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Robots: an educational revelation in CS at a Jesuit College R. Mark Meyer Canisius College Buffalo, NY Outline Our grant Our learning goals Our robots Our courses Our languages Our assignments Our experiences and conclusions Our grant to put robotics into curriculum

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Robots an educational revelation in cs at a jesuit college l.jpg

Robots: an educationalrevelation in CSat a Jesuit College

R. Mark Meyer

Canisius College

Buffalo, NY

Outline l.jpg

  • Our grant

  • Our learning goals

  • Our robots

  • Our courses

  • Our languages

  • Our assignments

  • Our experiences and conclusions

Our grant to put robotics into curriculum l.jpg
Our grant to put robotics into curriculum

  • 2006 We were awarded an in-house 3-year grant to introduce robotics into the curriculum.

  • It is called the Peter Canisius Distinguished Teaching Professorship

    • Deb Burhans (CS and Bioinformatics)

    • Mark Meyer (CS)

    • David Sheets (Physics and Pre-engineering)

  • Impact plans

    • Course revision

    • New courses, some in core curriculum and HONORS programs

    • Outside speakers

    • Training events for local high school teachers

  • After 1 year, we have met many goals and are on-track

  • This July we will sponsor a NXT training session for local teachers

Our goals curricular l.jpg
Our Goals (curricular)

  • Recruit new CS majors

  • Retain current CS majors

  • Make the general studies courses more accessible and fun

  • Improve early programming skills for CS majors

  • Introduce AI concepts to juniors/seniors

  • Learning Goals: the students will know...

    • how to describe and define a robot

    • how to interface robot sensors & motors using Java

    • how to better program traditional loops, decisions, subprograms

    • how to describe some AI challenges and techniques

Our robots l.jpg
Our robots

  • Lego Mindstorms RCX (approximately 30)

  • Lego Mindstorms NXT (approximately 23)

  • Sony AIBO (6) [The cute white “dogs”, no longer made]

  • ER-1 (2) [Evolution robotics]

  • Create from IRobot (1) [A vacuum-less Roomba for robot experiments] – just got this!

  • (Funded by the in-house grant plus a $70,000 NASA grant)

Our penbot l.jpg
Our penbot

The Pen bot

a roverbot with

an attached pen

so it can draw,

like turtle


(This bot was based on other bots described elsewhere, including the 2005 workshop.)

Our courses l.jpg
Our courses

  • CSC 110 – A “CS 0” course

  • CSC 109 – Another “CS 0” course that is solely robotics

  • EGR 111 – Introduction to engineering (pre-engineers)

  • CSC 111 – Our Java-based “CS 1” 1/3 of the labs are robots

  • CSC 360 – Intelligent Systems: AI, robotics, knowledge bases

  • CSC 391/491 – Seminar, 1 credit hour special projects

Our assignments l.jpg
Our Assignments

  • Early courses (majors and non-majors)

    • CSC 109 Build robots for competition using Robolang

    • CSC 110 Write programs to draw things

    • EGR 111 Write programs using bricxcc

  • CS 1 (usually majors)

    • CSC 111 Use lejos for wide variety of tasks (listed later)

  • Junior/Senior courses (majors)

    • CSC 360 Robot competition, wumpus world, track following

    • Seminar Variety of tasks: Sony AIBO, ER-1, etc.

Our translator robotran v 1 l.jpg
Our Translator: Robotran V.1

  • Translator program

  •  Robolang – a simple Python-ish language

  •  Translator to true Lejos

  •  Used as web applet or standalone Java app

  •  Can compile and download

Robolang details l.jpg
Robolang Details

  • Streamlined syntax for assignments and control structures, especially button handler methods

  • Uses Java expression syntax and transparently inserts into the final Lejos code

  • Simplified robot commands:

    • go forward 10 seconds

      • Motor.A.start();

      • Motor.B.start();

      • try { Thread.sleep(10000); } catch (Exception e) {}

  • Simplified function (method) syntax

Simple light follower program l.jpg
Simple Light Follower program

program follow1

constant BLACK = 42


var lightvalue = S3

display lightvalue

if lightvalue < BLACK then



go forward



Light hunter l.jpg
Light Hunter

define huntLeft() returns number

turn left sharp 25 degrees

var lightvalue = S3

if lightvalue > BLACK then

return 1


turn right sharp 25 degrees

return 0



define huntRight() returns number

turn right sharp 25 degrees

var lightvalue = S3

if lightvalue > BLACK then

return 1


turn left sharp 25 degrees

return 0



define findLight

var result

if turnedLeft = 1 then

result = huntLeft()

if result = 1 then



result = huntRight()

if result = 1 then

turnedLeft = 0




if turnedLeft = 0 then

if huntRight() = 1 then



if huntLeft() = 1 then

turnedLeft = 1





program follow4

global constant BLACK = 42

global var turnedLeft = 1


var lightvalue = S3

display lightvalue

if lightvalue < BLACK then

do findLight


go forward



Our simulator l.jpg
Our simulator

  • Simulate the penbot, only one at a time, geared towards real assignments

  • Don’t get overly caught up with 3d graphics

  • Provide functionality with both Robolang and Lejos

  • Make it flexible for future implementation on NXT

  • Use the lejos compiled code that makes calls to the firmware ROM

  • Create our own ROM object with same API and let the compiled code, running in tinyVM, call it

  • Then our ROM object sends updates to a graphics simulation object

  • Special credit to senior David Puehn for his exceptional programming and design help on the simulator.

Activities assignments csc 111 l.jpg
Activities & Assignments (CSC 111)

  • Robot acts like a sentry (back and forth)

  • Robot avoids obstacles by randomly turning after bumps

  • Robot randomly moves around (Brownian motion)

  • Robot responds to input through the buttons

  • Robot plays music

  • Robot senses light values and displays numbers on LCD

  • Robot goes forward only when flashlight is turned on

  • Robot turns to find light if low light level is sensed

  • Robot uses more elaborate schemes to find light source

  • Robot remembers direction of last successful turn to find light

Activities and assignments csc 111 l.jpg
Activities and Assignments (CSC 111)

  • Robot is taught a path which it can then replay (uses arrays)

  • Robot receives input from bumps and button presses, including binary or unary numbers

  • Robot draws a letter based on input number

Activities and assignments upper level l.jpg
Activities and Assignments (upper level)

These are used in the robot competition, which can be entered by

anyone in any class, from beginning to junior/senior level.

  • Robot follows a line on the floor, part of drag race competition

  • Robot tries to stay within a sumo ring while pushing another robot outside the ring

  • Robot navigates a maze (needs to remember path & obstacles)

Activities and assignments csc 360 l.jpg
Activities and Assignments (CSC 360)

  • LEGO Mindstorms competition last 2 years

  • “In 360 we only used the Aibos this year (2007.) Students learned how to control them using Pyro and completed basic labs on movement and vision. Then they worked on the wumpus world challenge with the low level operations using Pyro and high level KR&R using SNePS with the architecture that connects SNePS to Pyro that Alistair and I created.” (Deb Burhans)

Strategies for worthwhile assignments l.jpg
Strategies for Worthwhile assignments

(This applies only to CSC 111 assignments.)

  • Don’t try to accomplish too much in one program! … keep the time-frame in mind and how much out-of-lab time they can have.

  • Reinforce structured programming (use given methods and construct new ones; emphasize problem decomposition).

  • Require use of appropriate data structures (usu. Arrays).

  • Get them thinking about AI issues, especially flexible problem-solving strategies and multiple alternatives.

  • Progress from simple to several more complex versions of same problem, e.g. the light follower.

  • Use the button press model to reinforce listeners and handlers which are used in other aspects of Java (like GUIs).

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Our experiences and conclusions

  • Surveys show a strong positive attitude on part of students

  • The comments are lavish with praise, but a few thought the robots were too primitive

  • CS 1 students say the robots motivate them to stay in CS

  • More CS 0 students are going on to CS 1 for the fun of it, especially the CSC 109 students

  • No significant change in CS 1 final grades or other indicators of acquisition of programming skills

  • Students in 110 and 109 liked Robolang better than Lejos when they got into 111

  • In our robot competition, groups used brixcc, Lejos and Robolang and did comparably using any language

Our experiences and conclusions 2 l.jpg
Our experiences and conclusions (2)

  • We need a lot of help in the labs (so we hire student helpers)

  • Grading is a pain (can’t download and test every single program)

  • Robot labs take a lot more time for students to complete; can’t do as much

  • We need to staff after-hours lab time

  • So far, no theft and almost no breakage!

  • Students respond much more positively when each has their own robot to program; group exercises in 110 (made necessary by large number of students) were less gratifying

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Our future plans

  • Finish the Robotran simulator

  • Port it to the NXT

  • HONORS science elective on robotics in Spring 2008

    • D. Burhans will teach

    • LEGO robot programming will be used for concrete activities

    • Readings, movies, discussions and papers will accompany

  • Continue fulfilling broader goals of the Peter Canisius DT professorship

Our contact information l.jpg
Our Contact Information