Pushchino is a town about one hours drive south of Moscow that was built specifically to house a scientific community for biological research. The Winter School, which now runs in March during school holidays, was created to provide Russian students with extra education beyond what they might get in schools, and to increase their intellect and experience, particularly in the sciences. Some of the students come from Pushchino itself, but many come from Moscow and other places in Russia and CIS countries, such is the reputation of the school. Last year a young boy came from Vladivostok by himself, by train, a journey which is 7 days each way! As it turned out after my week at the school I could understand why it has such a good reputation.
There are many courses given during the week covering sciences, the arts, philosophy, languages, literature, technology as well as games and plenty social activities. Most of the courses are delivered in Russian, but given my Russian language is still at the four year old level, then we agreed I could run the course in English, which would also allow the students to practice and learn technical English. There was no real need for them to practice their everyday English as the standard that most of them spoke at was very high, probably better than mine, ahem!
Why a robotics course, when I have a few skills to choose from? 2013 is the year of robots! The technical press, conferences and venture capital firms have a strong interest in the subject this year, and hopefully going forward. Whilst we have heard this before there are a number of fundamental drivers to the current trend including low cost and powerful sensors (dIMU, GPS, vision, signal processing, Kinect, GPUs), low cost and powerful controllers (e.g Arduino and Raspberry Pi), free software tools, collaborative/social tools for sharing designs and knowledge, and 3D printing using a variety of materials. This is already manifesting in a strong trend and hobby interest in drones for example, which is also starting to lead to commercial opportunities and numerous well funded projects on crowd funded sites e.g. the robot DragonFly on IndieGoGo received $1.4m in crowd funding. I helped get it there:-) My course was designed to expose the students to some of the technologies and concepts and to create some interest and enthusiasm for robots in particular, but also in technology sectors which are, like Europe and the US, seeing a decline in student interest.
I wanted to expose the students to a really interesting and inspiring robot, and it took me very little thought to remember the awesome Anyways (a Segway style self balancing robot built with Lego Mindstorms) by Laurens Valk. Laurens had done all the hard work already and provides plans to build a few variants of the robot, as well as open source code to keep the robot vertical.
With that part already available, all I had to do was construct a course of five one hour sessions to explain about PID (proportional, integral and derivative) control, dIMU (digital inertial measurement units composed of a gyroscope and accelerometer), various other robotics related sensors and how they perform in the real world, essentials of robotics programing, then tie the lot together with a team race at the end of the week for a pile of chocolates. A fairly high level conceptual course! *1
One of the cool things about Pushchino Winter School is that the students are in charge of their own time there, so they choose their own courses, whether they go to them or not, and whether they go to any of the other activities or not. Us teachers are there to run our course if it is chosen, to provide a bit of guidance to a team of students we are responsible for, and to organise things around the students. It’s an empowering idea that made sense to me, and resulted in really motivated students, So, the first thing I had to do was sell my course to the 12 – 17 year olds who might want to attend. Cue the dancing robots! Luckily after my presentation I got enough students to fill my class.
I’ve almost written enough, so I will finish with a few photographs from the week, both from my robotics course and from my Lambda Team who I spent a lot of time with as we kept each other right through the week, played games *2 and had fun.
If you are interested in running a similar robotics course please get in touch and I will pass on my notes and code.
Thanks go to:
Laurens Valk for the Anyways
Xander Soldat for the RobotC driver suite
RoboMatter for RobotC
All the students at Pushchino Winter School for their curiosity, enthusiasm and Russian food tips!
All the other volunteer teachers for their interest, helping me out when I got stuck which was often, and for late night vodka and food.
More photographs at vk.com/moosooboo
*1 I make no apologies for delivering such a high level and conceptual course, although I feel that some people were slightly shocked by the lack of in depth theory. We still need theory, and specialists with a deep knowledge of subjects to guide the rest of us and to push the boundaries of the subject. But, the knowledge space is changing, has already changed, thanks to google. In seconds we can find a breadth AND depth of information on any subject. We can find a range of views on subjects. We can find objective and accurate information that is not skewed by memory failure or personal agenda. We can find source code and tools and libraries written by others that we can build on. High level, conceptual and multi-disciplinary education and learning has a real value to me, and I think to us all. Personally I think it is great, thanks Google!
*2 It was interesting watching the ‘games’ that the Russian students played. They were clearly having fun, but the games were structured to build empathy, memory skills, reactions, vocabulary, reflexes, body language or knowledge. e.g. we played charades, called ‘crocodile’ here, a lot, which builds vocabulary, none spoken communication, empathy but still was fun and often had us in stitches at peoples mimes. Sometimes ‘games’ at schools feel more like lessons or extensions of the lessons, but these felt like games with purpose. A subtle difference, but I noticed it, and was told it is deliberately engineered this way by the organisers.