hannah dee

A tale of 3 engagements

For the last 9 weeks I’ve been visiting the University of Girona (UdG), and working on some research in Vicorob and Udigital. I’ve taken part in three engagement activities whilst I’ve been here – even though I don’t speak the language. It turns out that with colleagues to help translate, it’s possible to be useful even without many words, although in the first two workshops I was more of an observer/helper than a facilitator. The first of these was an underwater robotics workshop, with a visiting class or around 15 teenagers; the second of these was a wheeled robotics workshop with 9 adults in a high security prison; and the third was an “unplugged” activity looking at Artificial Intelligence and Alan Turing with about 150 teenagers in 6 consecutive groups. The rest of this post has a bit more info on each.

Underwater robotics

This workshop took place in CIRS (Centre d’Investigació en Robòtica Submarina) at UdG, and was written and led by Xevi Cufi. The group came from a nearby boys’ school, had been working on their robots back in school for a while, in groups, and had come to CIRS for the final construction and testing. These robots are made out of plumbing pipe, and have three motors. Two of these provide forwards and backwards thrust for the left and right sides of the robot, and the third gives up and down. The basic robots were complete before the workshop, and in this session the participants did final wiring (the controller is attached by a tethered wire) and water tests. Once the wiring was done, the first water test involved getting the robot to have neutral buoyancy by attaching floats to the frame, in a large bucket.

Then they had to try and make the cable neutral too, by attaching bits of float at regular spacing along the tether.

And finally the students got to use their robots in the test pool (CIRS has a massive pool for testing robots). Seeing this come together was great – the students were all fired up to run their contraptions in the water, and they all worked really well.

This project is a big project, and I think the students had been working on their robots for a couple of weeks on and off. I expect a build from scratch would take a few days, as there’s soldering, wiring, building, testing and a lot lot lot of waterproofing (fairly obviously). The payoff is fab though: they clearly got a real sense of achievement piloting their own robots around the pool, picking up objects, and trying not to get their tethers in a knot. With one underwater video camera and a live link to a monitor, which was passed between robots, the workshop really came alive. I’d like to try and run this workshop in Aberystwyth.

Wheeled robots

The second workshop couldn’t have had a more different target audience. Instead of teenage Catholic schoolboys, there were adult prisoners in the Puig de les Basses prison just north of Figueres. In this workshop (also designed and led by Xevi) we used small wheeled Arduino robots, and programmed them in groups to flash lights, display messages, and move backwards and forwards. We have done a lot of wheeled robot workshops as part of the Early Mastery project (and before), and this one followed the general format (get something to run on the robot, modify that code, get the robot to move forwards and backwards). We had about 2 hours, and the participants were working in groups. Here’s a picture of the robot (taken during preparation) – you should be able to make out the display LCD, the LEDs and the wheels in this picture.

In the workshop the participants got to grips with the flashing lights activity very quickly, and the group I was working with seemed to be having fun setting up traffic lights using the R, G and Y LEDs. When the idea of the LCD display screen was introduced, my group decided to get it to give instructions to match the traffic lights (so it said “go” on green, etc.). This was a bit more elaborate than planned – the idea was they were just going to get it to say “hello” or something then move on to the next task – but they were enjoying the coding and working a lot of things out for themselves so we just let them run with it. As soon as one of the other groups got their robot to move, everyone changed their mind and wanted to move on to the next task anyway.

I don’t have any photos of the actual workshop as security was very tight and we weren’t allowed to take in phones, cameras or anything like that. Here’s a picture of the outside of the building though:

It’s amazing how the same thing happens in every robot workshop – whether it’s with 6 year old kids or 50 year old prisoners. As soon as one of the groups gets a robot to actually move, the atmosphere changes and everything moves up a gear. There is something intrinsically motivating about writing a program on a computer, and getting it to move something in the real world. As a programming environment, they used Visualino which provides a block-based interface to Arduino C; I hadn’t seen this before but was very impressed, and I might use it in future.

AI Unplugged

The final engagement activity I have been involved in out here is based upon the AI workshop that we wrote as part of the Technocamps project. This workshop has several components, and UdG were asked to do 6 consecutive 25 minute workshops with schoolkids in the town of Banyoles, as part of their end-of-term robotics project (actually, 3 sets of 6 consecutive workshops). So with a lot of help from Eduard we created some bilingual slides (English/Catalan) and did a double-act. You can see the slides here.

In another room, Marta and Mariona were talking about STEAM and coding, and in yet another room Jordi was talking about various robotics challenges and activities, so the Udigital.edu team was out in force. Here we are having breakfast before the day begins…

The schoolkids had apparently been working on general robotics projects for a couple of weeks at the end of term, so we started by doing a tour of their demos, and saw some lovely little line followers, skittles robots, hill climbers and generally lots of excellent arduino goodies. Here’s one of their projects.

In the workshop Eduard and I ran, we had a set of votes, asking the students if they think computers can think. The way the workshop is structured, we had a vote at the start (to get their initial opinions), then we did an activity which encouraged them to think about what intelligence is, by ordering a load of things (chess computer, sheep, tree, self-driving car, kitten, human… there are about 30 things). This gets them to consider what thinking involves, without actually being explicit or telling them what we think. Then we had another vote. After this we discussed what aspects of intelligence they might think were important, and what aspects computers could do now, then we had a final vote and concluded with some talk about Alan Turing and the Turing Test.

The reason I like to get the participants to vote, repeatedly, on whether they think computers can think, is so that we can see if anyone changes their mind. In my experience (and I’ve run this workshop loads of times – maybe 50 times) people always do change their minds once they’ve thought a bit more about the question; it never ceases to surprise me how different groups can be, too. This time, some groups arrived confident that AI was possible and that computers could think. Some of the others arrived with hardly anybody in the group positive about the potential of AI. We changed some minds though – some in one direction, some in the other.

Here’s a graph of the three vote results, displayed as a proportion of those attending who said “yes” or “maybe” to the question “Can Computers Think?”

This workshop worked well, as you can see from the graph: in every group we managed to get people to think hard enough that some of them changed their minds. It was also great fun, if a bit relentless, running 6 workshops back to back. I think we saw about 150 kids.


So thanks, Udigital, for letting me join in and see what you do in terms of outreach. It’s been a great 9 weeks of visit, and I’ve got some ideas that I definitely want to try back in Abersytwyth.

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