Providence Students at the MIT Enterprise Forum

Last Wednesday, Mr. Alker and three students (Josh, Wade, and Caleb) spent the evening hearing from top professionals in their respective arenas at the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Central Coast. The topic for the evening was “The Future of Digital Imaging & Camera Technology”. The program featured Nicholas Weissman (Founder & Director, Vacationland Studios), Russ Mead (VP of Engineering, SEEK THERMAL Infrared Imaging), and Dr. Edward Clift (Co-Author, “Digital Futures and the City of Today).
Left to right: Mr. Alker, Josh, Wade, Caleb, and the students’
sponsor, Ms. Horton

The students enjoyed hearing about the topics: a very practical cinematography presentation by Nicholas Weissman, an introduction to the infrared industry by Russ Mead, and a challenging and thoughtful presentation from Dr. Clift about how imagery is shaping modern forms of communication. After the presentation, students mingled with local leading architects and entrepreneurs.

We want to especially thank Kristi Horton of the Education Committee who invited the students to participate and sponsored their attendance. We look forward to continuing our relationship with the MIT Enterprise Forum and the rich and engaging programs they offer.

Project: The Self-Driving Car

We’ve recently reported on the Advanced Engineering I playground design project, but what exactly is keeping the younger group busy right now? If you pass by Room 401 most any afternoon, you’ll find twelve freshmen and sophomores, six computers, three VEX robotics sets, two T.A.s, and one teacher very hard at work! The project? It’s a little ambitious, but we are intending to design, build, and program three self-driving robot cars, in the manner of Google, Uber, Tesla, and a few others.

Just another typical day of class in the Providence Engineering Academy

The way of the future! But first a bit of background. Robotic cars fall into two broad categories: smart cars and smart roads. Smart car systems have all of the design and engineering and intelligence in the car itself, relying on GPS, lots of sensors, and careful programming. By contrast, smart road systems have some sort of marker built into the road itself to provide information to the car–one idea proposed in the past was to have magnets embedded into the road surface. While all companies are now putting all of their efforts into the “smart car” option, ours fall into the “smart road” category; we have a white line track on a dark background that shows the car where it needs to go. No white line means no navigation.

Left: the design brief and the plans for the roadway; right: the actual roadway,
newly constructed, mounted on an 8 foot by 8 foot plywood base

So what does it take to get this going? The number one resource is human intelligence; each of the three teams comprises four students, with distinct roles as follows:

  • Team Leader: co-ordinate efforts, give attention wherever needed, be an all-around expert in everything, and keep a daily Captain’s Log.
  • Mechanical Engineer: primarily responsible for building the physical structure of the robot, mounting sensors, and attaching custom parts.
  • Programmer: working on code that will navigate the robot around the course.
  • CAD Specialist: design custom parts in a CAD program, and then print them out for use in actuality.
The beauty of this is that each member necessarily must work together with the others to achieve the outcome. The mechanical engineer needs input from the programmer as to where to place the sensors so that they work with the written code. The CAD specialist needs to also work with the mechanical engineer to decide what is most needed and where it should be placed. The team leader needs to choose just how to spread themselves each day to get the current priorities in order.
Ben (left) working on code; David (center) attaching his wheels to the frame

Samy, one of the mechanical engineers, putting together a frame for his
team’s vehicle

Each team was allowed to choose between two types of steering design: rack and pinion, or a simpler design where the entire wheel and axle rotates around a central pivot. All three teams went for the rack and pinion, which is the same design found on modern cars. A single gear (the “pinion”) rotates on a flat linear gear (the “rack”), which pushes it left or right, in turn causing the front wheels to point in either direction.
The custom CAD parts are another particularly exciting part of this project: the three CAD specialists are using the online platform Onshape to make pieces that are specific to their own robot. Just for fun, one team created a license plate with their team name, which is now proudly mounted on the front. Two teams are currently working on a box to hold a payload to be delivered along the route. The third team created a “shadow shield” to go underneath the vehicle and keep the line-sensing infrared sensors out of direct sunlight to make them more effective. The CAD specialists had to create bolt holes that match with the VEX robotics system, and they have infinite control over everything else.
One team’s container design, intended to hold a small payload; a door is going
to be added to keep things secure until delivery

Another team’s payload device is an open tray which flips up to release
upon command; note the square axle hole for connection to the motor

Both of the above designs are printed full size; so far, it looks like they will
be perfect!
The teams have another couple of weeks to finish this project, and they look to be on schedule for completion and demonstration.
Mr Meadth also decided that it would be fair for him to produce a proof of concept–can this really be done, after all? He used one of the spare middle school LEGO sets, which has an array of similar sensors and mechanical capability, but a very different coding language.
LEGO Mindstorms coding language–colourful blocks that snap together!

RobotC coding language, as used by the high school students–lines
and lines of colour-coded text
After a few hours of work, he came up with this smaller LEGO version, and it gets around the full track in about 18 seconds on its slowest, most cautious speed.
The LEGO robot car in action–note the three colour sensors in a bank on the
front; having three side-by-side allows for more sensitivity in response to the
car’s exact position
Proof positive–it can be done! Upon completion, the robots will be demonstrated to the Providence community; we may go down to Lower Campus and show one of the elementary grades what we’ve done. Stay tuned.

    Midde School Final Challenge Complete!

    After weeks of hard work designing, building, and programming a Mars rover, four middle school teams headed out to the gym to put it all to the test. These robots were created entirely from scratch–no instructions, no plans, just the student teams and their own wits! The goal was to create a remote-controlled robot that could collect four 3D printed “Mars rocks” as quickly as possible, using whatever means necessary.

    Team 1 (Sam, Cole, Nik, and Pedro) went for an asymmetrical design, driven by two strong rubber wheels in the back. An arm with a claw lowered down on one side to scoop up the rocks, bringing them up and over to drop into a large hopper, with more than enough capacity for all four rocks.

    Team 1 presents their design to the class

    Team 3 (Conner, Brennan, Isaac, and Tessa) decided to maximize speed and agility above all else. They gave their robot a very simple platform on the front, with a swinging arm to contain a single rock at a time. This meant that they would have to exit and re-enter the circle each time to extract their rocks.

    Team 3 shows their simple but fast design

    Team 4 (David, Samy, and Belen) went for a longer model with more than enough internal capacity for four rocks. Completely unique to the competition, they designed a “paddle wheel” on the front to sweep the rocks right into the belly of the robot. This all made for more difficult turning, but an efficient collection method.

    Team 4 shows the longest design in the competition

    Lastly, Team 26 (Todd, Ashlynne, and Deacon) designed a big, bulky robot with both caterpillar tracks and rubber wheels. Team 26 was the only team to employ two computers onboard, to account for their large number of motors. A robot arm reached over the front of the robot to close onto the rocks, before lifting them up into the hopper behind.

    Team 26 shows the class their hybrid machine

    After a day of presenting and time trials, the students played it out in the gym, with parents and fellow students cheering on. Each team scored at least one victory against someone else, although by the end of the first day, it was clear that Team 3 had an obvious speed advantage. With each round of play, they perfected their technique to get faster and faster!

    Mr. Meadth and the crowd look on as Team 26 positions for another run;
    Team 4 paddles its way forward unhindered

    Brennan and Conner from Team 3 close in on another rock; Todd and Deacon
    from Team 26 try to co-ordinate their efforts

    Samy from Team 4 takes a turn at the controls while David
    and Belen look on

    On the second day of competition, the students knew it was time for the eliminations. Team 26 and Team 4 had given the shakiest performances up to this point, although both had won a victory against each other. Fighting for the best of three saw a victory in 1:03 for Team 4, then a victory in 1:15 for Team 26. With scores tied, Team 4 pushed through in their fastest performance yet, with an astounding 0:54. Team 26 eliminated!

    Samy, holding three, anxiously waits for the fourth rock to
    be collected by David
    Ashlynne, having positioned Team 26’s robot, looks on as Deacon steers it
    toward the goal

    In the next elimination round, the bulkier Team 1 faced off against the more agile Team 3. In a quick series of best of three, Team 3 established dominance, putting their fastest time on the board of four rocks in 0:30. Team 1 put in a valiant effort, but could not keep up and was eliminated.

    Team 1 scoops up their second rock in the elimination round
    Conner from Team 3 positions the robot as Brennan gets ready to make a run for
    the pink rock

    The very long Team 4 and the very quick Team 3 went through to the final round, for another best of three. Tensions were high, and Team 4 started off strong. Team 3 went straight into their typical repertoire: run in, grab, get out, repeat. Like a well-oiled machine, Team 3 took home a victory in 0:50. In the second of three, Team 4 came close to victory, but Team 3 once again won with 1:12–notabley, not as fast as Team 4’s best time. However, a third round showed that, without a doubt, Team 3 deserved the grand prize!

    Team 4 (left) and Team 3 fly into action in the final round
    Already holding two, Team 4 (left) narrowly misses their next red rock, while
    Team 3 closes in on the teal one

    The winning students were awarded with gift cards and one of the rocks they had fought so hard to collect. Smiles all round, and we’ll see what the Final Challenge had to hold in store next year!

    Mr. Meadth congratulates Tessa, Conner, Brennan, and Isaac for a job well done
    All the students with their robots at the end of the tournament

    Middle School: AIAA Foundation Grant

    Much of the funding for our high school Academy comes in the form of grants, generously donated from a wide range of community sources. Our middle school elective is no different. The 7th and 8th Grade students explore a diverse range of engineering topics—structures, gear ratios, sensor technology, and coding to name a few—and they need technology to do it! Our middle school classroom is well stocked with laptops and LEGO Mindstorms EV3 sets to help them accomplish this.

    This semester, the middle school elective is pursuing a space exploration theme (this ties in with our Science and Engineering Expo on the 3rd of May, here at the Upper Campus). In keeping with this theme, the students are learning about navigation; specifically, how do you write algorithms that can guide a robot to a particular destination? How do unmanned spacecraft and planetary exploration robots find their way?

    For this navigation unit, we needed to supplement our existing EV3 robots with extra add-ons. We decided to invest in infrared sensors, which are paired with small beacons (both pictured). The beacons either act as a hand-held remote control for the robot, or they can broadcast a signal for the robot can home in on. Both modes involve careful crafting of navigation algorithms that make decisions based on sensory input.

    The simple Robot Educator, shown with the infrared sensor attached (the
    red/black shape mounted in its center) and two infrared beacons

    Mr. Meadth is a member of the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), and so was able to apply for an AIAA Foundation Classroom Grant to purchase these needed resources. Twenty different schools were selected for this grant of $250, which is aimed at teachers doing hands-on STEM activities that relate to aviation or aerospace, and we are glad to announce that Providence was one of them. We now have enough sensors and beacons for an entire class—thank you to the AIAA Foundation!

    Left to right: Ashlynne, Brennan, and Todd
    show the robots, all with IR sensors attached

    The middle school students will continue to learn the finer points of using these and other sensors for the rest of the semester. Their final project will be to design and construct their own version of a Mars rover, which will compete in an open-invitation event in early June. We’ll keep you posted on this exciting long-term project!

    Don’t forget to follow this blog to get all the latest on the middle school and high school engineering activities, and please send your questions and comments to Rod Meadth at