tl;dr I need to get better organised next year to turn PiWars prep into a good learning experience; also it would be good if PiWars rewarded technical effort a little more.
Westpark Club is back from this year’s PiWars competition in Cambridge. It was excellent fun, the weather was great, the atmosphere was friendly and helpful, our team did well in some things and poorly in others. We were finalists in the entertaining Pi Noon competition and we came 4th overall.
Build or Buy?
Riding the wave of enthusiasm after the event, I’ve started thinking about running a workshop during the year and preparing for next year’s event (assuming that Tim & Mike can find it in them to run one). But there’s a tension here which I’m struggling to resolve: the split between preparing in order to win; and preparing in order to learn. Our Club is part of a charity group with educational aims so we’re always trying to find that balance between making something enjoyable and attractive and making sure it has educational or formative value. Obviously teachers and after-school clubs will be in a similar position.
At one end of the spectrum you can design your entire robot from scratch, 3D-printing every part, buying only the components that you can’t make yourself. And you can plan the whole of the circuitry, print your customised PCB, and wire and solder it all by hand, writing the entire software stack. At the other end, you can buy a robot with everything already working, maybe even with software provided by the vendor to do useful things like remote-control driving and image-detection. And all you have to do is to fit it to the specific challenges.
Most teams on the schools / clubs day probably sat towards the right-hand end of that spectrum: buying, rather than building. We ourselves used the excellent ThunderBorg and UltraBorg controllers from PiBorg which give you motor control and handle sensors and servos. This means that you just plug in one of the ultrasonic sensors and call a function and you’ve got a distance. Great for getting things going. But it also means that you’ve not had the experience of wiring in the 4 pins of the sensor, working out the resistors for the voltage splitter, and working through the speed-of-sound-divide-by-2 maths to understand the physics of the sensor.
But this is the educator’s dilemma. With only a limited number of sessions in which to complete a project — whether that’s after-school clubs, curriculum lessons, or Saturday evening workshops — you’ve got to be pragmatic. We tried to achieve a balance by having each family group build its own CamJam Edukit robot to become familiar with the low-level elements before coming together in later weeks to collaborate on the team robot. (Although we did use gpiozero to avoid some of the fiddly work around the sensors).
Coming 4th without meaning to
In a perverse kind of way, I’m unhappy that we came 4th overall because we hadn’t put anything like as much technical effort into our solution as other teams clearly had and I’d guess that our points came from good tactical driving (Obstacles, Golf, Pi Noon), rapidly-improvised mechanical solutions (Golf, Ducks), and a good deal of luck (Pi Noon) which took us through to the finals. And I feel bad for teams who’d worked harder beforehand but whose solutions had failed at the last minute, or who were just unlucky.
So what am I proposing? I suppose it falls into two parts: what PiWars might do differently to better reward the design and build effort; and what we might do as a club to make better use of PiWars as an opportunity for learning.
More emphasis on technical solutions?
I know that the Technical Assessment did count towards our final points. But I wonder whether there’s an opportunity at each of the Challenges for more points to be awarded for a more technically-developed solution. This was the case for the Duck Shoot: that teams who had engineered some kind of Nerf Dart solution scored higher than those who pushed balls. But this would have been offset by the fact that the darts can hit at most one target, whereas the balls can bounce around and flatten several (a loophole which our driver happily exploited). And in the golf challenge, I think the team which came 2nd overall had improvised as we had a basic fork with no capture mechanism — no servos or relays to go wrong.
You can perfectly well argue that, as long as you’re within the rules of the competition, any solution is good. And I agree. We and other teams improvised on the day to produce simpler solutions where more sophisticated ones had failed or not been possible for us in the time. The alternative would have meant simply skipping those challenges and getting less out of the day overall. But I would have been happy for us to have stepped up to those challenges as best we could and still finished up mid-table.
More time spent up-front learning
From our point of view as an educationally-oriented Club, we might go over what other teams’ solutions looked like. Or we might go over the different Challenges now we’ve seen them to brainstorm solutions. Overall we want to generate enthusiasm among the youngsters in developing more sophisticated solutions for the sheer interest and enjoyment, and not just to come higher in the tables next year. (Which, frankly, will be difficult!).
I don’t know if it’ll come off, but I hope to be able to run workshops through the year to develop more slowly the different elements we might use (motors, sensors, servos, relays, lights etc.) so that, when it comes to another PiWars, the youngsters themselves will be able to look at each Challenge and think: I know how we might do that.
Producers, not Consumers
I have a bit of a motto when it comes to talking about youngsters and technology. I want them to be Producers — and not just Consumers — of the technology they use. I love PiWars; I love the atmosphere; I love the technical challenges it offers. What I want is for that to be an opportunity for our Club members to becomes real Producers while having a great time.
P.S. I’m not really talking about Pedagogy, rather about Learning, but the alliterative opportunity was too good to pass up.