Author Topic: Robot Beginner's Class  (Read 1935 times)


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Robot Beginner's Class
« on: July 15, 2013, 01:59:32 PM »
Started a new thread here from one of Keith's reply on the Official PropellerPowered Expo thread:
Six months ago we also started a monthly Robot Beginner's Class series for the total robot newbie (taught by me), as well as Advanced Lectures for the more experienced taught by Jim R and guest lecturers (eg machine vision, ROS, hacking Roombas, etc).  That's to keep everyone's interest, regardless of experience! 
- Keith


That looks interesting, I have been wanting to start something like that around here.  How have the classes been going so far (from your point of view)?  Has it been well received (attendance increasing, etc)?  What kind of prices are you charging (for the classes, for the parts, kits, etc.)?  What kind of comments have you been receiving (from the kids, parents, friends, etc.)

Do you have a list of the topics that you are wanting to cover, or a course outline, or anything like that? What have you covered so far?

This looks like it may be a great way to build interest in robotics, electronics and engineering.

Thanks for any input you can provide.


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Re: Robot Beginner's Class
« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2013, 12:54:06 PM »
Quote from: Granz
That looks interesting, I have been wanting to start something like that around here. 
{please describe it}
Do you have a list of the topics that you are wanting to cover, or a course outline, or anything like that? What have you covered so far?
How have the classes been going so far (from your point of view)? 
Has it been well received (attendance increasing, etc)? 
What kind of prices are you charging (for the classes, for the parts, kits, etc.)? 
What kind of comments have you been receiving (from the kids, parents, friends, etc.)

Hi.  I just saw this thread.  (Gee...someone should have messaged me on it!)

It has been going very well.
The first things to remember are (A) "Pick Your Fight", and (B) "Tailor it to your audience".

You also have to recognize there's a BIG difference between Builder and Programmer crowds (and younger vs older learners). MUCH different goal sets, initial knowledge base, and focus levels.  Builders often wish to MAKE a robot (but then don't know what to do with it once done).  Programmers often want to see a BEHAVIOR (but then don't have a clue how to get their hands on something to do that).

{edit insert}
So... IOW, the most efficient class is not one that covers EVERYTHING, just whatever knowledge they are MISSING.
{end edit insert}

Kids vs Adults also have VERY different learning styles.

Kids have extremely short attention spans, want fast payback, and TEND towards "apps" vs "build".  They SAY they want to make something, but few have the patience for a true scratch build.  For them, you may for example wish to provide a kit bot, or even a pre-built BOEBOT that lets them immediately get into programming it to do something interesting like follow a line.  IOW, you are focused more on Fast Build (if anything) and lots of behavioral programming.

{edit insert}  To clarify:
Once they are going with any kind of a basic mobile robot base, you can then EASILY get them to sit still long enough to make and program ACCESSORIES for their basic robot, such as a line follower device, a range finder, etc.  IOW, for kids you want a Fast Start, and THEN you can build on it in an incremental fashion.
{end edit insert}

Adults OTOH may wish to make (or learn) something, "in depth". 
IOW, they often want a very DEEP understanding of a subject. 

With them, I often start out with a discussion of their GOALS.  What do they want it to DO once done?  If we're talking hacking up a robot out of old kid's riding jeep parts to mow their lawn, it is a much different class than making a tabletop sized maze solver, or whipping up a home brew industrial robot arm to do something for them in their workshop..

When I say "pick your fight" remember that Robotics in general is a combination of several diverse disciplines:  Mechanics, Electronics (both power and data), Computers, and Control Theory. Dealing with them all is a huge, long undertaking, so you need to focus on what THIS crowd wishes to learn.

As to my Beginner's Class:  It is going very well.  I teach a Robotics Beginner's Class for Adults at Mi Robot Club "MiRC", on the 4th Wed evenings, in Ann Arbor MI, at Maker Works AA - Adults are 7-9pm, with my class being a small segment.

This batch mainly wanted some Build Instruction, at a DEEP level.  So, I am mainly currently running through drivetrain construction and interfacing.  I already covered a number of classes including Intro to Mobile Robotics, Chassis Styles, and Wheel/Tread types.  This month is "Drivetrain Wheel Geometries", or how to arrange your wheels and treads to do interesting things, from the most basic wheel/castor/tread, through Rook, Crab, Swerve, and Synchro, and even Omnidirectional and hybrid types.

Other classes in the current "series" will include "coupling power to wheels", "motors and gearbox types (including freebies)", "interfacing power" (h-bridges, relays, MOSFETS, etc.), and "drivetrain feedback (closing the loop)".   

This sequence walks up the entire drivetrain, giving the students the knowledge to build one from scratch, from whatever they can find.  In the end my goal is to enable every one of them to then be able to whip up a mobile base on whatever scale they wish, and know exactly how to drive and talk to it with either a micro or hard logic.

When they are done with this class, I'll ask them AGAIN what they wish to do next, and take a vote on it.  Other "series" for them may then focus on "Payloads", "Sensors and Instrumentation", Micros, etc.  I teach whatever they wish to learn, interactively.

Kids would not stand for this series, but adults would.  That's the fight the adults wanted.

In contrast - When for example I teach FIRST teams, I focus more on Game Analysis, their Kit of Parts, Building Drivetrains, Standard Payloads, Team Organization (with Leadership Training), Recruiting, and Financing.   Those are the topics THEY need.

{edit insert}
To answer your basic questions:

1) What do you charge for classes?   

For "hobby" classes local to me, normally nothing.   I volunteer my time to help FIRST, as well as for MiRC activities.  But if someone ever wishes to hire me as a Paid Lecturer on the travel circuit someday, hey, I'm game!  {wink}

My personal goals are (a) to SWAP knowledge with others, to benefit us both, and (b) to increase the number of people nearby for me to work with.  I often learn as much as I teach, in group settings. 

Heck... I've done robotics and automation engineering for decades now, both professionally and as a hobby.  At this point, to attack the problems *I* wish explore I need TEAMS of people.  So, I'm growing them!  For example, in the last 15 years I've started a number of clubs and 5 new high school FIRST FRC teams in my area, as well as helped revitalize a number of struggling regional FIRST teams. (Trust me... You can get a LOT more done much faster with a dedicated team of people, than with years of tinkering by yourself.  It also allows each person to play to their strengths, and interests.)   

That can often be more valuable to your own goals, than being paid for a class.  (But, then again, they're not mutually exclusive!)

2) What do you charge, for robot kits?

For FIRST, we raise the money ourselves through fund raising activities, plus some corporate sponsorships. It is not a cheap program.  A typical FIRST FRC team can cost anywhere from $6-8K to well over $30K a year to operate, depending on the size of the team, how many activities they do, and the travel costs involved. That is where sponsorships and grants become important.

At MiRC, my Beginner's Class is a Lecture Series.  No materials are needed and I donate my time for that as well, so again there is no charge for attendees. (IOW, we use it as a draw, for increasing MiRC membership.)

But whenever we create a MiRC special class that involves materials (such as the PropBot Build class), we typically do it "at cost" as a group bulk buy for that particular class.  We do not profit from it.  MiRC is a hobby club, so we don't even maintain a checking account.  Process: Someone first proposes a build.  If there is enough interest they (or with others) create the bill of materials for it, price it out, and brings the total cost back to the group.  If there is enough interest at that point we then proceed to run the class. Those that wish to participate then chip in the money for their fraction of the materials into a pool, and the organizer uses that for the bulk order for that particular class.

As a concrete example: Take the PropBot class we created a few years ago.

If I remember correctly, our PropBot kit was well under $75 for the entire part set. That included a PropUSB board, accessory sockets, protoboard, and resistors to set it up for totally solder-less wiring operation of up to 4 servos.  It also included 2 parallax continuous servos, wheels, a caster, power pack, download cable, and all of the frame and mounting hardware to build a working Propeller based base.  You had to provide your own laptop, and downloaded the IDE and test program from either the net or our archive on a thumb drive.

Once built, you then learned how to download a prewritten " square dance" mobility test program.  This verified you understood how to do a software load cycle.  Examining and editing this test program then gave you the needed core knowledge of how to use the libraries, talk to the hardware, and do additional programming.

Students left the class with a cheap, easily modified Propeller based mobile platform ready for more interesting experiments.  Members have since added other goodies to their PropBots, like IR and US sensors for navigation, scanner heads, VEX transmitter-receiver sets for remote control, and servo based manipulation accessories.

BTW... A MiRC PropBot II chassis is currently under development, to make the next version even cheaper by making the ENTIRE chassis out of a single laser cut sheet of acrylic.  The prototypes look good, but we're still tinkering with what useful accessories we can squeeze out of the same acrylic sheet's waste before making a production run (like mounts for common sensors), and what other "mounts" should be there by default, for future expansion.

3) What kind of comments are you receiving?

So far all positive, but you always get the normal mix of "we need more of XX and less of YY" from some, and the exact opposite from others in the same class who have a different focus.  I just try to stay roughly in the middle with that, or err on the LESS side, with a comment "If you wish more info on {this} topic, come see me after class for a discussion", so as not to overly bore people with no interest in that sub-topic. 

The final proof though is in the long term, when people eventually show up for Show N Tell with robots they have built as a result of knowledge they have gained in the classes.  THAT is my true feedback!

A word upon Goals, and Methods:

With my FIRST class, my goal is simply to give them a chance to realize their dreams, and to "Free Their Minds".  I take kids that have always been taught (beaten down?) under the "Find The ONLY (single) Correct Solution" philosophy, and never get to DO much hands-on, and turn their creativity loose. 

My typical way to help break them of that habit is my "Car and Truck" speech   ("OK answer me this... What is the one 'CORRECT' solution for designing a Car or Truck?"  Answer:  "Uhhhhh, wait a minute......" ;-)   Once they realize there are often NO "perfect" answers in the real world, but mostly TRADE-OFFS and "Optimizations of PARAMETERS", you are well on your way to a brand new mindset that puts THEM in charge of the decisions.  I quickly follow up the inevitable "What do I do next" standard question with "I don't know. What do need to do next to get it to do what YOU want it to do?", and "OK, so how can you make THAT happen?"  etc.   

This creates GOAL DRIVEN Educational Opportunities, to give THEM a reason to WANT to learn a tool they'll need to solve their current problem or dilemma.  (Like... "Hey, let me show you a trick from something called Trigonometry...")
The reward is the AHA! startled awakening because something they imagined actually became REAL.  It proved to THEM that THEY can turn THEIR dreams into real "stuff".  From there, the second reward is the inevitable "Hey I can make that EVEN BETTER if I now try {this}" process that starts up once they have something real in hand, but it doesn't work as WELL as it could.

THAT is when I know that they have taken charge of their own minds.

4) Do you have a list of the topics you have covered?

I think I covered this MiRC class above. I always tailor each of my classes or class series to what THAT set of people wish to learn, and this one wanted what I deem "the Drivetrain Set" - lots of ways to make something that moves, in various scales, that can be controlled by a micro or logic. 

I have a wide range of topics related to both Robot Mechatronics as well as Team Building.

But in general - Based on my experience with starting up FIRST teams and robot clubs I've been working on organizing my mass of presentations and notes into a book (series?) on both FIRST Robotics Technology and Cheap Bots.  I plan to cover a wide range of build and organizational topics.  But that is a VERY long term proposition, and will also depend on what "the market" wishes to learn (or at least what Publishers BELIEVE they wish to learn. :-)

Does that answer your questions?

{end edit insert}

Does this make sense?

My questions to all of YOU:

1) What have you done in YOUR classes? 

2) What do YOU feel should be covered in a "Robotics Basics Class"?
3) What should the GOALS be, for a "Robotics Basics Class"?

(BTW... Please be specific, esp with the age group you are talking about...)

- Keith Mc.
« Last Edit: August 26, 2013, 12:44:45 PM by KeithMc »


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Re: Robot Beginner's Class
« Reply #2 on: August 29, 2013, 08:16:04 AM »

Excellent write up on your experiences. Your experiences are  broader but seem to track what I have been seeing in trying to work with the 4-H kids and my 12 year old daughter.

The age group I've been working with 11-16 is difficult because as they mature, they start to develop more adult learning goals and patterns but stillhave some of the "kid quirks" - of course, that "mature" thing happens at all ages...some of us are still maturing!

Your experiences as well as those of Professor Braino's on the Parallax forums with his "cheap robot" course are great input to anyone wanting to try this on their own.