Teaching Campers about Robots

Teaching campers about robots is the core of any robotics camp. For our camps, we spent 4.5 hours each day building, testing, and learning about robot construction and using technology to make our robot conquer challenges.

What you do with this time is important. These are a couple techniques we tried for our five-day camp. They can be tweaked based on your individual camp.

2014: Modular Lessons

In 2014 (our first year) of camp, we tried a simple technique that promised constant camper engagement and developed a number of different robotics-oriented skills: one day, one topic.

Each day we picked a different type of sensor to focus on and created several challenges that would introduce and challenge the campers’ abilities to design and program robots with the new technology.

On the first day, we practice our mechanical skills by introducing the campers to the robot kits and the programming interface. We had them do activities like program a robot to drive a path by coding each of the turns and lengths into the robot. At the end of the day, we challenged them to create a tug-o-war robot as a challenge of design and mechanical skills.

On day two, we started learning about light sensors by having campers build a robot that could use the color of their surrounds to interpret tasks. They were given the challenge to follow a black line on a white board, which is doable given the correct programming pattern. We introduced a color maze where detecting the color of the wall would give you the instructions on how to proceed (red means turn left, blue means turn right, green means turn around).

Day three brought distance sensors where campers used the sensor to solve a maze built out of wood. We then repeated this exercise on day four with touch sensors that required similar, but different calibration.

Finally, the round the entire week up, we ended with day five where we brought all of their skills together into a single competition. We invented a game we liked to call Street Sweeper. Robots played on a 4′ x 4′ board with a cross-hatchet pattern of tape. Their goal was to move marbles on the board towards their edge of the field, outlined in red or blue tape.

Pros: This methodology was a solid way for campers to learn about the different things that their robots could do. Campers became familiar with the different sensors and the plethora of different challenges meant that something new was always happening.

Cons: Having many different lessons means that the burden falls on the camp organizers to prepare all the materials for the different lessons. For us, this meant that we had to have a variety of different game boards that needed to be switched out every day and there were a lot of different game pieces that needed to be kept track of, used, and repaired.

We also found that only having one day for the competition didn’t give campers time to explore the challenge in a way that would have let them try more creative approaches.

Overall: The lesson based approach did what we need it to do — it got campers up to speed on what was going on and gave them time to explore the different sensors. However, we found that the effort required to make it happen could be better spent elsewhere.

2015: Focused Competition

In our 2015 camp, we wanted to eliminate the work that it took to plans and organize a week worth of lessons (22.5 hours of build time), and we wanted to do that by focusing the campers on a main competition. So we looked towards VEX Robotics and their VEX IQ and EDR competitions.

VEX Robotics is a name that should be familiar with anyone in the robotics world. We looked towards them because not only do we consistently purchase professional-level robotics equipment from them regularly, we planned on using their elementary and middle school level kits in our camp rooms anyway.

In short, we found borrowing their games to work perfectly in our camp setting. Campers became super engaged with the challenges and we didn’t have to think out every detail about rules, game play, etc. We could even just purchase all the game pieces right from VEX.

We gave campers a majority of the week to attack these challenges, with counselor help. Depending upon grade level, we introduced the challenge on day two (middle school) or day three (elementary) and gave them the rest of the week to design, build, and test. Halfway through day four, matches would slowly begin with ample amounts of time in between each match for the campers to tweak and refine their robot.

Pros: By using an existing competition, you take all the work out of making your own challenges/lessons. You should still design creative ways to getting campers up to speed on the robot kits, but the game is already thought out and instead of worrying about tweaking rules you can instead focus on helping the campers play the game.

Cons: This plan is not without its downfalls. Competitions like the ones we used are meant to be built over months, not in three to four days. Wee had some campers walk away frustrated about not having enough time to build the robot they dreamed of. We also found that the game pieces and fields will take a chunk out of your bottom line, but the convenience is well worth it.

Overall: The competition model we found worked out much better than the lesson based model. Campers quickly latched onto the games, and it made the perfect environment where robotics volunteers could help the kids with exactly what they are good at: building robots.

Starting a Robotics Camp

Our team has had some success running robotics summer camps over the past two years. We’ve found a model that has worked well for us, and I feel could benefit other teams trying to get started. To date, we’ve had over 250 registrations and have raised over $100,000 in revenue.

There are a lot of details to think about when you’re running a camp, and I’ll expand on all the different parts of our camp and all the things you should at least consider thinking about. But, we’ll start with a basic look into what’s going on. These are the first details you should figure out, and shape all the other parts of your camp.

A bird’s eye view of camp.

You can run camps for a lot of different reasons and in a lot of different ways. For us, our goal for camp is to get campers excited about robotics.

We believe that when kids get excited and interested in something, they will desire to pursue it on their own. We don’t try to be the place where you go to get textbook information, or are learning from qualified experts. There is always time for that during the school year. We just want to get kids excited.

What’s your camp’s goal? Our goal of getting students excited helps us focus on the important things and disregard the less important things. It also is a key motivator for our overall structure:

At our camp, every four campers should has one volunteer counselor (read: high school student). For 5th & 6th, we have campers in groups of two working on a robot, with a counselor overseeing the two groups. With 7th & 8th we have one dedicated counselor for a group of four campers for a single robot. This lets people work in groups to solve more complex challenges, and means that we have more than enough volunteers in the area to help anyone who needs it 90% of time.

We divide our camp up into rooms, with 16 campers + 4 volunteers + 1 room leader in each room. The room leader is there to set up challenges/competitions and generally lead the group in what is happening.

How is your camp structured? For us, we picked a structure that helps us fulfill our goals. Having lots of volunteers around is important for us as it means that campers are never competing for a teacher’s attention which might happen in a classroom setting where it can be anywhere between 8:1 to 30:1. It also is important because it lets us know exactly how many volunteers should be in a room. Too many and a room can get crowded and veer off-topic quickly. Too few, and campers can get overlooked. For us, 4:1 is perfect. Your results may vary.

Watch the clock, Doc.

When will your camp (hours) happen? We run our camp from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, with drop-off for campers starting at 8:30 am and pick-up ending at 3:30 pm. This is considered a full-day camp, as it is six hours long, which many parents appreciate especially if both of them work during the day.

What will campers do? During oursix hours, we do snack, lunch, and some recreation time in between our 3 90-minute build sessions. This requires a lot of planning, with task forces dedicated to things like meal planning, recreation, and facilities setup/teardown. But, by having this variety we have found a way to break up the longer build sessions and to get people outside and active.

Our plan might or might not work for you for one of many reasons. A half day camp (three hours) might be more in your realm of possibilities, or even a workshop-sized camp (90 minutes). You might decide that you want to end at 1:00 pm and not deal with lunch, or that you want to avoid food all together. A couple things to consider when you’re picking your hours are:

  • Activities: What are students doing during this time? Will they be able to accomplish their task in the given time? Will they get bored and need more to do?
  • Meals: Does the camp cross over a meal time? Will your camp provide food for that? Will you allow campers to bring their own food? etc.
  • Volunteers: Do I have volunteers that can make that time commitment? Do I have enough people to do all the activities planned?

Show me the money.

What will your campers pay? Camp registration fees can be very dependent upon your demographic. For us, campers pay $450 to come for one week, and we duplicate the session over 5 weeks. This structure works well for us for a couple reasons:

Offering multiple weeks of the same content means that we can reuse our assets, our curriculum, everything! This is vital because it means that we can take all the work and planning our team has done and make it work over and over again. It also means that we can use the assets we purchase multiple times, which means we can buy the best kits for the job.

Besides that, by offering multiple weeks we are expanding our target audience. If we only offered one week, the only campers that could come would be those who don’t have any trips/vacations/other camps planned on that week. Instead, we cast a wide net that allows us to get as many campers as possible.

Just the beginning.

There is a lot more to think about. I’ll be adding more posts about the decisions that we made for our camp, and how you might go about planning your own.

If you have any questions about anything above, or in general, feel free to send me an email at tyler@team3128.org.

Knowing When to Quit

We recently had to stop our Narwhal Coding Challenge early. We had a lot of interest, but ultimately we just couldn’t sustain it. And this venture reminded me about one of the best ways you can refocus your time: Quit.

Trying new things and getting your feet wet in different ventures are important and worthwhile steps to learning what is necessary to succeed. But, even with a great idea, sometimes you just don’t have what you need to take a venture all the way. For instance, our attempt at creating an eight week challenge ended up failing because the leadership didn’t have a clear vision for what what necessary in the challenges, as well as did not have the resources to bring the challenges we did have to fruition.

However, this doesn’t mean that the effort was not worth the time. Because of this failure, we now know a couple things about what it takes to put on this type of event:

  • Prepare as much as possible ahead of time. One of our major failings was the rush to create a challenge, answer, and documentation throughout the week. This meant that the answers were sometimes quickly thought through, and several were just not posted at all. All of this effort, if done beforehand, could have instead have been spent grading submissions making the entire process less stressful.
  • Find an abundance of committed help. Most of our judges on the coding challenge were made up of students who had a lot of schoolwork going on, as well as mentors who needed to attend to the needs of the robotics team. In order for something like this to work, the people on the grading side need to be committed. Also, having as many judges as possible would mean that the work would be spread out very evenly so that most people only had to do one or two gradings each week.
  • Know your audience. One reason we had a rush to make challenges and answers is because we did not have a clear audience. At first the vision was to aim at students who knew very little about programming, but this did not challenge our very knowledgable students. This caused us to shift who we aimed our challenges at mid-stream, which dropped the participation as well as caused stress to change the challenges.

All of these problems plagued our coding challenge. Instead of continuing on for another five weeks, we have instead decided to cancel it. Our desire is to not waste time doing things half-heartedly, but instead to focus on the things we can do well.

There is a good chance we will revisit this idea, possibly bringing in our smarter programming students to help us create a series of questions aimed at our newer programmers.


Wrapping Up Robotics Camp

This day marked the last day that I personally will be leading robotics camp. Next week Garrison Price, my co-mentor, will lead our motley crew into a last week of camp before we close for the summer.  Let me tell you, this summer has been simply amazing.

For four weeks we have 9-12 year old campers joining us to build robots. During the week they get to both figure out challenges in pairs of two and help build a large life-sized tennis ball shooting robot.

Over the last three weeks I’ve got to work with so very intelligent and brilliant kids. Many of our campers took our challenges and immediately soared with it, working to figure out a solution and make the best robot possible to solve it. Even more, the one-on-one competitions were incredible because we got to see a lot of robots all compete against each other in games like tug-o-war, sumo, and street sweeper.

Talking with our leadership for the past weeks, we are very excited to see what we can do next year. There is a whole score of things we want to do better, and there is so much already established that we can build on.

To all of the parents and counselors that helped make the camp possible, I say thank you. I had one of the greatest summers of my life.

Robotics Summer Camp in San Diego

Today I’m proud to announce the opening of Canyon Crest Academy’s first robotics camp. Over the past couple months, a lot of work has come together to make a camp that will bring children 9-12 years old together to become inspired by science, engineering, and robotics.

I’m super happy that we are officially open and ready for sign ups. We really are excited to invite around 80 kids to join us over the summer and are looking forward to the fun and learning that will happen right in the middle of Carmel Valley over the summer.

Thanks to all the hard work of Carolyn Cohen at the Canyon Crest
Academy Foundation, as well as the entire staff at Canyon Crest Academy for working with us to make this camp a reality.

To find out more, visit the camp website.