Education with a Sand Pile, Robots and a Computer Game

The following framework for a high-school level robotics Curriculum using a small robotic vehicle and a sand pile where the robot performs tasks was written by Bill Lovell, CEO and Senior Engineer at c-Link Systems. c-Link has been producing robotic unmanned ground systems for disaster cleanup, landscaping, construction, surface and subterranean mining, and education under the Forager and Omnipanzer brands for many years, and has deployed robots at client sites worldwide. Bill holds degrees in electronic engineering, mechanical engineering and industrial engineering.

Humanity progresses with each generation and so does its technology. In all this progress we find ourselves in the quandary of how to educate our young. Today’s young people grow-up with advanced technology within their grasp if not already in their hands. The innovative teacher looks at the world to observe what these young people are playing with and utilizes it to help educate them. Within the following paper is just one such approach to help the process along.

The conventional approach to teaching some subjects is not always as effective as other methods. Having spent time utilizing the “old school” approach with high school students I reverted to a military approach. I didn’t have to holler at the top of my lungs. …Well, once, to get everyone’s attention and that also ended up including the class in the next room over!
In the big picture, this program is an attempt to teach math, basic materials science, robotic motion, creativity, team work and safety in the work place. We went to total hands-on, with a minimum of “chalk board” time; the only white-board time was to answer a question or explain a process/procedure review.

After-school programs for middle school students become an even greater challenge with time constraints in hours per week and owing to budgets. After looking at this conundrum for 6 months, we had a solution that I believed could, in old school parlance, “rock the house”. We would use a computer game that all of the middle school students could show me their progress in— and we would build robotic vehicles made for outdoors and a big sand pile.

Radical Method
We started with a computer game called Minecraft. The version is actually MinecraftEDU. This package has a large educator backing and utilization. It is low cost in comparison to other STEM or robotic packages.

Because this was a pilot program and a work in progress it was limited in size and scope, and it remains viable today. The system is built around a low end server (unless you really think you will have a hundred students on at a time), a network hub, 3 PCs and a wireless connection. For this model the hub and wireless connection was a single unit.

A port for a laptop connection on the server allows an instructor access to progress and the ability to build in problems for solution. Note that there is no connection to the internet. The software is in two sections; a server side for holding pre-made models, setting up problems and looking at progress. The PC side is for the student work station. This is all coupled with small robots.

The second thing was the introduction of Trak-Bot (TB), a small tracked unit created for students to use as a development/experimental platform. TB is an all metal chassis construction with a pair of DC drive motors. The motors were equipped with position encoders. Unlike most tracked robots, TB used treads similar to full-scale commercial construction equipment. The photo shows an early TB, not capable of attachment modules. It had individual treads, not a large rubber band-style tread. All of this was coupled with an onboard processor, an inertial measurement unit, motor speed drivers and 360° of range sensing. Optional add-ons included Wi-Fi connection, camera, radio control and tether control.

There were three special add-ons for this project:
1. A bulldozer blade with rise/lower function and possibly a blade tilt function.
2. A 3D printing module which contains; five Degree-of-Freedom (5-DoF) arm that controls an extruder tip, pump for material and hopper. Materials being evaluated included sand slurry and a form of playdough. The base for this unit was a commercial version developed by c-Link Systems but which has been discontinued as a commercial product.
3. A custom module for boring tunnels in the sand pile. What would mine craft be without the ability to build tunnels? This is actually the more complex of the three modules, which is compounded even further by the small physical size.

The third portion of the project is the coupling of Minecraft software to a translator package. In the case of an above ground building, the building will have to be transferred to a solid model and further manipulated for 3D printing. Communication methods used in the prototypes were already in play on commercial products. 

The whole scenario is based on a large pile of sand. If that is not available a large sandbox could even be used within the classroom, good for inclement weather time in the northern U.S. The sand is the working medium similar to the material in Minecraft. A large mound constructed with different density mediums would be an epic configuration. Utilizing sand also allows for end-of-year destruction so the new students in the coming year can start fresh.

The overall project had, and has enormous implications in how we use current games and tools to teach with. This whole project can be expanded 10-fold and still not reach a limit. The implementation is low cost with a high ROI but will take most schools time to learn how processes are organized. Allowing our young to experiment with hands-on is the best path to understanding. Theories and facts can be memorized and regurgitated but that does not mean they are understood.



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