hannah dee

Old College minecraft and robotics workshop

On Wednesday, Aber Robotics Club put on a day of coding, gaming and robotics in Old College. We ran two workshops: one on Minecraft, and one on Mindstorms (lego robots). Each had about 30 kids in, and the aim was to have a techy day that taught attendees something new, but that was also fun: it was a summer holiday workshop after all.

In the Mindstorms lego robots workshop we did a mixture of activities – most of which I’ve blogged about before. We did the “program a humanoid robot” exercise, where we get kids to write down programs for their parents (who end up blindfold). We did the “steer a lego robot around a track” using remote control. And we did the “customise your lego robot then have a bit of a fight” Robot Wars style event to finish. These are all tried and tested activities which work really well together and made for a good day, with enough content and learning, and enough fun and chaos too.

We had also had a visit and a talk from Laurence Tyler of Aberystwyth Computer Science, who works in our space robotics group. He talked about robots in space, mars rovers, sattellites, Philae, and all sorts of other cool stuff. He brought along Blodwen, our scale model of the ExoMars lander, and explained how stuff made in Aberystwyth is actually going to end up on Mars. The kids asked all sorts of excellent questions and listened attentively throughout, which was great.

Over in the Minecraft room, the aim was to try and build bits of the Old College building colaboratively. There was apparently quite a bit of destruction as well as construction, but when I popped in at lunchtime I saw some fairly recognisable college parts so they all managed to get something built in the end.

In the afternoon, the Minecraft crew had an introduction to programming in Minecraft, starting with a demo of Jim Finnis’s castle generation software. Which opened quite a few eyes, and got a big “whoa!” from the audience: it’s a super piece of code that just builds amazing castles programmatically. One of the key ideas you have to get in order to code in Minecraft is the idea of a 3D coordinate system (x,y and z): I’m not sure that many of the kids had done that before so there was quite a steep learning curve.

We’ll be revisiting these workshops in the next couple of weeks to see what went well and what needs to be worked on: the kids really liked them both. The minecraft one has more of a setup overhead, as we needed to get hold of enough computers (30 Raspberry Pis, in the end) and sort out networking, a server, and so on. The lego robots workshop is a more polished event now (we’ve run it a fair few times). I’m fairly sure that we’ll run them both again, but they might need a bit of tweaking; in particular I’d like to think up a cool way of working with 3d coordinates for the minecraft one, and I also think it might be good to introduce more “not-sitting-at-a-computer” bits.

Electromagnetic Field 2016

Last weekend was Electromagnetic Field, the UK’s main Hacker/maker camp. It’s an outstanding opportunity for meeting up with tinkerers, coders and makers from across the UK and beyond. I was at the first EMF (in 2012, blog post here) talking about women in tech, and went back to this one to talk about schools outreach and the work we’re doing with kids and families. I spoke about schools and kids engagement in general, but also more specifically about our EU playfulcoding project. You can see my talk here:

And you can view the slides here, if you just want slides, not talk.

The talk was well-received but not full, but that’s fine – one of the cool things about EMFcamp is the sheer range of stuff going on. Over the course of the weekend I went to talks on computer history, quantum effects in imaging, IT security from a sociological standpoint, penetration testing, hardware hacking, animating dinosaurs and the mathematics of the Simpsons. I also went to hands-on workshops on VR, deep machine learning, card-based reasoning (“having daft ideas”) and paper circuits. These were all part of the official program – submitted and approved before the event, allowing people to schedule and so on.

There were also lots of minor “installation” type hacks around the place, and a whole heap of drop in activities. I played some computer games in the retro gaming tent (Sonic the hedgehog), went in a musical ball pit, watched fire pong, and generally strolled around the site going WOW.

I had never been in a ball pit before. I am so going to make one of these.

“The Robot Arms” was the name of the camp bar, and it had an API so you could look online to see how much beer had been sold. Someone even wrote a script to calculate how many drinks had been sold in the last minute so you could tell how busy it was without going down to check. All the barstaff and indeed everyone at the event were volunteers which gives the whole thing a really nice cooperative feeling. I was sat eating my veggie breakfast in the food area on Sunday morning and someone asked for help setting out the chairs at the main stage, and about 10 of us just got up and did it. Loads of my friends there did shifts on the bar, or marshalling in the carpark (I spoke, and figured that was probably enough:). At the closing ceremony Jonty (one of the main organisers) asked everyone who’d volunteered or spoken to stand up, and I swear about 25% of the people there did. This really did make for a really friendly event.

What a cool pub sign, eh?

Much to my embarrassment, I fell out of a hammock installation on the last night though. I was fine getting in there, but the dismount was … inelegant.

This has made my return to Aberystwyth a couple of days late, via the excellent first aid tent and the A&E at Guildford hospital (Royal Surrey). Nothing’s broken, which is a relief, but my gosh it’s all a bit bruised.

my opinion of hammocks is not positive

In all – I loved it, again. I’ll definitely go in 2018.

Lego robots in Pembrokeshire

I’ve been helping out at Aber Robotics Club this year, which is a weekly after school club for local schoolkids. We got invited down to do a workshop in Pembrokeshire as part of “The Cheerful Project” who put on workshops in rural Pembrokeshire, so Steve filled his boot with Lego Mindstorms, got up early on a Saturday, met up with me and with Martin (our new institute schools outreach guy who doesn’t have a webpage yet) and we headed south to somewhere I’d never heard of. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of 7am starts on a Saturday, the weather was glorious and you can’t beat the coast road south of Aber for views. So it was feeling like a good day before we’d even got there.

Upon arrival we met the local organiser who filled us in on details about the people – mixed groups of adults and kids, with the youngest kid being 6, most kids 8-10 and a handful of teenagers. Perfect for lego. We decided to start off with a “programming” task though, with a humanoid robot that could only understand three commands (forwards, left and right) needing to perform a figure 8 path around some tables. The humanoid robot roles were played admirably by parents with blindfolds on. The next photo might look like some bizarre hostage situation but I assure you that it is a photo of a robot workshop.

Much to the kids’ amusement it turns out that the parents weren’t very good at following instructions blindfold. The exercise is a useful one to discuss robots, why they never do what you tell them to, and how you might program them. We also discussed sensors: the robots couldn’t see but it turns out they all navigated a little using sound, which is interesting.

We then got the kids building Lego robots, and once they were mostly done we broke for lunch, out the back of the hall. Quite a nice place to sit and eat some lovely food, provided by the Cheerful Project for us roboteers.

The kids then tethered the robots to our tablets, using Bluetooth, and remote controlled them. A few practice runs were carried out…

And then each of our junior roboteers piloted their own lego robot around the same figure 8 path that the “humanoid robot” had failed on earlier. To finish with we got all the roboteers in a circle and let them have a big robot fight. Because… why not eh? It’s fun.

All the kids seemed to really enjoy it, and I think most of the parents did too. As we were packing up one of the mums came in from the carpark to let us know that her kid had just said “this was the best day of my life!”. Which is the kind of feedback that it’s really nice to get.

Here’s Steve packing up the car.

We stopped for honey ice cream in Aberaeron on the way back too. Sometimes it is worth getting up at 7am on a Saturday.