From Competing to Judging

Saturday, January 15th, 2011
Amy and Wendy pose after judging an FLL Robotics TournamentFor nearly six years, I've had the wonderful opportunity to be on a robotics team and compete in the First Lego League Robotics Competition.  Our team, the Lego Mountaineers, was a home school team and competed in many different tournaments in California.  Through the program, we learned and developed skills in writing, research, teamwork, engineering, programming, mechanical design, and presentation.

When we became too old to compete, Wendy, Mom, and I agreed to volunteer judge one of the local competitions.  For the past four years, we have thoroughly enjoyed helping run these tournaments and seeing a side of the competitions we had never seen before and we have loved judging the different aspects of the competitions:  research presentation, robot design, robot performance, and teamwork.

Continue Reading "From Competing to Judging" »


Saturday, October 2nd, 2010
LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT In a previous post, I mentioned that I was going through Michael Gasperi's book LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT.  I just finished it, and I thought that I would share my take on the tutorial.

As I have read and gone through a few technical tutorials, I realized that it is extremely difficult to present technical information in a way that keeps the reader's interest and attention while exciting him with new concepts or ideas.  I have read books concerning three different programming languages (NXT-G, ROBOLAB, and LabVIEW,) and have found that, while the programming languages are different and unique from each other, the basic information and exercises are the same, causing the various tutorials to seem to blur together.  this book did an outstanding job of keeping my interest while presenting the information in a new and creative way.  

Continue Reading "LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT" »

How do you build an all-terrain robot?

Friday, June 25th, 2010
Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot Book CoverI recently finished another robotics book entitled Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot.  It was written by Brad Graham and Kathy McGowan and takes people with all levels of experience through the process of creating their own all-terrain robot with as little expense as possible.  This book provides great resources and is packed full of good advice and ideas.  Beginning by helping the reader understand exactly what he wants his robot to do, Graham and McGowan take the reader through the process of building two  robots, and leaves him with a reminder of the endless possibilities of all-terrain robots.

Continue Reading "How do you build an all-terrain robot?" »
A few years ago, I went through the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT:  The Mayan Adventure.  I wrote the following review of the book and of my experience, but was unable to post it at the time for lack of blog.  When we finally finished setting up the Mack Academy blog, I decided that even though several years have passed, the book was so good that I had to post this review.  I decided to post it as is and not change anything in it, so please bear with me on the grammar.  

Mayan Adventure - Book Cover.png

When I first started reading the Mayan Adventure book and noticed that the user level was for beginners, I assumed that this was just an easy workbook.  (I soon changed my mind when I saw project two)

The way the book is written, you follow Evan, a kid summer vacationing with his archeologist uncle, through his adventures and challenges as he and the team try to reach the tomb of an ancient Mayan king.  Several traps were set up in the tomb so that only someone with a trained monkey could reach the burial chamber.  Evan uses his new NXT robotics kit to build innovative and creative robots to disarm the traps and get them into the chamber.

Continue Reading "A Mayan Adventure with LEGO Mindstorms NXT Robotics" »

LabVIEW Education Edition is now available!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
National Instruments Labview Logo.jpgNational Instruments just announced that they have released the LabVIEW Education Edition software, which is focused on helping students learn how to program robots with software used in today's engineering industries.

20091111 - Labview for highschool image.jpgFor the past few months, I've had the privilege of beta testing this software as I learned more about LabVIEW.  Having come from FIRST FLL, I had experience with both MINDSTORMS NXT-G and ROBOLAB, but LabVIEW was completely new to me.  It's been really exciting to work on learning a new programming language.  I feel that National Instruments and Tufts University did an outstanding job making the integration between FLL programming and FIRST programming easy.  

This has been a really exciting experience for me and I definitely plan to continue learning LabVIEW.  

You can learn more here.
For the past year or so, I have undertaken the challenge of learning the LabVIEW programming software from National Instruments  I was invited to participate in the beta program in Tufts University  and play around with the new Robobooks and Robolab (Based on LabVIEW software for NXTs).  In addition to going through Michael Gasperi's book, LabVIEW for LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT,

To help me reinforce what I was learning, I decided to create a video tutorial to share with others. I based it on one of my favorite ROBOLAB tutorials from Carnegie Mellon University.  

I have only a few weeks left before my LabVIEW trial license expires, so I don't know if I will have time to create another video before it does. In any case, I really enjoyed working with LabVIEW and I met many friends along the way as I learned and shared what I was learning. I also had fun learning how to use Camtasia Studio to create the video tutorial as well.

(Disclaimer: I have permission to share this video, however, please note that the software I am using is still in beta and may look or work differently when it is released on November 9.)

Click on the link below to watch the tutorial video. (It's 11 minutes long.)

You Gotta BE WiSE

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
Two years ago, Wendy and I had a wonderful opportunity to share with others what we had learned through our years in robotics competitions.  We were asked to go to San Diego and teach forty girls of the BE WiSE group a one day seminar.

The BE WiSE science alliance is a group dedicated to engaging and teaching young women in science and technology and providing them with valuable experiences, background, and skills to pursue their goals.

Continue Reading "You Gotta BE WiSE" »

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.
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.

Why yes Wendy, it IS Rocket Science

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Tonight, after the NASA KM conference, many of us went to dinner at Burger Continental, a local hangout for CalTech folks. Wendy joined me, Jeanne Holm, David Pender, and others for dinner.


Later in the evening, Paul Caraccioli, Program manager of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center Propulsion System Department (PSD)* KM System came over and sat down and started to share with Wendy some of the problems his group is facing getting the engines for the Lunar lander to work. Wendy listened attentively, as she's very interested in engineering and space exploration. What a treat, thank you, Paul, for making engineering real and for inspiring a future engineer.

* Long title; they deal with engines - fast ones
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!" »
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!!!" »

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" »

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" »

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" »

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.

test podcast title

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.


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.

MindManager for Kids

Friday, August 27th, 2004
To visualize some ideas for their U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics Team, I taught Amy and Wendy how to use my computer to create a mind map. We loaded up MindManager and within minutes the kids were using the software to create their basic map.

Image:MindManager for Kids

Mind mapping is not new to my kids. MindManager just makes the process much easier.

I really enjoy coaching Jr. Robotics because it provides me with a tangible way to show young people the results of their creative thinking in action.

I plan to look into teaching the team how to use MindManager as part of the preparations for this year's competition.

Over the next 4 months, the girls and I will be blogging about our team experiences on the way to the robotics competition. Be sure to add this site's RSS feed to your reader so that you can remain informed.  

Until then, here's a link to the girl's 2002 Jr. Robotics web site.

Sports for the Mind

Saturday, December 7th, 2002
Image:Sports for the Mind
Eric and the girls have returned from a quick trip to San Diego where the all-girls homeschool robotics team that he coaches participated in the U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics Competition.   The team consisted of my our oldest daughters and four other homeschooled girls.  It was a fun opportunity for Eric to teach a little math, a little science, how to build a LEGO robot, and how to give a presentation.

The girls had to give their research presentation as well as their technical presentation before a panel of judges; scientists from the San Diego Supercomputing Center.  They were then called back throughout the day for additional interviews with the judges.

At the end of the day, during the awards ceremony, the team was awarded the Judges trophy for their excellent work on their technical and research presentations.  The girls did an outstanding job on their research and presentation projects. I am very proud of all of them.

Here is an emotional video of the girls being called down to receive the judges trophy.   (Amy is the one accepting the trophy)
   RealVideo - High speed               RealVideo - Low speed

I plan to update the girls team web site with more photos and their newspaper articles soon.

If any of you have, or know of middle school-aged children, the U.S. FIRST organization, founded by Dean Kamen, is a truly wonderful group of people, dedicated to the inspiration and recognition of science and technology in students.

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

The LEGO Mountaineers debut!

Saturday, July 20th, 2002
Image:The LEGO Mountaineers debut!
Wendy and Amy, two of the "LEGO Mountaineers"

This year, Eric coached a LEGO Robotics team for the U.S. FIRST Jr. Robotics program.
Our team web site: The LEGO Mountaineers
Daddy's educational robotics site: ICA Robotics