Computer grid.jpgTo my Computer Science students: your field is changing rapidly, and you need to be able to adapt. To do that, you need to stop thinking of yourselves as "programmers" or "IT guys" and start thinking of yourselves as problem solvers.

Here's an example of a potentially big change on the horizon: IBM Watson, a cognitive computer that draws conclusions based on semantic context of meaning (rather than rigid logic tables). It's not a solution to every problem, but it's a novel approach: click here to watch the 8-minute breakdown.

If it's not Watson, it will be something else. The tools of computer science never stay the same for long.

What does this mean for you?

Thinking of yourself as a "programmer" is like a carpenter calling himself a "saw-user" or "hammerer." The saw and hammer are only the tools he uses: what he does is solve problems.

It's the same for you: because of your training, programming is one tool in your toolkit that you can use to solve problems. In the same way, Watson's purpose is to augment decision-making (i.e. problem solving) capabilities. It's another tool in the 21st-century toolkit.

I teach a Technology for Business Decision-Making course that covers topics like this. I teach those students how knowledge and method are used in conjunction with technology to solve problems. These three things -- knowledge, method, and technology -- are all crucial in every field. The tools don't make the techie.

My vision for Computer Science majors is that you would all start thinking of yourselves as problem solvers. I would encourage you to keep up with current methods and tools for problem solving in your field. Your field is changing rapidly, and you need to be ready for it -- beyond the diploma.

Image credit:
Image by geralt [CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication (] via Pixabay
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:

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:

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!

Not long after my Introduction to Robotics course started, it got its very first press coverage!

Three years ago, I was interviewed by Jason Cremeen, a student writing for The Master's Piece, a student publication of The Master's College. What I love about this article is how Jason emphasizes that this course is not an engineering program for computer nerds only -- it's a hands-on critical-thinking course for anyone.

You can read Jason's article here.

2012 - Robotics students2.jpg

Starting this evening, I'll be teaching Intro to Robotics at The Master's College once again. I love having this opportunity to teach students critical thinking and problem-solving in a very hands-on way -- by building robots that solve puzzles and attack each other!

I created this course at Master's a couple years ago. At the time, a few students from the College made this (admittedly silly) video to show in Master's chapel to promote the course:

Of course, this video is not wholly accurate. Students never watch cartoons in my class (though they have been known to eat M&M's).

And since we're on the subject of teaching...

Pop quiz!
Which TMC faculty and staff did you see in the video?
How many different robots were shown?
Bonus: whose lab was this shot in?

I look forward to sharing more about this class!

A fuller description of the course is available at

Eric’s RepStrap 3D Printer Trainer

Thursday, April 18th, 2013
I saw my first 3D printer almost 8 years ago and I blogged about it calling it "The Ultimate PC Accessory". In the years since, I've watched with excitement as the prices for assembled machines tumbled and as the build-it-yourself self-replicating "RepRap" movement led by  Adrian Bowyer emerged.

What excites me about this, aside from the possibilities of robotics and additive manufacturing, is the grass roots nature of the 3D printing community. It reminds me of my early start with home built computers.

A few months ago, I got to play with a MakerBot at a client's office. I was hooked. So, I set out to build myself a "3D Printer Trainer" using whatever parts I had on hand; this is referred to as building a "RepStrap".
Eric's RepStrap 3D Printer In Progress 4-17-2013
I began to build my RepStrap 3D printer from scratch using as few purchased components as possible -- no specific plans or kits, just inspiration from many creative people and designs on the internet. Many of the parts are overkill or the wrong size but the RepStrap concept gives me the freedom to do that. I'm not too concerned about precision or build volume right now.  I just want it to move on my command.

Once the hardware is complete, I intend to use it to teach myself the entire 3D printing workflow and tool chain -- from concept to design to configuration to print. Then, when I have some actual experience under my belt -- and more time -- I will take it all apart and start fresh with a new and improved design. I have only had a few hours each week to invest in this project but you can see that it is already starting to take shape.

Continue Reading "Eric's RepStrap 3D Printer Trainer" »

Why I Love My 3D Printer

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

The last time I blogged about 3D printing was in 2004 when I visited my friend Bill Griffin invited me to have a look at The Ultimate PC Accessory, a Stratasys Fused Deposition Machining (FDM) system.

Unfortunately, I can probably list 100,000 rea$on$ why I would not be getting one any time soon.

Six years later, a 10-year-old 3D printer hacker who goes by the name DocProfSky shows us how you can build your own 3D printer for about a thousand dollars.

Before you get caught up in how cool the technology is, watch the presentation skills of this young man at the Ignite Phoenix event.

MakerBot is an affordable, open source 3D printer. It makes almost anything up to 4"x4"x6". Build your own MakerBot and it makes things for you.

I haven't built one of these yet, but it's definitely on my Someday/Maybe list.

The ultimate geek appliance

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Not available in stores...

My Jewish friends know that Mama can always use an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, and Papa can surely use the help with the Seder. At last, help is on the way...

A group of enterprising engineering students at the R&D Institute for Intelligent Robotic Systems CS Department, College of Management Academic Studies, ISRAEL have created a robot to assist with your next passover Seder. In this practice video, the robot serves his guests with precision.

Watch these amazing robots demonstrate the difference between a CPU (central processing unit) and a GPU (graphics processing unit) at the 2008 NVIDIA conference.

Via: Craig Wiseman

The LEGO Mountaineers are getting ready to go to the U.S. FIRST State Competitions. I challenged the team that if they could get a perfect 400 score I would take everyone out for fresh doughnuts at the Bear Claw Bakery. They have been practicing for weeks, doing everything they could to optimize their robot, tighten the programming source code, and rehearse all movements to shave off a few seconds wherever possible. It's very rare for a team to achieve a perfect 400 score, in fact we used to think it was impossible. Inspired by The Flying Geeks, the kids learned that it was possible and set their sights on a perfect four hundred score in 2.5 minutes.

Next stop: The Bear Claw bakery, then the State Competition. If they win that, they will go to the Nationals. Their goal is to win the nationals and get invited to the White House!

The team has been working hard for months. I'm looking forward to seeing how they do at the competition and to celebrating their accomplishment with them.

Mountaineers qualify for the State Competition!

Saturday, November 10th, 2007
20071110_SCVFLLEvent.jpgThe LEGO Mountaineers have just completed the Santa Clarita Valley FLL Regional Robotics Tournament and they did very well!
  • First place in the research project
  • Tied for first place in the Teamwork Award
  • Highest robot performance score in the afternoon session
  • Third highest robot performance score overall

The team has qualified to continue to the FLL State competition, the next step on their journey to the National Competition in Atlanta and then, hopefully, to the White House!

Coach Simmons encourages the Mountaineers in the practice pitThe Mountaineers present their research and technical presentation to the FLL judges, followed by Q&AThe Mack sisters look on anxiously as the FLL judges tally their scoreWaiting for the award ceremony to begin so we can find out how we did

I'm VERY proud of their accomplishments. They worked very hard and demonstrated outstanding teamwork to solve some difficult challenges with their robot.
Our homeschool robotics team participated in a local FLL competition in Hermosa Beach. The team received the highest scores for robot performance, research, and the technical presentation, earning them the Robot Performance Award and the Championship Award.

The LEGO Mountaineers earn the FLL Championship and Robot Performance Awards at Hermosa Beach, CA

This is the first stop in a journey the kids hope will take them to Washington D.C. to meet the president. Next stop is in the Santa Clarita Regional FLL event where the team must qualify to attend the L.A. State Competition. If they win that, then can continue to the national competition. Last year, President Bush invited the winning teams from the national event to an award reception at the White House. The team is hoping he will do that again and that they will be invited to attend.

The Mountaineers present their research and rechnical presentatons in front of the FLL judges  Wendy prepares the robot to complete the assigned missions while judges and spectators observe

I'm very proud of the team and I think they have a very good chance at winning and achieving their goal.
As my readers know, I've been coaching robotics teams in the U.S. First competitions for the past six years. (Our all-girls homeschool Jr. Robotics team, the LEGO Mountaineers, have earned top awards at several competitions.)  In that time, I've watched robotics go from being the side line geek activity to something very cool. (It's still a geek activity)

This year, Dean Kamen encouraged the FIRST Teams to get the word out that FIRST is a viable education program to encourage young people to pursue studies and even careers in science and technologies. Well the White House got the message, looked at the 15-year successful track record of the FIRST Robotics program and will be honoring the top team in each category on Monday at the White House. How cool is that?

To the FIRST Community:

We are thrilled to announce that three FIRST teams will be honored by President George W. Bush at the White House on Monday, April 30, 2007.  

Continue Reading "Build a great robot, go to the White House!" »
A few years ago, I blogged about what I think is the ultimate PC accessory. There are thousands of reasons I do not yet have one. Now I may be one step closer...

The team at Fab@Home have posted open source plans to build your own 3D printer.


Via Popular Mechanics April 2007:
Engineers from Cornell University are trying to convince people to build their own "rapid prototyping machine" - essentially a 3D printer that can "print" objects, such as bottles, or watchbands. the scientists hope their Fab@Home design, which can be assembled from about $2400 in parts, will spur innovation, and do for 3D Printing what home computer kits in the 1970s did for the PC.

Way cool. I remember riding the wave of technology in the pre-PC era. I tried the same with robotics, but that wave has yet to pick up. This is really exciting and I think it shows great potential to democratize innovation.

Continue Reading "The Printed World - Democratizing Innovation" »
I'm not sure this has been done before, but the Flying Geeks achieved what had previously always seemed impossible - a perfect score of 400 at the US FIRST LEGO League Robotics competition. They beat out the Mindstorms Mayhem team - previous winner for the past three years. In response, the Mindstorms Mayhem team graciously posted this tribute to the Flying Geeks.

Even if you are not into Robots, or LEGOs or the like, you've got to watch this amazing video of the Flying Geeks as they achieve a perfect score in the New Hampshire Semifinals. (Wait or right-click to download, it's a large file)

Continue Reading "Congratulations Flying Geeks, a perfect score of 400!!!" »

Hey Bruce, are you up to a challenge?

Sunday, March 18th, 2007
Hey Bruce, now that you've purchased your own MindStorms kit, it's time to start thinking about competitions. After all, you won't know what your robot's worth until it's in the ring, fighting for survival.

Tonight, our team made a video of our second sumo practice for an upcoming competition. Yesterday's robots were pretty weak,  but after a lesson on gear reduction, torque and drive trains, I sent the kids off to redesign their robots.

Bruce, when you come to visit me in the digital sandbox, bring your MindStorms kit and we'll have some fun. Perhaps we can write an extension to the Notes API to manage our robots from LotusScript and hve them respond to the status of our programs. Interesting idea...

Related links: LEGO Mountaineers Team Web page

Another big weekend for FIRST Robotics

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006
The girls FIRST Robotics Team competed in San Diego this weekend and they again won the robot design award. I'm particularly proud of them as this is an area in which the team has worked especially hard this year.


I was not too involved in the robot design, other than to show them how to map out the features that they wanted their robot to accomplish and to encourage them to design an integrated robot with no detachable parts.
Continue Reading "Another big weekend for FIRST Robotics" »

Productivity in Motion Update for 11/08/06

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006
If you are interested in robotics, LEGOs, or want to see how kids use mindmaps and GTD to plan and prepare for a competition, our U.S. FIRST Robotics updated team blog site is now on-line. The girls have written over 50 blog entries detailing their experiences preparing for the upcoming robotics competitions.


I hope you'll visit their team web site and offer a few words of encouragement.

The competitions begin this week and continue for the next 4 weeks. To follow all of the excitement, you'll want to add these links to your RSS reader:

Continue Reading "Productivity in Motion Update for 11/08/06" »

Very small U.S. FIRST Robotics Kickoff, tomorrow!

Thursday, September 14th, 2006
It looks like this year's robotics competition will be very small. Very, very small... I just received this email from FIRST headquarters:
Greetings Teams:

Two days and counting until Nano Quest is unveiled!   You and your team are about to enter a world where big things happen at the nano level.  Like Alice through the looking glass, get ready to zoom out of the world we know, through a super high-powered atomic microscope to the strange world of individual atoms. Sure it sounds like science fiction, but the future has arrived.
Continue Reading "Very small U.S. FIRST Robotics Kickoff, tomorrow!" »
This is an invitation to encourage our homeschool robotics team in the 2006 FIRST Robotics competition. My daughter, Amy, contributed to this post:
I'm excited! We have just started our first official day of LEGO Robotics 2006.

Our robotics team, the The LEGO Mountaineers is an all-girls home school robotics team. We have been competing in the FIRST Robotics competitions for the past 4 years. FIRST stands for For Inspiration And Recognition of Science and Technology. Its a great way to learn to apply skills in critical thinking, problem solving, math, science, computers, and robotics. It's fun, too.

Today, we finished making our first mind map for the 2006 FIRST Competition.

We use mind maps in all of our planning and we make maps often help us keep track of our goals, projects, ideas, and questions. This will also make it easier for us to keep track of what we have accomplished. Below, is a link to the mind map we made. I believe that it is because of our mind mapping and GTD planning skills that we were able to successfully plan, prepare, and win the Director's Award at two different competitions.

Continue Reading "2006 FIRST Robotics season begins - you can help" »
One of the reasons I like building robots is that it combines skills in hardware and software development. I'm not very good at it, but when I have time to tinker, I really enjoy doing both. Today, Microsoft released a preview of Microsoft Robotics Studio, a development system for robots. I'm excited for many reasons, mostly because it will increase recognition in a field I've watched grow and languish and grow for the past 20 years.


Apparently, one of the first hardware platforms that Microsoft plans to  support is the LEGO MindStorms.
Continue Reading "Now, even robots can have Microsoft for brains" »

LEGO Robotics Challenge & VLOG Test

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

Tanny and I are testing VLOG (Video Blog) posts on my blog, something I started experimenting with 2 years ago. I've posted this video so that we can begin to  test some new code that Tanny's preparing that will allow me to quickly and easily make VLOG (Video Blog) posts.

This video, for the Sampson children, is of a robotics challenge I gave my children, two weeks ago. The goal was to build and program a tracked robot to run a basic course around our robotics playing field.

Continue Reading "LEGO Robotics Challenge & VLOG Test" »

Mountaineers succeed as a virtual team

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005
It was another busy week for our robotics team, as they competed in the U.S. FIRST Central Valley Robotics Competition, in Clovis, California. (CV Robotics)

20051204 - Clovis Competition Presentation.jpg

This year, the team faced a formidable challenge; they had to split up so that Kathy and the girls could care for Kathy's mom. The team decided to have Amy & Wendy work on the research and presentation in Northern California, while Faith and Lucy worked on the robot locally. The girls were only able to meet in person a few times, relying instead on Skype, phone calls, and email. They worked hard and accomplished a lot.

Continue Reading "Mountaineers succeed as a virtual team" »

Staying on the line with a homebuilt robot

Friday, November 25th, 2005
Amy and Wendy recently decided to build a test platform to further develop their programming skills.


Specifically, they wanted to build a robot to follow a line. They emailed me this video clip of their latest LEGO robot following an electrical tape line around grandma's kitchen. (See below.) Programming a robot to follow a line can be a challenge. I'm proud of Amy and Wendy for taking the initiative to learn how to solve this problem on their own.

Learn more about their robotics team, The LEGO Mountaineers, here.

Click on the podcast link below to watch the video.

LEGO Mountaineers earn top award

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005
This weekend, our Robotics team competed in the FIRST Robotics competition in Manhattan Beach, California. Preparation for this year's competition was very different from all previous years. Due to a medical situation in our family, our team was unable to meet as a team after our first meeting. Rather than skipping the competition, the girls decided to split up the projects, with two of the girls working on the robot design and programming locally while Amy and Wendy worked on the research and presentation project remotely.

Mountaineers research presentation

This weekend, the LEGO Mountaineers won the top award for their research and presentation on how undersea robots can be used to help restore the kelp forests. Amy and Wendy even built a mock-up of their proposed solution to demonstrate how it would work.

Continue Reading "LEGO Mountaineers earn top award" »

Hanging out with Gort, Robby, Roomba and C-3PO

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005
The RoboNexus conference exhibition hall was not too crowded on Friday. We saw a variety of robots from consumer models to entertainment robots to autonomous military robots. iRobot had a large display with their military and consumer robots. Many people were interested in iRobot's consumer productivity robots that vacuum (Roomba) and wash (Scooba) floors. Kathy asked if Roomba could really suck up things like cheerio's or dog hair. The representative dumped out a box of granola into the carpet and Roomba went to work sucking it up. Most of it. I'm convinced that these robots work best if you live in a museum with no furniture and have no children, toys, or pets. Actually, the demonstrations were pretty good. I found the autonomous and remote controlled reconnaissance and rescue robots much more interesting.


Continue Reading "Hanging out with Gort, Robby, Roomba and C-3PO" »

Robotics team thanks 2004 sponsors

Saturday, March 12th, 2005
On behalf of the their  U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics Team, Amy and Wendy had the opportunity to present their final sponsor appreciation plaque to one of their sponsors, David Allen of the David Allen Company. David's been a long-time champion of my volunteer work, teaching children critical thinking skills using robotics. I believe that the GTD methodology played a big part in the team's success this year.

David, and Amy and their 2004 robot.

LEGO Mountaineers Team blog site
Image:Mountaineers win Director´s award at Robotics competition!
The LEGO Mountaineers, FIRST Jr. Robotics Team #1144

Four years ago, I volunteered as a mentor for a high school robotics team in the U.S. FIRST Competition.  For the past three years, I have had the privilege of coaching a group of talented home school girls in the Jr. Robotics league.  Our team, the LEGO Mountaineers, has done well each year, winning awards in various areas such as research presentation, judges award, and team spirit award. While the girls, excelled in many areas, there was always ample opportunity for improvement. (In the past, their robot ranked 39 out of 44. Not a great score.)

At the start of this year's robotics season, the girls announced that they intended to win the Director's award -- the award given for the team with the highest achievement overall.  The Director's award is a difficult award to earn, and is usually awarded to the larger, more experienced, school teams.  (Our team was quite small this year, with only 5 girls)

As a coach, I see the strengths and weaknesses of our team. My job is to direct the team so that each child develops her skills, and is able to contribute to the team. I knew the work that they would have to do to try to win this award.

I told the girls that if they really wanted to win the Director's award, I would be happy to coach them towards that goal. With that agreement, we spent the early weeks -- while other teams were already building their robots -- focused on studying the goal (the award criteria, etc) and visualizing what it would take to win the award and what winning would be like. We created mind maps of the process and of the things we would need to accomplish to reach the goal. We then broke these down into specific next actions. (i.e. collect parts, build robot, plan mission, etc.).

For the next 10 weeks, we focused on outcomes and actions -- all moving towards the goal of delivering our best performance at the competition. (The competition consists of robot design, field competition, technical presentation, research presentation, sportsmanship, etc..)

We spent a little less time on the robot this year and more time on the theory of planning, goal setting, mind mapping, game strategy, the GTD methodology, and flowcharting. I am confident that these skills contributed to the girls' ability to be ready for anything that they would encounter at the competition.

This past weekend, the girls competed at a regional FIRST Jr. Robotics competition in Southern California. Not only did their robot finish in first place in their division, they finished 3rd overall for robot performance (score) on the field.

At the award ceremony, the judges called the LEGO Mountaineers, to award them the distinguished Director's award for top achievement in all categories.

I'm very proud of them.

The girls have been maintaining a Blog site so that they can share their experiences. This year, the girls provided almost daily updates of their progress, challenges, and successes. I encourage you to stop visit and, if you are inclined, post some words of encouragement. if you have a young person in your life, you may want to share the site with them. FIRST is a great program to inspire children to pursue math, science and technology.

We were fortunate this year to have several distinguished sponsors and partners, who helped provide the funds, software, and encouragement to help the children get things done.  We even had a visit from Microsoft's Channel 9 guy. You can learn more about all of this on the LEGO Mountaineer's Blog site.

I plan to share my thoughts on how to coach an all-girls Jr. Robotics team to success. Look for this and video clips on the girls' Blog site in the weeks to come.


Productivity in Motion (Part 1)

Tuesday, September 28th, 2004
There is nothing quite like the excitement of watching a robot - one that you and your teammates have designed, built, and programmed - move autonomously across the playing field to carry out its missions while the crowd cheers from the stands. (visit site)

When the "Run" button is pressed
and the robot leaves its base to execute its missions, the team will find out how well they did thinking through and preparing to solve each of the challenge missions. They will have to effectively teach the robot "next action management," which is what I hope that they will learn in the process.

I call it "Productivity in motion."

The transition from thousands of individual parts to a completed robot that is ready to compete in an autonomous competition requires the same critical thinking and project management skills that it takes to send a spacecraft into space.

As I have shared before, one of the many things that I really enjoy about coaching the U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics competitions is the opportunity to teach children some of those vital critical thinking skills while having fun building robots.  Not only do the kids have to design and build a robot, they have to program it as well.

Since the dawn of computing the success of any programming project has been the ability to break down a tasks into specific next actions
. Of the many skills that I model for the kids, a powerful one is the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, by my friend, David Allen. I teach kids the basics of GTD -- often without them knowing it -- simply by modelling its use in action. Early on, the girls become accustomed to asking "What's the successful outcome?" and "what's the next action?" It is this step-by-step analysis that helps the kids learn to break down a complex problem into small but manageable tasks. While I am teaching the kids how to prepare for a robotics competition, I am really teaching them how to prepare to solve many of the kinds of challenges that they will face in the future.

Thanks to this year's sponsors, I will be introducing the girls to various productivity applications, including OneNote, Mind Manager, and ResultsManager. I'm looking forward to giving the team not only powerful thinking skills but excellent productivity tools to use as well.

I have set up a web site where you can follow along as we prepare for the U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics Competition. The girls will be blogging about their experiences each week and I will blog from time to time (on both blogs) about the various productivity applications that we are using and the lessons learned.  It promises to be quite an adventure.

Does this sound interesting to you? If so, here are your next actions:

1. Sign up for the RSS feed for this web site so that you can stay informed of the latest news.
2. Visit the LEGO Mountaineers web site to see the pictures and follow the team's activities.
3. While you are there, be sure to read: Productivity in motion, Part 2.

If you would like to share your thoughts on this topic, feel free to post a comment below.

This year’s FLL robotics challenge

Thursday, September 16th, 2004
This year's robotics challenge appears to be the hardest one yet. Several missions to accomplish -- all in under two minutes.  I'm still working on getting the new group blog site up for our Robotics team. For now, I'll post the girl's latest entries here..

Thursday, September 16, 2004
Today my sister and I helped my dad set up the playing field so that it will be ready for our next team meeting this weekend. It looks really cool.

Image:This year´s FLL robotics challenge

We brainstormed on different ideas the we have for the different challenges. We are going to start experimenting soon. This year is going to be really exciting.
Posted by Wendy

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Today we got the challenge for this year's LEGO Robotics competition. It is very exciting! This year has the hardest challenges that I have ever seen. We have to program our robot to do a lot of things that a disabled person might have trouble with. Like opening a gate, putting a ball through a hoop, feeding animals, and putting things away.

Also our research challenge is that we invent a robot to solve a problem that a disabled person might have in our community. We will really need to work on our robotics skills. I look forward to another great year of LEGO League.
Posted by Wendy

Well, there you have it; the team's first public blog entries. Shortly, I'll have the new team group blog site operational. There, you will be able to follow the progress of the LEGO Mountaineers through their eyes and blog as they prepare for and compete in this year's competition.  I look forward myself to seeing what they have to say and to adding my own perspective about our experience using various productivity programs, such as MindManager, ResultManager, and OneNote 2003.

Jr. Robotics Challenge 2004 kit arrives

Tuesday, September 7th, 2004
This weekend, we unpacked two boxes, containing the US FIRST Jr. Robotics Challenge 2004 Kit of parts.

Image:Jr. Robotics Challenge 2004 kit arrives

The first box contained the playing field. The second box contained the 1438 parts that we will need to assemble into the various props needed to complete the challenge.

What is the U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics Challenge 2004?

The U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics Challenge is a robotics competition, developed by Dean Kamen, for middle school students. The robots are built using the LEGO MindStorms robotics development system. This will be my third year coaching a team in this competition -- it's something that I enjoy doing as part of my ICA Robotics outreach.

I'm in the process setting up a new team blog site that will tell you more about it. It will be a group blog, operated by a group of lovely young ladies that call themselves the LEGO Mountaineers. They will be sharing their experiences as they learn about robotics, computer software including, MindStorms, RoboLab, MindManager, OneNote, ResultManager, and hopefully, a group collaboration tool. You will be able to follow along, day by day, as the team progresses towards the competition, so stay tuned!

If you haven't already, now would be a good time to subscribe to the RSS feed for this site.

WiFi HotSpots in jail?

Wednesday, May 26th, 2004
The voice of experience: Do not try to drive a remotely piloted vehicle through an LAX Airport security checkpoint.  If you must, be sure to keep it covered with a blanket at all times. Here's a brief account of my recent near run-in with Homeland Security.

In January, I took some time away to work on the restoration of my HERO 2000 Robot. Among other things, one of the things that I did was to meet with 4 other robotics enthusiasts, all of whom own vintage HERO 2000 robots.  We've been calling ourselves the Los Angeles Robot Resurectionists Society and we meet several times a year to work on our robot restoration projects.

Image:WiFi HotSpots in jail?
What can I say? Some people restore vintage cars, we restore vintage robots.

My family dropped me and HERO off at a friend's house, near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The day went well, and thanks to Kevin, my HERO 2000 now has a working arm again.  

Image:WiFi HotSpots in jail?Image:WiFi HotSpots in jail?
I should probably point out that HERO is about the size of a large child and twice as heavy. When I transport him in the car, I buckle him in with a seat belt and restraints, and I cover him with a blanket so that he will not fall out or call attention to himself.

Image:WiFi HotSpots in jail?Image:WiFi HotSpots in jail?
Kelly and I load HERO into the car

On the way home, as the jets flew overhead, I realized that my younger children had never seen or heard an airplane up close, so I decided to drive to a nearby parking lot at the end of the runway so that they could watch the planes land.  After several minutes of this, we decided to drive through the airport. As we  approached LAX, we could see police cars everywhere, generator powered lighting trucks illuminating the streets, and officers with dogs, search lights, and mirrors (for under-car inspection).

As we approached the security checkpoint for our lane, which was attended by at least a half dozen security agents, I realized that I had, in my car, a remotely piloted vehicle, complete with cameras, antennas, and remote console -- not the kind of thing that one usually brings to an airport. Further, if asked, I had no real purpose for even being at the airport -- no one to pick up and no tickets to go anywhere. It was too late to get out of the security lane and doing so would have only attracted more attention.

Image:WiFi HotSpots in jail?
HERO 2000 Actively scans the horizon with his Sonar

I told the kids to be quiet and to keep the robot covered with the blanket.   We rolled down our windows so that the security officer could look into our car. Despite the obvious occupant hiding under a blanket, they did not say anything.  We also have an unusual cargo carrier attached to the back of our car. It has an enclosed storage unit about the size of a 55 gallon drum.  No one seemed to notice or care.  After a minute, they waived us through.

Sorry, I did not think to take any pictures at the security checkpoint. :-(

So, while it was tense for a moment, it was a relatively uneventful inspection. I was surprised, even disappointed, that no one checked any further. At the same time, I was not about to pull-over, unload a 100 lb robot, and remotely pilot it back to the security checkpoint just to show them what they had missed.  That would have made for a more eventful evening.

I bet they don't have wireless HotSpots in jail.

The Ultimate PC Accessory

Friday, May 14th, 2004
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Bill Griffin, of Grifftek to discuss my CNC machining projects. After a tour of his new shop, Bill invited me over to his office, where he makes rapid prototypes in the model shop - he wanted to show me his latest toy: a Stratasys Fused Deposition Machining (FDM) system. What's FDM, you ask? Think of it as the ultimate 3D Printer for your computer. It can take a 3D Solid Model and print a usable part from it in ABS plastic, quickly and quietly, in the convenience of your office (or home).

Image:The Ultimate PC Accessory
I want one of these machines!

How does it work? It's basically a computer-controlled hot-melt glue gun that can precisely deposit a thread-like bead of molten ABS plastic. By building up successive layers, parts of almost any complexity can be created. The parts are built-up on a tray, much like a cookie-sheet in an oven.

Image:The Ultimate PC Accessory
Need a part? Need a tray full of parts? Just click Print.

Once the FDM process is complete, the parts can be removed from the oven, ready to clean and use.

Image:The Ultimate PC Accessory

I have heard it said that you are only dollars away from anything you want. Well, there are only a few hundred thousand reasons why I do not yet own one of these cool PC accessories. I can't wait for the price to come down. (I remember when laser printers used to cost that much.)

Thanks Bill, for an educational evening, and a great dinner!

PS. Bill retrofitted my CNC Mill and Lathe and did a first-class job. If you are looking for a quality CNC system or retrofit, Bill's the guy to contact.

Busy playing with LEGOs

Saturday, November 30th, 2002
Our robotics team, the LEGO Mountaineers, has been quite busy this month.  I am having a blast mentoring the girls.  They were featured on the front page of the local paper, and participated in a scrimmage at CSUN.
Image:Busy playing with LEGOsImage:Busy playing with LEGOs

Back from Robot Wars

Monday, April 8th, 2002
I've just come back from the battlefield.  Well not exactly, but it was a week of Robot Wars of a sort... The good sort.  This past week, our robotics team, in which I am a mentor, competed in the Southern California Regional FIRST Robotics Competition at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Image:Back from Robot Wars
Our robotics competition actually began several months ago with a "Kick off" event - a live telecast which we attended at NASA/JPL. During this event, we were shown this year's robot challenge - a game called "Zone Zeal." After the Kick off, the kids were allowed just 6 weeks to design, engineer, build, debug, practice, and ship the robot to the competition. During this time, I worked along with other mentors on our team to help the students accomplish the numerous tasks that were needed to complete our robot.
Image:Back from Robot Wars
Not only did we accomplish our goal of helping the students to prepare for and complete the event, we managed to help them finish in the top third of the event. The final ranking for our Team (981) was 17th out of 60 teams.
Image:Back from Robot Wars
More important however, were the lessons which the students learned over the past several months including teamwork, communications skills, project planning, action management, prototyping, mechanical design and robot construction.
Image:Back from Robot Wars
On a personal note: I was able to visit with Dean Kamen, the founder of US FIRST and a truly amazing person.
Image:Back from Robot Wars
It has been a great deal of fun. It has also been quite challenging with only 6 weeks allowed for all of this to happen. I have seen a lot of growth in the kids we mentored. It is my hope that this experience will have a positive and lasting impact on their lives as they continue their education and become the problem solvers of the future.

Eric D. Mack,
Mentor, Team 981

Tobor Lives!

Saturday, March 9th, 2002
Tobor Lives!
Here is our finished robot, TOBOR - designed and built in only 6 weeks.
Image:Tobor Lives!
We had a very precise chart with milestones including a planned miracle at week 5.  Fortunately, the miracle did occur! Most of the construction happened in the last week.  Now, the kids will build a crate and prepare to ship the robot off to the competition.

I am really inspired by what Dean Kamen has done with U.S. FIRST.  Other than reading about Dean, my only contact with him was during a satellite telecast which I took my team to at NASA/JPL. Dean and his associate, Woody Flowers were at the other end, telling us about this year's challenge and exhorting us to Gracious Professionalism.  

It has been a lot of fun to be involved. It has also been a great challenge dealing with the varying levels of maturity common to those in High School. I am thinking of starting a local FIRST Jr. Robotics League team for homeschoolers in our area. Between the homeschoolers and the local elementary & middle schools we might be able to get 5 -8 teams going. I think that would be a lot of fun.

PS. I have not [yet] had the opportunity to meet Dean in person (or to ride the Human transporter) although some of the teams this year have been lucky enough to do both!

Tobor is born

Thursday, January 31st, 2002
This month, I volunteered to be one of the mentors for the Frazier Mountain High School Robotics Team in the U.S. First Competition.  I am helping to teach the students to build and program a robot that we they use to compete against robots from other high schools.   We had our kick-off at NASA/JPL just after New Year's with a live satellite feed, hosted by Dean Kamen.  
Image:Tobor is born
This may not be the type of competition you will see on television, where the intent is to damage the other robots.  Each team is challenged to score as many points as they are able, while doing several activities.  Amy and Wendy have been able to join me for many of the meetings.  We are now known officially, as Team 981. The kids decided to name the robot Tobor.  Figure it out.

Robotic Inspiration

Tuesday, October 31st, 2000

I enjoy inspiring children in the areas of science and technology and I have found that robotics demonstrations are an effective way to do this. For the past 12 years, I have been offering these demonstrations and educational programs as an outreach of my company, ICA.COM, Inc..

I have updated my robotics web site tells a little more about this outreach and shows some wacky photos of me in action.

Image:Robotic Inspiration