What is ARX
The Ashesi Robotics Experience (ARX) is an annual robotics workshop started in 2012. The workshop runs for a week at the Ashesi University College campus during the summer for Senior High School students. It is designed to provide a stimulating, fun and refreshing environment for students to learn robotics. Last year, I in collaboration with two other project assistants took two days of the ARX week to organize a workshop where students successfully built Lollybots: The winner of the 10$ robot challenge.
The Robotics Experience
The workshop was preceded by a week of fine-tuning and training for mentors. These mentors were selected from a pool of students from Ashesi University College who, through an application process, demonstrated that they possessed the right set of skills and attributes to mentor, train, and take responsibility of high school students during the workshop. This week was also dedicated to planning fun activities for each night, to enable the students relax after a day of hard work.
The actual workshop went on for five days: Monday to Friday. Each day was divided into separate work sessions with breaks to allow students relax. At the close of the day, usually at 5pm, the students got an hour of rest before they headed off to participate in the activities planned for the night. Also, at the end of each day, students posted their thoughts to a blog monitored by some of the mentors.
Two days of the five day workshop were dedicated to building the Lollybots, and students spent the rest of the three days building Lego Mindstorm Robots. On the last days of the workshop, teachers from the respective high schools were invited to the campus and had an opportunity to witness and experience what their students had built during the workshop.
The aim of the workshop was to provide the participants with a practical introduction to the field of Robotics, how Robotics can be used as a way of critical thinking to solve social problems, and generally incite an interest in the field.
Participants of the ARX 2013 arrived at Ashesi University College on July . As the participants arrived, the excitement on each person's face reflected how eager they were to learn.
In all, there were 60 senior high school students, 10 mentors and 3 project assistants. The participants were from Senior High schools all over the country, with the exception of two non-Ghanaian students.
The number of boys were 34, representing 57% of participants, while girls were 26, representing the other 43%. Participants were between the ages of 15 to 21 and came from all nine regions of Ghana, as well as two international students from Ethiopia and Swaziland. All participants were assigned groups. Each group consisted of six participants and one mentor.
The groups were setup with the intention of mixing up participants from different schools and different regions as much as possible. This was to ensure that the participants would make new friends and learn to collaborate with people they had never met before, in order to build a sense of teamwork.
From Shoppers to Scavengers
The design of the Lollybot required a video game controller with a specific type of circuit that was difficult to find at our local sources and when found, was not available in bulk. During the early preparation stage, a couple of months before the workshop, a colleague of mine(Mohammed Kessir Adjaho) and I experimented with different circuits to no avail. We reached out to Tom Tilley, the creator of the robot, for some help.
After a couple of trials with some other circuits, it was decided that he would buy and send the controllers he used for his original design from Thailand. This was convenient because it was a bulk purchase that would provide enough controllers for the workshop and replacements in case someone broke theirs. As a bonus, he threw in a number of bottle caps we could use for building the wheels of the robot.
All tools and some materials were bought from GAME: a store at the Accra Mall. The materials that were not bought from stores were scavenged from different sources by a few mentors and I. These materials were mostly wire coat hangers, pen caps, extra bottle caps for the wheels and bicycle tire tubes, the latter scavenged from a local mechanics shop. The pen caps were an improvisation I suggested after we were unable to find black or dark brown straws which were required in the instructions.
Description of Activities
Having spent some time previously building the robot following instructions on Tom Tilley’s website, we had an idea of where the participants might find difficulty. With this in mind, a few changes were made to the instructions to make things easier. Some of the changes were as simple as switching paragraphs into a series of contingent steps, changing some words, and more adventurously, changing how plates from the motors of the controller would be removed, because Kessir had found an easier way. The instructions were also divided into three parts: wheels, circuit and body.
Each of these instructions contained the steps required to build that particular part of the robot. After this, I set about putting together what I affectionately called “Robot Cocktails”. These were essentially a mixture of all the materials each group would need, put in a paper cup. A strip of wire fashioned as a straw was placed in the cup giving it the guise of being a "cocktail", a refreshing touch of fun to the activities to come.
At the start of the first day of the Lollybot part of the workshop, the participants were given a one hour fifteen minute lecture on Robotics and Computer Science. Also, they were introduced to the Lollybot. This lecture took place from 8:30am – 9:45am. After, participants had a fifteen minute break after which they all convened at the computer labs where they would be working. At the labs, the participants were split into two groups, each filling one lab. Each lab had a soldering and tools station where students could pick up their "Robot Cocktails", controllers and tools, and also solder their circuits.
At 10am the workshop started. The first activity was to divide each of the 5 groups in each lab into three subgroups. This meant that each subgroup would tackle one part of building the Lollybot namely: wheels, circuit and body. This activity was facilitated by the mentors in each lab. Once the groups were divided, everyone set to work. People unscrewing controllers, others staring intently at transistors, and others painstakingly bending wire coat hangers. Barring the occasional question about where a particular tool was, if they could eat the lollipops and when the next break would be, everything went smoothly for the first few hours of building: 10am till 12:30pm. At this point, this was the general progress of each subgroup:
Body: Most of the teams who were working on the body of the robot and were required to unscrew and saw off certain parts had done that successfully. Two subgroups needed to have their controllers replaced because of a few mistakes made along the way.
Circuit: Most of them had reached the point where they had to solder certain components as part of building a circuit for the robot. There was some level of confusion about exactly which parts were to be soldered at some points. This was caused by the images in the instructions which unfortunately did not capture that part of the process in a way that was easily comprehensible. Fortunately, the mentors, the two other project assistants and I were on hand to deal with these issues.
Wheels: Most wheel subgroups had made considerable progress and were at the point of fashioning the axels for the wheels.
In general, the progress after the first work session was satisfactory. The next activity planned for the participants was a Computer Science Alumni Panel, where Ashesi Alumni in industry were invited to share their experiences. This took place an hour after the first work session and lasted for an hour and thirty minutes, after which there was another thirty minute break before the second work session of the day.
The second session started with the same enthusiasm the day had started with. The participants went about reading the instructions and implementing them. This session went on for an hour and thirty minutes and ended at 5pm. At this point, almost all the participants in the wheels and body subgroups had completed their tasks. Also, majority of the teams working on building circuits had finished, and were at the stages of attaching their circuits to the circuits of the video game controller. This presented a lot of problems because of a general lack of understanding of electronic circuits. To this end, it was decided that the first half of the next day would be dedicated to finishing up the Lollybot.
The participants had a two hour break from 5pm to 7pm, after which they partook in a recreational activity for two hours. That night, sports activities were organized for the participants and mentors. The activities included mini basketball and football games.
The second day started with some of the students continuing their designs, while those who had finished the previous day fine-tuned their robots. The participants had little time on this day because there was a picnic scheduled to take up most of their day. Fortunately, in a couple of hours most were able to perform all fine-tuning they wanted to and others who were not able finish finally did.
A board made of wood, with a black squiggly line drawn on it was used as a test surface. For a robot to be considered working, it had to be able to follow the line using the program written by Tom Tilley.
Description of outcomes
Most of the Lollybots by the end of the workshop were able to move, only a few were able to actually do line following. This was as a result of the difficulty participants had with the circuits they were working with. However, the sheer thought of being able to build a robot from scratch excited everyone. The participants gained invaluable skills that they will be able to apply in their lives. Some of these key skills are:
Team work and collaboration
The ability to follow instructions
A basic understanding of electric circuits and their components
Basic knowledge of the field of robotics
Other vocational skills (soldering, sawing, etc.)
On the whole, the workshop was a success. Students got to learn about robotics, and certain misconceptions about the field were put to rest. One such misconception being that a robot had to be built with special material that costs a lot of money, put to bed by the Lollybot which was constructed from common items like pen caps, bottle caps and coat hangers, and did not cost much to make. Even though the Lollybot was particularly challenging for the participants, they were very proud of what they achieved: Building a robot from a circuit board using everyday objects in only two days.
A blog post by one participant and the video below sum up how the the participants felt after the program:
"The ARX is indeed a worthwhile experience and we can boldly say it has made us the ‘primus inter pares’ despite the numerous challenges we might have faced due to our infancy in this field. On the bright side this experience proved to be an eye opener to the problems in our environment, and encourage us to find and use simple materials to build simple robots to solve them.".