Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Review of BeeBot Work

I finished my work with BeeBots last week (for the moment) and thought I'd share what I learnt.

First off is surprise, as always, at how different children react and are stimulated by the BeeBots. Despite having worked in a special school for nearly all my adult life, I still find myself underestimating some pupils while overlooking the needs of some others. Although I know that just because a child has little or no verbal language that doesn't mean they have little or no understanding, I still fall into the trap of over simplifying activities for them. They soon showed me!

On the other hand, there are those children who are very talkative and can seem to have a great understanding of things, but this isn't necessarily the case. Things can quickly become overwhelming for them and they can have trouble explaining where the difficulty lies, which often results in an adult confusing matters further as they try to diagnose and solve the problem. Something that’s often only possible afterwards.

So anyway, the how did these things manifest themselves with the BeeBots? Most, if not all, children were motivated by the BeeBots’ movement, sound or in some cases just the bright colour! This motivaton lasted longer for some than others, a few children soon found the slow pace of the BeeBots quite tiresome and they felt the need to give a little push which would cause the motor to strain and whir. This was very motivating for some children and keeping the BeeBot undamaged became quite a challenge. As sturdy as they are, things tend to get pushed to the limit here!

We started most of the sessions with a free play with the BeeBots to familiarise ourselves with the buttons and what BeeBot was capable of. The key button for most of the kids to learn first of was, of course, the “GO” button, as this is the one that makes things happen. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly nearly all the children grasped this even without the use of the symbols I had lovingly crafted! I guess the fact that it is green while all the other buttons are orange helps to highlight its slightly different purpose as well as draw attention to it.
So long as there were instructions programmed into the BeeBot the “GO” button gave an instant effect which is rewarding, motivating and encouraging for the children. Problems did arise whenever the “CLEAR” button was hit rendering the “GO” button suddenly useless. Children did not enjoy this! It struck me that a facility to lock a programme in would be useful, but I guess this is the entry level equipment and perhaps ProBots can do this?

The next step was going to utilise more of the symbols and the schedules I had made. The general idea being that I would lay out a set of instructions of suitable complexity that the children would follow, taking the first symbol, inputting that instruction, then moving onto the next symbol until reaching the symbol for “GO” at the end of the schedule. This worked really well, the children were indeed familiar enough with the system to carry it over for use with the BeeBots. This kept the focus on learning control of the BeeBots, rather than becoming distracted with new methods for following instructions. Problems did arise if the wrong button was pressed. In some cases it was appropriate to leave the mistake in so that we could review what went wrong afterwards. But in other cases, I felt it may have been a bit of a blow to confidence to have worked so hard to follow and input instructions then have it go wrong. In these cases, I would clear the instructions and input what had been done so far myself. While this was not ideal, I think I managed to do it quick enough so as not to give the feeling that I was taking over from the pupil.

Where it was appropriate I had some road tiles set up in a large plastic picture frame that I picked up cheap in Woolworths. This was simply to keep the tiles in place, but it’s cheapness soon shone through as it split in two leaving some nice jagged edges, so that didn’t last too long! Instead I laminated the tiles so now they can be taped together, but still be detached and rearranged. Anyway, I had a them set up in three ways. One was a single loop, this meant I could programme one forward movement and a turn and all the child had to do was press “GO” repeatedly to move around the loop. This was to reinforce the use of the “GO” button on its own. Then there was a U-Turn of sorts which required BeeBot to go forward turn round a loop and come back towards the start on a parallel road. This was designed to be slightly simpler than the third, and main, route that went right across the board. In reality, though, it was just slightly shorter!

Anyhow, I mention the road tiles as they were the third step in our BeeBot work. The idea being that we could plan BeeBot’s route by manually moving BeeBot round the course and choosing the appropriate symbol for the movement we had just made. This was Nic Hughes suggestion when I spoke to him before starting the work and it really helped the kids to foresee what BeeBot would do. We’d look at where he needed to go (BeeBot, not Nic!) and the pupils would suggest the movement, by choosing a symbol. We’d move him according to the suggestion and if it was correct place that symbol onto our schedule. Once the whole route had been planned, the children would take turns to programme BeeBot from the schedule and watch him follow the path.

The final step was to use the BeeBot software. And this is where I came a bit unstuck. I was convinced that the majority of the kids, as motivated by computers as they are, would be really into this, but not so. The vast majority of the kids showed little interest in the software and those that did either seemed to treat it as a bit of a chore and were more interested in starting up other programmes or they enjoyed spinning BeeBot and the map around using the touchscreens. My theory is that the software is a little abstract and the children would rather be guiding around a physical object that they can pick up and touch. I tried to resist having the actual BeeBots out when we we’re using the virtual ones, as I thought this would be an unnecessary distraction, but in the end, the real BeeBots were the reward for working with the software. I believe ProBot has the ability to link up with it’s virtual counterpart, if this is so, perhaps it will bridge the gap between computer software and programmable hardware. Something I’m also hoping to do in the future with Lego Mindstorms and 2Control.

Overall the kids enjoyed and worked well with the BeeBots, hopefully laying the foundations for further work in control with Mindstorms and possibly ProBot. Teachers have taken the symbols and schedules to use in class activities and will hopefully find them useful. So, in summary, quite successful I felt!

Please do share your thoughts and ideas with us!

Also, as a reward for making it all the way to the end of this post, (BeeBot doesn’t look like a word anymore, eh?) you can download PDFs of the resources I used with the BeeBots: