DREEM Robotics

April 08, 2013


Call them the DREEM teams. Durham middle schoolers involved in the Duke Robotics Education, Enrichment and Mentoring project had the Levine Science Research Center buzzing on a spring Saturday when they gathered with their Duke undergraduate mentors to show off their Mars rover-inspired robots to family and friends.

The DREEM Exhibition started on April 20 with a morning of programming language activities using the tool Scratch and testing of the students� nine robots. It ended with an afternoon demonstration of the spring session�s work, which was modeled after Curiosity, the rover that landed on Mars in August. Using Lego Mindstorm NXT kits, teams of two students each were paired with two Duke mentors over two months and tasked with creating a robot that, like Curiosity, has a robotic arm and can identify objects.

�This semester was more focused on construction. Some semesters are very programming intensive,� said Brook Osborne, national director of outreach for the Department of Computer Science and leader of the DREEM project, which started in 2004 as a way to interest students in computer science and engineering at an earlier age. �Since groups weren�t working with prescriptive building guides, they had to manage the relationship between construction and programming and the effect of that relationship on performance.�

Through the seminar Teaching with Robotics, Osborne taught 18 undergraduates how to mentor secondary students and build and program Lego robots. The undergraduates then mentored middle schoolers in designing their own robots in weekly after-school sessions using lesson plans Osborne created with her teaching assistants. The middle schoolers had to create a robot that could detect boundaries and objects and that could then swing a robotic arm to take a color reading of an object and yet remain stable.

Much of the challenge in this session�s project was in building and spatial manipulation. Yet, Osborne noted, the programming aspect was not trivial. �Thinking through some of the more complicated programming concepts � not just identifying an object as an object but also identifying what kind of object it is � is a step further in real computational thinking,� she said. �It is something that more closely resembles computational thinking problems that you�ll face not only in computer science but in any critical thinking tasks.�

Rogers-Herr Middle School sixth-graders Jessica Uba and Kimberly Zarate, both 11, designed a claw for their robot�s arm, believing it would provide more stability. At times in their design process, the arm was too heavy or the robot leaned and weight had to be added to a side to balance it, Uba noted. The girls also had to determine how to keep the wires connecting the robot�s light and touch sensors to its brick from getting in the way of its wheels or arm. �It actually turned out better than we imagined,� Zarate said.

Before the official demonstration to family and friends, their robot tested well in navigating a path created by black electrical tape on white foam board. A light sensor programmed to find the darker value kept the robot on the path. Yet the robot had problems on a table mined with obstacles � water bottles wrapped in colored construction paper. The contrast between the brown craft paper covering the table and the shadows cast from overhead lighting was not enough to make the robot move forward, one of their mentors � Ashley Alman, a senior majoring in political science � explained to them. They had to adjust the thresholds they had set for the amount of light that the robot would read as black or white.

Other teams also encountered problems, but the day was filled with excitement as spectators watched the teams� robots navigate low tables on the department�s first two floors and identify colors of objects. Parents gasped when a robot�s body moved seemingly too far over a table�s edge before reversing and turning, having read the reflected light from the black electrical tape outline as a boundary. They laughed when a robot identified a blue object as �blue cotton candy,� red as �fire� and yellow as �lemonade.� And they clearly enjoyed seeing a robot with a particularly aggressive arm take down a few water bottles during its attempted color readings. �It�s all part of the process of debugging!� one mentor yelled.

�We�re not high-tech parents,� said David Sennett, dad to 12-year-old Tate Sennett, a sixth-grader at Rogers-Herr and member of the team with the aggressive robot. �I am unbelievably low-tech. So every opportunity that Tate gets to put his hands on something technology-oriented is great, but it also helps us because he can do things for us at home that we can�t do for ourselves. He�s really way ahead � at least of where I am.�

The DREEM project started in 2004 with Chewning Middle School and is now open to any Durham public middle school. Students from four schools participated this year, meeting at the School of the Arts. Other computer science outreach projects Osborne is involved in include helping Professor Susan Rodger expand a program throughout the Southeast to teach middle school teachers about Alice, a storytelling programming environment using 3D animation. Osborne also has been coordinating 50 high schools and colleges piloting the CS Principles project, a new, alternative Advanced Placement course for which Professor Owen Astrachan is the principal investigator. Osborne helped to develop a version of the course for Duke.