming environment very similar to MIT Scratch.


02_StartingStopping The motion commands operate the two wheels (left and right) below the robot finch from a range of 0 to 100 percent power forward. Backwards would range -1 to -100 values.


03_BeakColors The LED (Light Emitting Diodes) commands use RGB (Red-Green-Blue) commands from a range from 0 to 100 values.
The LED is located at the beak.




04_BeepSpeak There is a sound command block to have the computer (not the finch itself) speak your text in a synthesized voice. You can also have the finch robot itself beep in Hertz (Hz) from a range of 20 to 20000 frequency for a designated amount of time in seconds. Note: Discomfort is generated past the 5000 Hz range.


05_Temperature The temperature sensor returns the current temperature in Celsius or Fahrenheit.

The sensor is located centrally above the beak.





06_LightSensor The light sensors return the intensity of light for both sensors from a range of complete darkness (0) to total light saturation (100).
The light sensors are located above what looks like the eyes (obstacle detection systems) for the finch robot.





07_Orientation Orientation I believe is determined through something called an accelerometer (which measures tilt and position information on the finch).
The accelerometer is located in the internal center of the finch robot.


The photogallery of the event is pending following final permissions to photograph.

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Oct 07

In conjunction with the video series called the Science of NFL Football DEN Leadership Council member Eileen Malick and Stacy Tutt joined forces to create a football camp pilot to examine the effectiveness of combining advanced science with fundamental football techniques in order to create, faster, more agile, but overall SMARTER youth football players.

This program uses the exercises and tests of an NFL Combine to teach advanced STEM concepts. 2nd through 8th grade students work out like pro-football players and explore physics concepts like torque, acceleration versus speed, and how to measure hydration or the vector of a geometric object (like a football).

Authenticity: To ensure the program was authentic to the same practices in the NFL, Malick recruited Tappahannock native and University of Richmond standout Stacy Tutt.After a stellar college career as a Spider’s quarterback, Tutt signed with the New York Jets as a fullback. He returned to Richmond to coach at U of R, and now is partnering with Malick on this pilot project. With all of the excitement surrounding the Redskins being in Richmond, this program was extremely successful. Here is the recruiting video.

All Players Every Day: Weigh-ins  

Youth football athletes are often dehydrated, but not thirsty, so weigh-ins before and after practice, just like the players of the NFL are an effective way to have athletes understand the importance of being hydrated.

NFL Science link (Nutrition, Hydration, & Health):

Some of our football players lost in excess of 3-4 pounds!
“How many of these (bottles of water) do I need to rehydrate? A gallon?”

1 pint of water = 1 pound
1 gallon of water = _____ pounds*
*Answer: 1 gallon of water = 8 pounds

All Players Every Day: Heat Index

At Football Training Camps most days players practice with all of their gear on (helmet, pads, etc.) and other days players wear shirts and shorts. What determines whether players run the risk of being uncomfortable to running the risk of fatal Heat Stroke (105 ° F) is known as the Heat Index.

The daily temperature is compared to the daily humidity:

NFL Science Link (Nutrition, Hydration, & Health):

All Players Every Day: Nutritional Chart

To maintain your weight when you are fully hydrated:

(How Active you are) needs to = (How many calories you can burn in a day)

The “Two-a-days” for NFL Players are extreme practices burning thousands of calories and banquets of food to maintain their essential nutrients:




NFL Science Link (Nutrition, Hydration, & Health):

All Players: Kinematics & the 40 Yard Dash

In Football Combines, one of the most important measurements for recruitment into college or professional football is the amount of seconds a player can run the 40 Yard Dash.

After running the 10 yard, the 20 yard, and the 40 yard dash, players will calculate their speed and determine the differences between Velocity, Speed, and Acceleration.

NFL Science Link (Kinematics – Position, Velocity, & Acceleration):

To further improve their speed and agility, players incorporated the techniques of the

Biomechanics of Usain Bolt in this Science of the Summer Olympics Series:


Linemen: Torque and Center of Mass:

Game: With you facing your opponent (who is trying to remain standing up straight) try the following to make him lose his balance:

PREDICT: What is the most successful way to make my opponent lose his/her footing?
(Note: Slow pushing. A fast IMPULSE is using Newton’s Second Law)


  • Both standing up straight, you push at both shoulders
  • You crouch down low, push up at one shoulder

NFL Science Link (Torque & Center of Mass):

Football player do not collide in practice without the proper gear, but once properly equipped players can start applying force and momentum using Newton’s Third Law, the Conservation of momentum.

NFL Science Link (Newton’s Third Law of Motion):

Quarterbacks & Receivers: Quarterback Vectors:

A Quarterback throwing to a Receiver is one skill. Throwing to a moving Receiver, or throwing while both players are running require the knowledge of vectors.

NFL Science Link (Vectors):

Offensive & Defensive Players: Pythagoras Angle of Pursuit:

The goal for all offensive players is to get the ball as far and as fast to the end zone as possible (with the goal of defensive players to keep the offense as far away from the end zone as possible), which is an example of Newton’s First Law of Motion.

NFL Science Link (Newton’s First Law of Motion):

Based on your 40 yard dash results (Kinematics & The 40 Yard Dash) try to two-hand-touch your opponent trying to run to the end zone without giving up too many yards, using the Pythagoras Theorem to determine the best “Angle of Pursuit.”

NFL Science Link (Pythagorean Theorem):

Quarterbacks & Kickers: Geometric Shapes:

Footballs have a unique shape (prolate spheroid) which has advantages and disadvantages.

NFL Science Link (Spheres, Elipses, & Prolate Spheroids):

What is the best way to kick a football and attain the best accuracy?
You are again incorporating the Pythagoreas Theorem.

(Note: Being directly behind the ball provides the LEAST accuracy.)

When you correctly use your Kicking Leg as a “Hammer” you are focusing impulse to get the ball as far down the field as possible, Which is Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

NFL Science Link (Newton’s Second Law of Motion):

Punters: Parabolas & Punting:

When Punting a football, the mass & diameter is constant, but the initial speed, air resistance, and angle make all the difference in a punt with successful “hang time” and distance.

NFL Science Link (Projectile Motion & Parabolas):

Here is a video with the enacted STEM Football Model:

New! Homework: NFL Combine Results:

Use DATA from NFL Combines to support why your player is the best!
40 SPEED: 40-yard dash time.
3-CONE: 3-cone drill time.
SHUTTLE: 20-yard shuttle time.
BROAD: Broad jump distance.

Go to previous years to locate your favorite NFL player and position.

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Oct 19

New! Scratch 2.0 is available in HTML5 format without the need for a download like Scratch 1.4. Just press the create tab.

Scratch 2.0 Preview

Mitch Resnick: TED “Learn to Code, Code to Learn”

Mitch Resnick is the Founder of the Lifelong Kindergarten program at the MIT Media Lab, and one of the creators of Scratch.

Scratch is an inherent programming language that makes it easy for children of all ages to create their own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art, and share their creations on the web (Intro to Scratch from ScratchEd).

SCRATCH was developed by MIT for very young children to be able to program, but has been ear-marked as an elementary school products that is too simplistic for middle and high school students… but not any more!

The inherent SCRATCH programming interface is actually the key to 21st century education on the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. SCRATCH’s drag-and-drop blocks resemble MIT App Inventor interfaces for creating apps on Android Phones.

You are not type-type-typing code, you are creating visual structures for complex computer science functions that you can transfer the understanding into other programming languages.

Basic Ideas of Scratch:

ScratchEd was created for Educators to be able to learn how to use Scratch.



Getting started with Scratch:

NOTE as of May 2013:  You currently CANNOT use Scratch 2.0 for LEGO WeDo. Please download Scratch 1.4.

Quote from Mitch Resnick 05/10/2013:

“Thanks for your message.

We definitely plan to support LEGO WeDo with Scratch 2.0, but it probably won’t be available for a few months. We plan to support WeDo as part of a more general “extensions” mechanism, which will allow people to download packages of “custom blocks” for specific external devices (like WeDo) or web services.
When the new features are available, we’ll announce them on the Scratch and ScratchEd websites.


Robots are mechanical mobile devices with software programming and sensors, and SCRATCH and LEGO WeDos provide both!

A discussion you can have with your students is what makes a robot:

  • Sensors
  • Movement
  • Energy
  • Intelligence

Directly plug in the LEGO WeDo USB to the computer with pre-loaded free SCRATCH, and the drag-and-drop robotics components will automatically appear in SCRATCH. If you have a motor raising and lowering, you need to put an interface on the screen to explain what is happening, and if the interface is interactive, we are hitting the core-level of robotics understanding that originally was going over student’s heads with LEGO Mindstorm NXTs because the software-hardware-interaction was not immediate. The robotic LEGO WeDo components that work in SCRATCH are a Distance Sensor, The Tilt Sensor, and a Rotating Motor.

My Blog Post about Scratch-ing the LEGO WeDo

The combination of elementary SCRATCH and elementary LEGO WeDo can tap the interest of all students from the elementary all the way to the high school level.

UPDATE: Presenting SCRATCHing to the 21st Century at the DEN VirtCon 2012 with a special DEN VirtCon Scratch Gallery

SCRATCHing to the 21st Century Presentation Slide

Jul 19

The words “chemistry” and “polymers” strike fear into the hearts of high school students, so when the challenge presented itself to create an innovative week-long summer chemistry camp for elementary school children, Pam Yates and I had decided to “go hard or go home (to Atlee High School where we are science teachers)” to create the first pilot of it’s kind to see if very young children can understand a complex chemistry subject. Here are the overviewed activities of our camp:


A [poly (“many”) + mer (“parts”)] is any material made from repeating parts of a simple piece of matter. There is an award-winning video called “A World Without Polymers? by Yvonne Choo” explaining a world without polymers and plastics.

Students are given time to reflect in their journals what the world would be like without polymers and describe the two types of polymers, natural and synthetic (plastics) polymers.

Students created polymer structures out of paper clips – linear, branched, and cross-linked and from the paper-clip structures learned how there structures make plastic properties such as flexibility and strength.


DNA is a cross-linked polymer structure that is found in all living things. Students used soap, salt, and rubbing alcohol to extract DNA from strawberries they mashed in a plastic bag.

Dawn of Plastics

Rubber from trees was mass-produced at the height of World War II. Experimentation of plastic compounds created Silly Putty (from Silicon), synthetic dyes, and Post-it notes. Students brought in a ball as homework to compare their properties. We also created gel balls (“spit balls”) and bouncy balls from kits where you add water to dehydrated polymers.

Code-Cracking the Recycle Codes

As homework students had to locate the recycle codes on plastics at home and bring it in to pair-share the next day.

A good breakdown of what the 1 – 7 codes is “What Do Recycling Symbols on Plastics Mean? by the Daily Green.” We also discussed why our local recycling centers only accept certain codes (only 1 and 2). We talked about The Big Cleanup with Discovery Education featuring Philippe Cousteau, learning how plastic affects our waterways and how we can take action to protect our oceans.

Recycling Polystyrene Pellets (Styrofoam Packing Peanuts)

When Styrofoam is added to acetone (nail polish remover) it seems to disappear but becomes a melted type of plastic putty that you can mold into shapes that become hard plastic figures when dry.


Bioplastics remove the necessity of using petroleum (a non-renewable resource) in creating synthetic plastics. We used whipping cream to create a bioplastic, and cornstarch can create a bioplastic. Only ingredient of cornstarch… Corn! We also created bioslime and puffy stickers using a biopaint. We also created home-made gummy candies using a kit that extracted the main polymer compounds from guar gum and seaweed.

Spider Silk and Kevlar

The new Spiderman movie was released the same time as our camp, so we discussed how modern scientists were trying to create materials as strong as spider silk. We had an officer bring in 3 types of “bullet-resistant” (as opposed to “bullet-proof”) equipment to discuss how Kevlar (a synthetic polymer) helps protect law enforcement.


The use of journals after every activity/lab was essential for students to be able to incorporate what they have learned and be able to remember the objectives of the camp whenever they open their journals. Also Discovery Education media was essential in presenting all subjects in this camp.

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May 09

NOTE as of May 2013:

New! Scratch 2.0 is available in HTML5 format without the need for a download like Scratch 1.4. Just press the create tab.

You currently CANNOT use Scratch 2.0 for LEGO WeDo. Please download Scratch 1.4.

Quote from Mitch Resnick 05/10/2013:

“Thanks for your message.

We definitely plan to support LEGO WeDo with Scratch 2.0, but it probably won’t be available for a few months. We plan to support WeDo as part of a more general “extensions” mechanism, which will allow people to download packages of “custom blocks” for specific external devices (like WeDo) or web services.
When the new features are available, we’ll announce them on the Scratch and ScratchEd websites.


I have been Scratch-ing with LEGO WeDo kits, and my high school level students absolutely love it!
The LEGO® Education WeDo™ robotics kit is normally ear-marked as an elementary school product, and Scratch was developed by MIT for young children to be able to program, but the combination of the two has tapped the interest of my elementary school daughter, my middle school son, and my Computer Science students at the high school level.


LEGO WeDo USB and the ScratchEd Screen

The LEGO WeDo construction kit runs about $130.00, and Scratch Software from MIT is free (download Scratch 1.4). LEGO Software is available for younger students, but Scratch programming has inherent drag-and-drop blocks that resemble MIT App Inventor interfaces for Android Phones that my advanced students have been using. Directly plug in the LEGO WeDo USB to the computer with pre-loaded free Scratch drag-and-drop the robotics components will automatically appear in Scratch.
If you have a motor raising and lowering, you need to put an interface on the screen to explain what is happening, and if the interface is interactive, we are hitting the core-level of robotics understanding that we originally were going over student’s heads with NXTs because the software-hardware-interaction was not immediate.
An example program I created is called updownduck where a physical LEGO Duck is raised and lowered by clicking the words UP and DOWN on the screen. Scratch provides emulators where you can see the screen-programming in action (letters will change colors when you click them), but without the robotic LEGO WeDo motor and duck attached tethered to your computer, the program will not make sense to someone interacting with the screen (I have received comments saying that the program does not work from the sharing-Scratch community).

An example program using LEGO WeDo with Scratch called updownduck.

But when you download the Source Code and view it within Scratch, you can understand the purpose of the programming.

Source Code for updownduck in Scratch.

The ScratchEd website also has Introductory Tutorials on how to use each WeDo Component:
Scratch Screen and LEGO Customized WeDo
Scratch Screen and LEGO Customized WeDo

Distance Sensor + Hub

Distance Sensor + Sprite

Motor + Scratch

These intro projects give easy-to-follow LEGO directions within the Scratch window.

My favorite section is the WeDo Starter Projects that provide downloadable Scratch files to utilize the Distance Sensor, The Tilt Sensor, and the Motor. We modified the motor project to lift a platform of LEGO Men provided from the WeDo kit. Our challenge was to create a way to make sure the platform stops at a safe level without knocking off the LEGO men.

Complex projects were created at the MIT Lab and you can download the Scratch Files:

  • Submarine Rescue – interactive adventure
  • Balancing Robot – I wish they would post the LEGO designs so we can build the same bot
  • King Duck vs. Fatman Protagonist -interactive balancing and storytelling
  • Caterpillar Love Story – AWESOME storytelling
  • Skiing Moose Ferris Wheel – I wish they would post the LEGO designs for the arm-swinging moose

Many of these projects require teachers or upper-level students to build the components, but once built the storytelling capabilities are incredible.

The robotic LEGO WeDo components that work in Scratch are a Distance Sensor, The Tilt Sensor, and a rotating Motor. The new Science Standards of Learning in Virginia indicate students must have an understanding of probeware, sensor, and accumulate data. The LEGO WeDo components also give numerical indicators on the Scratch Screen of distances and tilt values that can be transferred into authentic data. When the distance sensor shows a value of 2, students can measure with a ruler the distance and chart the values. When the tilt sensor shows a value of 3, students can determine how many degrees equal a value of 3.

NEW! (June 2013) There is now a LEGO WeDo Resource Set for more authentic examples of engineering (ferris wheel, crane, cars, and intelligent houses) versus the traditional LEGO Education WeDo Contruction Set (alligators, birds, and monkeys) for younger children.

UPDATE: (May 2013) This Project has won a RichTech STEM Educator Award!







(Sept 2012) This Project has won a Governor of Virginia COVITS Award!

Innovative Use of Technology in Education

Winner: Atlee High School
For: Scratch and LEGO WeDo for High School

ABOVE: Presenting SCRATCHing to the 21st Century at the DEN VirtCon 2012 with a special DEN VirtCon Scratch Gallery

SCRATCHing to the 21st Century Presentation Slide

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