Sunday, November 14, 2010

More fun stuff going on

The second session of the 4H robotics club happened today, and we focused on programming this time. There's a special programming language that is used to program the robots, that is based on putting together visual "blocks" that represent commands (like "move", "turn", "play sound") and so on, as well as programming language constructs like loops and if/then statements. The kids seemed to have a slightly harder time doing this part than the building part, and they got about halfway through the tutorial heet that they gave them.

Then in the last 10 minutes of class I did my peanut butter and jelly sandwich activity. At the advice of the other instructors, I used just the jelly in case anyone had any peanut allergies. It was fun and the students laughed a lot whenever something went wrong, like when they instructed "take the bread out of the bag" and I dumped the whole loaf of bread on the table.

Also, in keeping with the "learning how to build stuff" theme, a new facility has opened on the Champaign-Urbana campus: the Champiagn-Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL). The CUCFL is one of a network of dozens of similar "fab labs" around the world, and has facilities you can use to design an object on the computer and then create it. There is a laser etching machine you can use to cut a shape out of wood or acrylic, and there will (soon) be a "3D printer" you can use to design a 3D object in a computer aided design tool and then actually "print out" a 3D model of it. An article in the Daily Illini about this is here. According to some articles about the phenomenon, "fab labs" have proven to be a useful tool in empowering citizens of rural areas and developing countries to exercise their innovation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Adventure Comes to Champaign-Urbana!

I've already blogged a lot about my adventures in Belegarth and Dungeons & Dragons. But I've also learned that just like in College Park, there's plenty of exciting adventuring action right here in Champaign-Urbana.

First of all, if you're interested in combat-related encounters, there's plenty of those taking place in dark alleys across campus and the surrounding areas. Of course, you will probably want to level up your combat skills first. On the other hand, it might be a better idea to follow the cardinal rule of adventuring and not split the party in the first place.

But just like in Dungeons & Dragons, combat isn't the only way you can get your excitement - there's plenty of non-combat skill challenges that are just as dangerous. Recently, a new alcoholic drink called "Four Loko" has gained popularity among students, despite the fact that it has been referred to as "blackout in a can". One 23.5 ounce can of it has as much alcohol as 6 cans of beer and as much caffeine as 2 cups of coffee - which is dangerous because mixing caffeine and alcohol is not recommended. In a recent encounter, 9 out of 50 drinkers failed their saving throws and had to be hospitalized.

Of course, if you manage to survive the dangers, secret treasure rooms and ancient relics are just waiting to be found. Just be careful not to have your just rewards stolen by greedy leaders, and if you want to go back to a tavern to share drinks with your fellow adventurers, always be on the lookout for evil mayors who want to close them down for their own nefarious purposes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Teaching Others

So, last week I had the first session of that 4-H robotics club activity I mentioned before. It went pretty much as I expected. Another student brought in a PowerPoint presentation about robots, and then they built a robot out of Legos from a kit and instructions provided. There were 15 kids, divided into four groups (because we had four kits available). They were able to finish building the robot itself, and in later sessions we will show them how to add sensors to the robot and program it. On the "guide to instructors" on the 4-H website it suggested a fun activity to teach them what programming is all about: bring in some peanut butter, jelly, bread, and tableware, have them write down a list of instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then they read the instructions to me and I execute them. The point is to show how being clear and exact is necessary - for example if they write "put the jelly on the bread" that could mean put the whole container of jelly on top of the bread. Then they can see how to "debug" the instructions so they work right. The next session will be on November 14 so after that I will be able to tell you how it went.

But coming soon I won't just get the chance to teach elementary school age kids - I'll also get the chance to teach college undergraduates. It turns out that there isn't enough money in the grant for our project to fund me for next semester, so I will have to be a T.A. for next semester. I just learned this today so I don't know what class I will be a T.A. for, or even if I will actually be teaching students (I know that some TAs just grade papers). I will keep you posted with more information once I find out more.