Sunday, January 24, 2010

Robots, Ideal Food for the Gifted Mind

I recently had the tremendous pleasure to judge at an elementary school tech fair.  A few decades back--no comments on this, please--when I was in elementary school we only had science fairs.  Ah, I remember fondly the work and the research I put into my "Air" and "Eye" projects.  Mine were really more research projects compared to what the kids do now.  Today there are fairs of various types and a tech fair allows children to develop a project in various areas of computer and Interent technology, from graphic arts to presentations and robotics.  And naturally the gifted children really stand out, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

The category I was asked to judge was robotics.  I suppose this is because of my programming background and the fact that I'm the President of a software company.  The hardware used in the projects were all kits, but it was surprising the varying complexity of the kits and the accompanying programming software (see my notes below).  What we were asked to grade the projects were rubrics such as whether the project worked as intended, how well the student understood the underlying programing concepts, and how well the student had picked up on problem solving capabilities with their project (i.e. did they learn only how to make their robot achieve the designated task, or did they generalize the problem solving capabilities of their kit and learn how it could be applied to other tasks).

I guess because of my love of programming and the fact that I love to see kids really "getting it" when it comes to creating a program, I tended to hone in on trying to see if the children had learned how to generalize their problem solving skills.  I asked questions like, "what would happen if you changed this?" and suggesting a change to their program; or, "if you wanted your robot to do this instead, how would you change your program?"  I found these questions super-effective in determining whether the child really understood the problem solving capabilities in developing software.  So parents out there whose children are building robot projects, perhaps you could encourage them to learn true problem solving questions by challenging them with these questions.

We judged about 8 projects, and as I said before the gifted children tended to really stand out.  Not only did they score high on the rubrics, and not only did they demonstrate true and solid problem solving understanding, but they were filled with enthusiasm (and in one case, almost overwhelmingly so).  Two projects stood out here.  One project was built with a Lego Mindstorm kit and the student had devised a very elaborate task that was even accompanied with a backstory (now, that's a gifted child).  His project worked as designed and he scored well on the rubrics, but he really stood out by being so into his project; indeed, it was hard to get a word in edge-wise to ask him questions!  The other project was much simpler, but unlike the other projects which relied on a graphical flow-chart method of programming, this project relied on writing lines of code in BASIC; not only did the child have to demonstrate problem solving skills, but he had to learn a true programming syntax.  His command of programming for problem solving was solid, and while he wasn't bouncing off the walls, his passion and interest in understanding how to write code was obvious.

I hadn't realized there were so many different types of robot kits now.  If your gifted child is interested in a robotics project, I'd recommend you take a look at the following kits:
LEGO Mindstorms - a staple, allows for creative construction of robotic devices, supports a variety of feedback sensors, and the programming is a nice, powerful, visual environment that is easy for both children and non-programming skilled parents to learn and work with.
Robotic Arm Edge - a robotic arm kit that can mimic the very practical tasks of industrial robotic arms; the kit is not nearly as an open construction platform as LEGO, but will help the child focus on tasks and programming problem solving. This kit also has a nice and powerful visual programming tool that teaches programming techniques, including objects and properties, plus it has the nifty feature of being able to control the arm in real time.
Mobile Robot Base Kit - this kit is for children that can rely on lots of help from Mom or Dad.  It is a mobile device with two wheels that requires pretty low level programming.  It has some modular sensor capabilities and will be best served with someone with skills working with electronics.  This kit will really require the student to hone their programming skills, so I recommend it only for children who have already demonstrated an ability to learn procedural programming.

One last note for this blog; all of the projects I judged were by boys.  I would love to see girls taking more interest, not necessarily in robotics but in programming.

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