Robot hand I.eP.jpgI really enjoy consulting and coaching executives and other professionals, because it allows me to make a difference in the lives of others. There's nothing like that moment when their eyes widen and they say "I get it!" or "That's cool!"

I also get to experience this same thing with students in my Intro to Robotics course. This course isn't just a bunch of computer science geeks doing geeky things: I use it to prepare my students to work well, both in their personal and professional lives, by teaching them essential life skills.

I know teaching life skills through robotics sounds far-fetched, so I'm going to prove it below.

Robotics life lessons thumbnail.jpgIn this course, one of the exercises I teach is the After-Action Review. This consists of five questions:
1.        What was supposed to happen?
2.        What actually happened?
3.        Why did it happen?
4.        What did we learn?
5.        How can we do better next time?

On Monday, as I lead them through an After-Action Review, I wrote the answers to the final question on the board (as you can see on the left). The action under review was the students' preparation for their final in-class competition (which involved designing and building a robot in teams), but the answers they came up with also translate to work and life in general.

Note that these are not in order of importance or priority. They're all lessons learned. Here's what my students had to sayplus applies to best practices for life:

Continue Reading "Best Practices for Robotics Competitions, Work, and Life in General" »
Eric with CS328 Intro to Robotics students

Last night, the students in my CS328 Intro to Robotics course competed in their final robotics competition for the semester. They had to work in teams to design, build, and program robots to perform complicated tasks in a limited amount of time, and I'm very proud of what they've accomplished.

After the students presented summaries of their final papers, we set up for the more nerve-wracking part of the class. Each team was scored in four areas:

  1. How well their robot was designed and constructed
  2. How well their robot performed
  3. Ingenuity and problem-solving
  4. Gracious professionalism on the part of the team members, including teamwork and sportsmanship

Each team's robot competed twice and was ranked based on their higher score. In the end, two teams tied with a score of 1,800 (out of 2,000 points possible), so a final tiebreaker was held.

In my book, all the teams did well. It's much harder than it looks to design a strategy to match the tasks, design and build a robot for the purpose, and program the robot to accomplish that strategy. Getting their robots to complete this competition was a major test of skill for my students, so I say well done, class! It's been my pleasure to teach each and every one of you, and I look forward to doing so again.

Here are some photos showing the class and competition (click for larger images):

Team #6 sending their robot on a mission

Team 6 sends their robot on a mission

The competition underway

The competition underway

A close call by the judge

A close call by the judge

The teams with their robots

The teams with their robots

My students successfully designed and programmed their robots to operate devices, handle objects, and navigate obstacles. After the students programmed the bots and pressed the "start" button, the machines were completely on their own — no direct control of any kind from the competitors. Well done, students!

More on Robotics at The Master's College:

My first paid consulting job convinced me that technology would solve all our problems. Over 30 years ago, I was writing flight-planning programs with a 1-kilobyte* programmable calculator, and it was incredible: calculations that took hours by hand were done in a few minutes.

What I didn't see then was the whole picture. Technology is (and always has been) only part of the equation. My client and I had to put our knowledge together: his knowledge of the math needed for flight-planning, and my knowledge of how to write that into a program.

What I've discovered is that machines can never do our thinking for us – even though advertisers have been claiming they can for decades. Exhibit A:

Want to buy a brain - old computer ad cropped, smaller.jpg

"Its vacuum tubes will make up your mind for you far faster than your gray matter can." Somehow I'm reminded of modern ads claiming that technology can decide what's important to you.

What I found out
During my graduate research on how people work. I saw that even people with the best technology could work very ineffectively. At the same time, some people could use outdated equipment – even as simple as pen and paper – and create great value for their organization. Obviously, technology alone didn't make people better workers.

It became clear that technology is useless if people don't know how to work with it – and more importantly, use it to work together.

Based on my experience and research, I came up with this equation as a model for the effectiveness of individuals and teams:

Value (V) = Knowledge (K) x Methodology (M) x Technology (T)

Technology is literally only part of the equation. There are two other factors:

  • Methodology: the habits, rules, and practices that people follow to get work done. In other words, how people work.
  • Knowledge: what you know, who you know, and what they know

Let me go back to the flight-planning example:

  • K = my client's knowledge of the mathematics needed for flight-planning
  • M = my process for translating that math into programs
  • T = the 1-kilobyte programmable calculator

Without all three, our operation wouldn't have worked and I would've been out of a job.

A kindred spiritMark Mortensen headshot.jpg
I was delighted to come across a very insightful article that Mark Mortensen of INSEAD recently wrote for the Harvard Business Review: "Technology Alone Won't Solve Our Collaboration Problems." He emphasizes "a simple truth: it’s not what technology you’ve got, but how you use it" and includes three specific examples of how to work more effectively with today's technology.

I'm glad to find someone who recognizes "it’s less important which technology you choose and more important that you align it with how people do work." Mortensen acknowledges the importance of method and knowledge as well as technology. See here for his article.

Technology Alone Wont Solve Our Collaboration Problems.jpg

Three factors to success
The interaction of knowledge, methodology, and technology is critical to any organization's success and the value of any individual's work. This is what I've brought to my consulting clients over my decades in the field, and I've clearly seen the results: it works.

To share your thoughts on this topic, connect with me on social media (below). When you're ready discuss how I can help you and your organization manage the balance of KMT, click "Contact" in the upper-right. I'd love to chat!



LI: Eric Mack

*For the younger crowd: 1 kilobyte is about 1/16,000,000 of the memory of a standard iPhone 6.

Image credit:
"Buy a Brain" image by DigiBarn [CC BY-NC 3.0 (]. Changes made: image rotated clockwise 1 degree; article text cropped out; additional border coloring added. Scanned by DigiBarn from Popular Science, May 1949. Link to original image:

A Master's College student recently wrote a very nice article about the Robotics course I teach. She hit the nail on the head: critical thinking, creating solutions, analyzing problems, and communicating effectively are the real core of this class.
Beyond SciFi: Master’s students building robots on campus
By Emily Rader

By 9:30 p.m., the end of class had come on the first night of professor Eric Mack’s Introduction to Robotics course with hardly any notice from the students. The 17 computer science majors were so engaged in the course that to stay late to work on test robots in the lab was a no-brainer.

The opportunity to learn about robot application programming, make functioning robots and battle in robot competitions might intrigue anyone. However, a robotics class that simultaneously trains students in problem-solving and life skills from a biblical perspective makes this class unique to The Master’s College.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Thank you, Emily, and all my students!

More on Robotics:

26 years of piano have lead up to today

Thursday, April 30th, 2015
Baby grand.jpg
26 years ago, I purchased this baby grand piano for the purpose of hacking it into a computer-controlled player grand piano. Before I could begin that project, however, I married the lovely Kathleen Mullen, who promptly put a stop to the notion of piano hacking, saying that we would need that piano someday for our children to play.

I'm glad I listened to Kathy, as all four of our daughters grew up plunking or playing that piano in one form or another. I believe that having that piano in the center of our home provided endless opportunity to satisfy musical curiosity and encourage musical skill in my children. I never tire of my daughters playing the piano, and I appreciate the special relationship that I have with Wendy as she will often play hymns or other songs to encourage me when I am in my office.

I am so very thankful for the many teachers who played a part in Wendy's musical education along the way. Each gave of themselves as they invested in Wendy and encouraged her along the way. Some even volunteered to do so. All made a tremendous impact on Wendy.

Tonight, we will celebrate the culmination of four years of study in Music as Wendy presents her senior piano recital. Soon, she'll graduate from The Master's College with a Bachelor of Music in worship music ministry and a Bachelor of Arts in music and communication. I am so proud of our Wendy, for her focus and determination and for the lovely woman she's become.

Wendy piano recital.jpg
Not pictured: about 120 people in the audience.

Don’t "like" this post

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
A few days ago, I was talking to my Robotics students about the posts made in our Facebook group. I didn't want to come across as the old guy bashing social media, but I told them I was surprised at how little discussion was actually taking place online. Students would post, but usually others would only respond by "liking."

If my students were only posting cat videos, I wouldn't have a problem with people clicking "like" as cat videos lend themselves to that behavior. On the other hand, because most of the posts were intended to start a discussion or get feedback clicking "Like" is less useful, in fact it's often meaningless.  

Before Facebook and Twitter, if you wanted to engage with somebody's post, the only way (on nearly all platforms) was to make a comment. Writing and posting a comment takes at least a little thought and effort.

I'm not saying that "Liking" is bad and everyone should stop it. What I am saying is this: think about what your "like" means.

Continue Reading "Don't "like" this post" »

Getting a robotic arm to solve a puzzle might not seem like much, but two students in my CS328 Introduction to Robotics course have been learning how challenging stuff like this actually is. That's why I'm proud of what they have accomplished.

The classic "Towers of Hanoi" puzzle was invented by the French mathematician Édouard Lucas in 1883 and involves moving blocks or discs from one place to another according to certain rules. This is often difficult for a human to figure out -- just imagine programming a robot to solve it!

Here's a quick video of the robot in action:

The Towers of Hanoi is a common problem assigned to computer science students to help them organize their thinking about problem solving and iterative logic and most especially recursion.

The above video shows step one, which is to solve the problem by discrete programming moves. The next step, if they are up to it, is to take what they have learned and write the algorithms to solve this problem automatically. In any case, they are off to a fine start.

Yes, most of the equipment is older than they are, but it's all they need to learn the fundamentals. And it builds character!