Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Pi Wars!

When I started teaching, I had no idea that at some point I would be welcoming three year 11 students into my hotel room to cover the bathroom floor in insulation tape, at 11pm. However this was what happened on the 31st March, the reason? Pi Wars.

Pi Wars is without doubt the most fun, most challenging and best value robotics challenge available for schools. The challenge is to create a robot powered by the raspberry pi and smaller than an A4 sheet of paper to complete a series of challenges, including an obstacle course, line following and of course Pi Noon. With such a wide brief the variety of robots brought by the times was vast, from an ice cream tub on wheels to custom laser cut, high powered creations. The only constant being they have a Raspberry Pi of one version or another at their heart.

The real beauty of Pi Wars is the focus on robotics though. Other challenges require pupils to deliver presentations on a topic loosely connected the robots purpose, surrounding an aspect of science or engineering in the world around us. Not so Pi Wars. The focus is entirely on making the best robot possible – and that is quite simply fantastic. This suited the team. All of the pupils in the team had at one stage or another had a prolonged spell of school absence and was attending my school’s provision for pupils with high anxiety or a diagnosed mental health need. Several of the pupils viewed the world from a position on the autistic spectrum. Pi Wars was the perfect challenge for them. And they rose above anyone’s expectations, coping with the noisy and busy environment,  electronic dramas on the robot and working with other competitors.

Which brings me to the robot the team fielded. Crafted a couple of weeks prior to the competition after we discovered the first version’s power issues were due to the motors drawing around 4 amps each, it was a mix of components on a chassis we had lasercut. Not particularly complex by pi wars standards, it was nevertheless a real challenge to build and program. Not only for the pupils but for me as the teacher! Twitter was essential in finding solutions to the challenges we faced, for example, how do you schedule a crontab event that needs to run with sudo privileges? This sort of challenge shows just how valuable the Raspberry Pi community is, it would be impossible to build a working robot without such support and back up.

There are very few challenges in schools which see everyone stumped and hunting for a solution, staff and students alike. That’s why we were in the hotel bathroom with insulation tape – trying to get the line following program working. It did work, sort of.

I can’t recommend Pi Wars enough, and we hope to go next year!

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