Automation – Even Dogs Aren’t Safe

We talked last year how technologies like automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are eliminating many jobs that humans used to do like cashiers, drivers and secretaries.  Although new technologies create new jobs, the number of new jobs created (eg big data analyst) are far fewer than the old jobs (eg data entry) eliminated and new jobs are a great deal more cognitively demanding.

Manufacturing_DataManufacturing technology helps eliminate jobs while boosting productivity


The potential for a high-tech largely jobless future is a big concern for economist.  Some are envisioning a future where governments may have to pay everyone a Universal Basic Income to stave off growing inequality, large-scale human suffering and civic unrest.  Similar programs have even been piloted on a small scale in the US.

sheepdogNot even man’s best friend is immune from being rendered redundant via technological progress.  Witness Shep the Drone – a first clumsy attempt at herding sheep via an aeral drone:


Educational Haves and Have-Nots

oliver_twist( Please Sir, I want some more Functional JavaScript Programming )

With STEM, particularly computer science, all the rage recently (eg., CS First and the many programming languages created to teach kids) I was disappointed to discover last week there is precious little in the way of programming classes offered in the mainstream local school system before University.  This sad discovery came as I was speaking to a parent of a HS senior who loves programming but basically had to forage for himself due to lack of any institutional offerings or support.

Researching it further, I discovered that the vocational high school offers a 2-year program in networking and digital media & software development.  In addition, the local mainstream HS may offer a programming class but it has have garnered little attention and may not be a regular offering.

Last month the state of Arkansas has mandated Computer Science courses be offered in all Charter and High Schools in the state with an initial $5 million earmark.  Last summer the state of Texas made a similar mandate but without additional funding.  Washington State is trying to ensure Computer Science courses are offered and count as a graduation requirement instead of an elective.  South Carolina has made Computer Science a graduation requirement albeit the definition of such is very loose.

Our education system has not kept up with society or technological innovation.  Whereas most people are required to take many courses in writing to graduate college they can choose to avoid nearly anything STEM-related.  However most people probably more dependent upon and spend more time interacting with STEM concerns in their lives from health care to technology to statistics than they spend writing.


We live in an very complex world that is technologically advancing at a rapid pace.  Engineering and Computer Science not only teaches you how things work, but also how to think of complexity and managing change in general and systematic fashion.  Even if one doesn’t become a poet or programmer doesn’t mean there are not tremendous personal, professional and societal benefits to be gained from studying Poetry and Computer Science.

One big disadvantage of teaching computer science is competing with private industry who pay very well for otherwise qualified instructors.  One big advantage of teaching computer science is that it is a subject optimized for learning over the web, so the skill of a few excellent teachers can be leveraged across many classrooms.  There are more free resources and expertise online for learning programming at any level than for any other subject which can level the playing field for less resource rich school districts.

A typical K-12th grade teacher cannot be expected to be an expert on programming, and this is one of the major obstacles for teaching STEM subjects like Computer Science in the K-12th grades.  However, the materials and tools available online to help teachers disseminate teaching broad-based principals while facilitating access to more advanced subjects.  This is outside the comfort zone of the established pattern of K-12 grade top-down teaching, but is one way to address the expectation/expertise issue between students and teacher.


programmer_types( Sterotypes are a leading cause of unhappiness, don’t be a statistic )

eV3 Mindstorms Programming Languages


The LEGO Retail and Education versions of the eV3 Mindstorms software is based upon LabView.  It is a visual language with drag and drop icons representing various programming entities like logic flow, mathematical operations, data structures, sensor readings and actuator commands.

The visual eV3 Mindstorms software is perhaps easier for young children and first time programmers to use, but it quickly becomes frustrating for more advanced programmers for a variety of reasons.  It is far less expressive, scalable, and robust than a low level language like C/C++.  Programming takes a much longer time with the visual interface, especially as program size and complexity grows.  Finally, the visual programming environment suffers from a lack of editing and debugging tools that are powerful, fast and efficient to use.

I was looking into what alternative programming languages were available to program the eV3 Mindstorms brick.  Wikipedia lists options for programming the LEGO Mindstorms robots (more NXT than eV3 due to the former’s longer market presence) using virtually every mainstream programming language and quite a few non-mainstream programming languages.

Although FIRST LEGO League rules prohibit teams from using any programming language besides the official software, I thought it would be interesting and possibly more efficient to use a text-based language to test and characterize sensor and actuator components.  If nothing else, following Faber College’s maxim “Knowledge is Good”.


An interesting candidate was JavaScript for the eV3 since JavaScript is one of the most popular, rapidly evolving and fastest growing languages around because it is embedded in nearly every connected brower-based device.  Unfortunately, it is far more developed for the NXT than the eV3 (in alpha stage) which appears to only have rudimentary control via a node.js package built into a custom linux OS booted from the eV3 microSD card.

There is a similar problem with LeJOS, a custom Linux OS booted from the eV3 microSD card as well.  LeJOS has only recently been released in beta form and isn’t ready for prime time programming of the eV3 just yet.



A good candidate is ROBOTC which allows users to program their eV3 with C-like syntax.  In addition, it comes with a number of great add-ons like an interactive debugger and virtual robot & world scenarios that can also be programmed.  It also works with other systems like the the Arduino and VEX system.  The downside is that it costs $50/$80 for a user for a year/perpetual license.

One of the best candidate I found is ev3dev which allows users to program their eV3 using a variety of popular and high level programming and scripting languages including Python, Node.js, Ruby, and Lua.  Again, simply copy a Linux image with ev3dev to a microSD card and boot the eV3 to load the ev3dev programming system.  eV3 commands can be mediated though simple Linux system file writes.  Here is a Youtube video that demonstrates a web-based ev3dev interface controlling an eV3 robot.



Business Model Canvas

When we think about our FLL Trash Trek Research Project we should think in terms of creating a technical product and/or service that can serve as the foundation of an economically viable start-up company.



In fact each year one FLL team is awarded the Global Innovation Award (this year’s contenders announced here) of $20,000 first place (+ two $5,000 runner up teams) for the best Research Project.  Any FLL team can apply for this award independent of the Robot Competition and FLL Tournament System results.

These 3 prizes are awarded at the FLL Globals Tournament in St. Louis this year and there is an award ceremony in Washington, DC at the US Patent and Trademark Office afterward.  The prize money is intended to help teams commercialize their FLL Research Project in the real world.  Elon Musk’s X-Prize organization helps support this FLL entrepreneurial contest and lists previous year winners on their website.

To help us visualize and align our FLL Research Project with the FLL Global Innovation Award we’ll be learning a number of business methods to identify, describe and quantify entrepreneurial opportunities that our Research Project opens up for us.

One of these organization techniques is the Business Model Canvas which I’ll discuss early on in our Spring Meetings.  It visually enumerates the major factors our team needs to consider as we weight our various options for our Trash Trek Research Project and evaluate each alternative’s entrepreneurial potential.


Here is another visualization variant of the Business Plan Canvas.business_model

Using yellow Post-It Notes…


Finally, the Business Plan Canvas has been adapted specifically to Gamification (pdf template available here).



Game Design and Gamefication

gamification_image_for_blogFor our FLL Trash Trek Research Project this year the two related but distinct fields of game design and gamification may play a role in our ultimate solution.  Gamification is bit overhyped these days and many poorly thought out implementations serve as warning signs for us and comic gold for Dilbert.

Independent of the technical aspect of game programming, there is a higher level aspect of game design that we should explore involving the fields of Psychology, Behavioral Economics, Design, Narrative, etc.  Many of these disparate fields come together in creating a successful gamification product.

gamification_human_drives( Gamification tapping into basic human desires )

Gamification( Another take on the Psychology of Game Design – Need to Zoom )

gamification_octagon( Gamification is the confluence of a wide range of design considerations )


gamification-sketch( A SXSW Sketch about the Gamification process )

Social-Loyalty-Framework ( Some of the Technical Components to consider in Gamification )

Finally, here are some interesting documents that describe gamification of Health Apps that serve as examples of what we can think of with regards to our own solution to the Trash Trek Project this fall:

Designing Games for the Apps for Healthy Kids Competition

Innovation in Games and Better Healthcare

Design Principles for the Conceptualization of Games for Health Behavior Change

From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining “Gamification”

Does One Size Fit All? Personalizing Persuasive Games for Health by Gamer Types

Amazing LEGO: 3D Doodler

There are some incredibly original ideas that people have realized with LEGO building sets.  A number of sites like showcase these creations.



This 3D Doodler was invented by a design student to address the issue of reducing packaging waste and increasing recycling via monomaterials. In some articles, this is misidentified as a 3D Printer, but it is more correctly termed a 3D Doodler since a human is basically drawing in space rather than on a 2D sheet of paper.

Monomaterialism creates products and/or packaging out of one material rather than several (plastic bubbles, foam popcorn, paper and cardboard of different types) thus making things cheaper and most energy efficient to create and recycle – topics related to this years FLL challenge Trash Trek.

Ground Rules and Off-Season Plans

tshirt-imaginationfrontSix of our GambierGigaFlop teammates just finish up their Destination Imagination season at Saturday’s Regional Tournament in Reynoldsburg, OH.  This year I coached 2 elementary teams in the Improvisation Challenge both named the Imagination Corporation.  The Varsity team narrowly missed returning to the State Championship by 2 points out of 380.7 (~0.5%) while our rookie Junior Varsity team finished with a respectable 6th place finish in a field of 14.

Now that both FIRST LEGO League and Destination Imagination seasons are complete we’ll take a little breather and plan to start our off-season training after spring break.  Jean-Pierre is working with his father now to build a remote dev site in Costa Rica so we can collaborate via Skype/Facetime when we start.  I will try to coordinate the best times for our team members and their parents.

Until our first meeting after April 5th I would ask that all team members start thinking about this fall’s FLL Theme:  Trash Trek.  Basically, everyone should start brainstorming about products and/or services that they think could help address the problems raised in this teaser video released by FLL.  Although we don’t know the exact details, the video give us clear hints that it will deal with the generation, disposal and recycling of various types of wastes created by humans.


tuningIn the meantime, I’d like to offer some adjustments based upon our experiences in the first season and solicit recommendations on how best to structure our time so it works for all our families.  Here are the basic recommendations I have for our 2nd season.  Please feel free to email me any additional suggestions.

The basic idea is to front-load our work in the off-season now through late August when the new FLL challenge released.  During this time, we’ll develop a generalized, robust and modular code base that will serve as the navigation and mission framework for our fall challenge.

In the early summer, I’ll try to hold a few very restricted programming camps to give the kids the awareness and familiarity with various technical tools they can use to envision a patentable solution to this years Project.  My current ideas for subject include app development, game development and perhaps a few other topics.  According to FLL rules, the kids don’t have to be able to completely program or execute on the a Technical Project idea, but they should be the primary source of ideas and creativity.

Once the school year begins and the new FLL challenge is released in late August, I’d like to stick to these rules as best we can.  If we can stick to them, it will allow us to have minimal meeting times during the busy school year as we can be super efficient during our meeting times.

– One meeting per week for 2 hours (perhaps more pre-tournament)

– No or minimal meeting times outside our standard team meeting times

– Fixed time/place as our schedules allow to minimize conflict with other scheduled activities

– Potential outside meeting-time research work, especially for the Research Project

– Strictly enforce rule of only kids build and program robot

– Teams divided up 2-3 kids per robot so everyone gets hands-on learning

– Division of labor so teams can work in parallel on independent programming/build tasks

The downside is that I’ll have to create lesson plans to ensure that we methodically, systematically and exhaustively cover all the material we need so make the most use of our limited meeting time in the fall.  This is imperative, because the fun can quickly drain out of the FLL experience when we’re constantly under pressure and running to catch up to yesterday.

I’ll be in contact via email to coordinate a time we can start and meet.  If you have any more suggestions, please email me with them.