by Alex Crooks*
Starting or helping with a robotics team as a coach takes perseverance and dedication, attributes I am happy to say our teachers and parents share. What it does not require however, is an engineering degree, or even any knowledge of robotics or computer science at all! Below are 5 reasons you don’t need to know anything about robotics to get started as a coach or mentor of a competition robotics team.
World Robot Olympiad (WRO) and FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competitions are celebrations of creativity and goodwill. You will see amazing things at these events: teams helping their competitors, crazy awesome costumes, impromptu dance parties, awards for professionalism and sportsmanship, music, hugs, excitement and huge smiles from everyone. While our roboticists are competitive, they are supportive. WRO and FLL emphasize character development directly in their programs. When our teams win, they do so graciously, and when they lose, they do so with dignity. This all adds up to a much more relaxed environment for rookie coaches compared to other competitive activities.
- There are a huge number of resources to help you learn
LEGO, WRO, and FLL make learning to be a coach very easy. There are a ton of places you can find help for running a team on the internet, and even more sites that help you learn to program. There are far too many to list, just try a Google or Youtube search, but to get you started:
- FLL actually sends a book with helpful information for new coaches when you register.
- BuilderDude35 has a fantastic ongoing series of tutorials
- EV3Lessons.com has both a section devoted to helping coaches, and a selection of how-to-program videos.
- Cogmation Robotics even offers a simulator of the EV3, so you can practice programming at home without having to use your club’s bot. They also have a bunch of resources on their site, and a youtube channel.
- There are tons of other coaches and mentors that started out with little or no background in robotics
Most current coaches are not engineers. They are teachers. Many (like me) are teachers who came into competitive robotics with no prior experience or formal training in robotics or engineering. As a result, veteran robotics coaches are some of the most supportive people you will ever meet. They will bend over backward to help a new coach, and are actively looking for people to help!
- The LEGO Mindstorms platform makes robotics easy to learn
The LEGO Mindstorms robotics platform really is one of the simplest systems to learn. At the expense of sounding like a salesman, I have had the opportunity to work with other physical build kits, as well as other programming environments. The combination of the LEGO Technic building kit with the LabVIEW based EV3-G programming environment is the easiest system for kids (and us coaches as well!) to learn on the market to date.
Most club members are already familiar with the way LEGO Technic pieces work, and if they aren’t, LEGO has spent many years designing their line of products to be intuitive to learn. They really are the leader in their field. The “rule” that only LEGO pieces may be used in competition sounds restrictive, but what it really does is make all teams have an equal starting point for their robots. There are a huge number of build options for robotics in general. So many in fact that new ones are coming into the market every day, each of which has it’s own set of pros and cons. This can get quite mind boggling at times. It is actually quite refreshing to be limited to one. The EV3-G programming environment is a version of LabVIEW G, a programming environment used in the commercial and research robotics world. I think it is fantastic that LEGO used G as their language for the Mindstorms platform, as it is graphical, with a drag and drop interface that is much more intuitive than learning a text based language like RobotC. (I would however, advise Middle School FLL students to take a class in C if available, because many or most high school robotics competition teams use text based languages.)
In addition, there is some mathematical complexity involved in robotics which EV3-G takes care of for it’s users. Instead of reading voltage changes from a sensor (the way it is often done in other platforms), EV3-G makes its sensors report data that is more natural for a human to understand. For example, instead of displaying a voltage change for a light sensor, EV3-G gives a percentage of the total possible light received from 0 to 100%. Users still have access to much of this raw data if they want it however, although in truth I have never found a use for it.
- The coach position is a facilitator and ally to the students, they watch and support as team members learn and grow
Coaches in WRO and FLL are not exactly robotics teachers. The focus of the program is student centered. This makes it much more natural to learn robotics WITH your team members, as opposed to needing all the knowledge before you start. With the resources, helpful community of coaches, positive environment, and well designed robotics platform outlined above, new coaches will have the support they need to learn robotics right along with their team members. And if you get stuck, reach out to a fellow coach, we’re here to help!
*Alex Crooks, our guest blogger for this month; Education Technology Consultant; Outreach Coordinator for WRO USA; LEGO Robotics & FLL Coach