Teaching robots to walk the line: Students continue to study robotics in rural Cambodia
by Eric Shaffer
Photo Credit: Unknown
This February I had the opportunity to visit PEPY Cambodia. A coworker of mine had visited in 2010 and introduced students and PEPY teachers at the Chanleas Dai school to robotics through LEGO’s WeDo kits and I eagerly desired to go as well. When I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I met the PEPY Siem Reap team and learned about all the ways PEPY is involved in 11 different communities in one commune in rural Cambodia.
I travelled out to Chanleas Dai and met Lida, the main teacher in charge of the Creative Learning Class (CLC), where students get hands-on training and additional lessons outside of their usual government-mandated studies. In CLC, students explore a wide variety of topics, from science experiments about physics or chemistry, researching history and presenting it to the class, writing short stories or poems, to programming on their OLPC XO laptops. An additional Engineering club has even emerged for 7th and 8th Graders out of the CLC class for students who desire to focus on engineering, math, and science.
Lida has so much energy and excitement it is contagious. She has become an expert in Scratch programming on the XO laptops and the LEGO WeDo robots, and was able to teach the WeDo software to her students as well. After learning to build and program the WeDos, one student group pulled from their daily experiences to make a harvest truck, a very common sight in rural Cambodia.
However the Creative Learning Class has had less experience with the LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot kits, which National Instruments recently donated. These robots are a lot more powerful than the LEGO WeDos, and are therefore more challenging to program.
It was great to spend all day with Lida and go through almost every function available on the NXT robots. Throughout the day, Lida was inventing new challenges for us to tackle and new moves she wanted the robot to do. We then came up with the code to communicate to the robot how to do each task. Lida then took one of the challenges we had worked through and brought it to the 8th Grade Engineering Club the next day. The task: build a robot that follows a black line around the floor.
At first this sounds very easy, but the robot only has a sensor that can tell if it is on black or white. How do I tell it how to think? You can’t just tell the robot to wait until it sees black and then go straight because the black line is not going to be straight. If the robot veers off the line, how do you know what side you are on? Thinking through logical issues like this requires problem solving, critical thinking, experimentation, and adaption. It was incredible to see students use these skills to work through this problem (with a little guided assistance from Lida and myself), and in the process strengthen the building blocks of engineering and entrepreneurship.
By the end of our two-hour session, all six student groups had robots which would follow a black line on the floor, and many groups were already experimenting with alterations to improve their robot’s performance. When a group’s robot completed the challenge successfully, you could see the triumphant smiles which completely eclipsed any frustrations which may have surfaced in the previous hour. You could tell through observation that engineering and robotics really spoke to some of these students, and I cannot wait to see what they come up with in the future.