“Geary” the making of a cardboard robot

I recently took a job at the Y Creator Space, which is part of the Homewood Brushton YMCA. I will be here for 10 months as part of a full-time AmeriCorps term of service. During that time I will do my level best to teach lessons about engineering and STEM to youth age 9 – 13 every day after they are done with school.  But first…we needed some kids to teach. The Y Creator Space was short on attendees as we went into this new school year, which was crazy since this is a free afterschool program that also feeds the kids dinner!

Part of our recruiting strategy was setting up a table at local events and luring parents and kids in with cool projects from the Makerspace. I thought a great showpiece might really bring them in, and since we’re all about inventing with cardboard and making robots, I needed to combine the two ideas.

While I had this project in mind for a while it wasn’t till the director of youth programming at the Y suggested we make a robot secretary, and the shape of the bot materialized. With Tank in mind I set off, made a quick plan and started cutting cardboard.

Before long I had a prototype:
2017-10-25 21.46.18

Right now you’re looking at two servo motors glued inside of a box each with an empty tape roll attached directly do it. It had been a while since I had worked with puppetry, and I had never worked with animatronics, but I’ve been a sculptor for long enough that I knew I could get something working…

Now I need some kind of linkage to attach the mouth to a servo motor, and of course it would have to turn to look at people…

Here it is all finished up a few days later!
The whole thing is 4 servo motors rigged up to 3 potentiometers, controlling both eyes, rotation and the opening and closing of the mouth. The controller is a Hummingbird Duo, the same controller that we teach the kids on and they all have access too.

Normally a Hummingbird must be hooked up to a computer to a function but for the sake of portability I wanted to take advantage of the Hummingbird Duo’s ability to hold a simple arduino program. I was running into some issues with ArduBlock so I dug deep into my programming history and hacked together some example code to make each potentiometer which gave an output from 0-100 control each servo which takes an input from 0 – 180, thanks to Tom Lauwers and the team at Bird Brain Technologies for making this easy enough for even me to do!

Geary has been a big hit around the Y Creator Space and at the events we attend. I’m very proud of this creation, it’s been a great teaching tool!




FIRST Firsts; Robots built by kids.

The weekend of March 20th I was invited to volunteer for the Greater Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. I was coerced by Ben Matzke into getting up at 4:30am and traveling to snowy rural CALIFORNIA, Pennsylvania. I have known Ben from our time in Sweepstakes at CMU (Aka “Buggy”). Ben has taken over running the Buggy Alumni Association, so I’ve been seeing more of him as I try to contribute meaningfully to this organization I love.


I was familiar with FIRST because I had done Botball in middle and high school. In fact by the time I had arrived at Carnegie Mellon I had been building robots for nearly 6 years. Working with mechanisms, coding in a really simplistic form of C++ (“Interactive C”), soldering wires and programming understandable logic into “Rocks we tricked into thinking“.

FIRST was always the pinnacle of these kinds of events. With a $6000 entry fee (that’s before you’ve started building robots or buying tools) it was way out of reach for my team of 16 year old fundraisers.

This event had a similar feel to the Botball robotics “Greater DC” regional that I was familiar with; A center stage set up in a school gymnasium with lots of cameras live-streams and volunteer staffers in matching t-shirts. Lots of kids in small rectangular pits allocated a certain amount of space in which to build and modify their robots between matches…..But this was bigger!


The robots were more robust these things had effective gearing and powerful drive-trains that allowed them to get up to very high speeds, or haul around heavy objects or other robots with ease.

The field…


…was an order of magnitude larger then the game area we prepared for;  the largest 8’x8′ field we used for Botball would have fit in the space taken up by the ‘airship’ on the FIRST arena.

I was put in the ‘traffic cop’ role of getting all teams to the field for their scheduled bouts pulling them from their frantic repairs and iterative code changes to thrust them into the hurry up and wait game of standing near the side of the field watching the matches play out. It was the only way we could have possibly kept this event from being further behind schedule then we already were through no fault of anyone in-particular.

I’ve always loved being behind the scenes. In general I wont be at an event unless my presence there serves some purpose. Or at the very least I’ll tend to stick to the edges and not engage with too many people.

But this weekend I met lots of passionate kids, excited about what they were building, weather they win or lose. Lots of dedicated adults who were willing to give an inordinate amount of time (and an unreasonable amount of money) to helping young people get exposure to the technology that is increasingly present and pivotal in our modern world.

Making this happen is not cheap. But the experience is invaluable…it’s part of why we need to continue to fund educational programs in the United States…

Thanks for the invite Ben! I had a great time.