If you are a Hackaday reader, it is a good bet that when you were a kid there was some adult who infected you with the madness you have for science, engineering, tinkering, or whatever it is that brings you here. Maybe it was a parent or a teacher. For many of us, it was a local ham radio operator. But it was probably someone who had the passion for this kind of thing and you caught it.
Paying that debt forward can be very rewarding. Schools and youth organizations are always looking for people to share their passions with kids and at the right age and the right school, you could be that one push that moves a kid off a bad path.
The real problem is what do you do? Kids don’t respond well to long PowerPoint presentations and abstract lectures. I was always taught “to teach, you have to be heard.” The best way to get kids to listen is to engage them in some activity.
I’ve done a little exercise with kids for many years that I wanted to share as a good example of what you can do with limited time and resources. The only special equipment you need is something that will work as a blindfold (like a bandanna or a sleep mask). Everything else you can improvise and you can tailor the exact details based on what you have handy, the age of the students, and the amount of time you have.
Programming Robots with Your Mind
I start off asking the kids about robots. Do they have any (like a Roomba, maybe)? What have they seen in movies? How do robots move? Get them talking with you instead of just listening and you’ve won half the battle. Then I split the kids into at least two teams. The teams should be 4-6 kids, although the more teams you have, the more time you’ll need.
I set a task for a fictional robot. I’ll stand at a trash can or some other handy landmark and say, “I’m a robot at this charging station.” I’ll walk to, for example, a chair and say “I have to go get some water from this water fountain.” Then I’ll pace over to some other easy to find spots and tell them these are plants that need to be watered (two is plenty). Then I will go back to the charging station.
The kids can use a notebook, a flip chart, or a whiteboard to write a “program” which is just the steps required to get the job done in English. You can pick one kid from each team to be the robot and another to be the computer. that controls the robot. If I have older kids or other adults I’ll give each team a “coach” but sometimes I do it and just float between the teams. But here’s the catch: the coach should push at least one team to do an open loop set of steps and another team to go closed loop.
Thinking in Open and Closed Loops
Here’s what I mean. One set of students might write things like “Take 4 steps forward and turn to 3 o’clock.” That’s open loop. Another set might program saying “Walk forward until you touch the table then turn to 3 o’clock.” That’s closed loop.
When the teams are ready the robot gets a blindfold (I usually don’t tell them this in advance). The computer has to read exactly what’s on the program and the robot has to obey. The results are often hilarious. Usually (but not always) the closed loop teams do better.
When it is over, you can review what they learned with them: computers are very literal; sensors are important; the difference between open loop and closed loop control. I might show or mention some other examples. For instance, most 3D printers are open loop (other than the home switches) because price is a factor and stepper motors are very accurate. A toilet uses a closed loop control to operate the water filling mechanism (for the right grade level, discussing the toilet is funny).
Grow the Next Generation of Hackers
If you have an hour with some kids, this is a pretty good exercise and great fun too. You can tailor it to the age (high school kids ought to be able to do a rougher course, for example, and write a more rigorous program).
You might have sworn you’d never go back to school. But doing activities like these with the kids is enjoyable and you never know when one of them will come through town after finishing college with an engineering degree and stop to say thanks. Even if they don’t, the satisfaction of paying it forward is worth it. You might even learn something yourself.