Robots are Coming

Since we first got involved with Hive Manchester, at March’s youth hack, we’ve been keeping our eyes peeled for further collaborations. Robot Orchestra, in association with Manchester Science City, looked like a blast, and we couldn’t help ourselves.

Craig and I both have a musical streak (although my short tenure as a lead guitarist seems rather meagre when compared to Craig’s history, which I won’t go into for fear of creating an absurdly lengthy parenthetical digress), and we recently became a sponsor organisation of the Hallé, who are conducting the whole thing, if you’ll forgive the pun – so it seemed like a perfect fit. Not to mention the coding aspect!

Based in the University of Manchester’s Sackville Building, our directive was deceivingly complex: teach two roomfuls of secondary school students how to build a robot capable of producing music. Admittedly, my rather modest first thought was that I knew even less about building robots than I do about music, but when I met our co-educators for the day, my confidence was instantly restored.

We met up with Damian of Hive Learning Networks, Hayley from MMU Digital Innovation and the excellent Les Pounder, who described himself, concisely enough, as a journalist. It later transpired that Les was also rather adept at delivering Raspberry Pi workshops, but we’ll get to that.

When we arrived at our designated classroom, it transpired that we had rather a lot of work to do to in setting up 8 workstations for our session, which was due to start in around an hour’s time of our arrival. Shifting desks around, taping leads to the floor and searching frantically for pieces of spare equipment – not to mention the ever-elusive polystyrene balls – took me back to my bar-tending days, and former sound engineer Craig looked somewhat at home among the hustle and bustle.

Our students arrived just as we were finished some much needed coffee, and Les gave a quick tutorial of the basic functions of the Explorer HAT, an add-on to the Raspberry Pi that provides enhanced functionality.

As the day went on, we all learnt something new. I wrote my first line of Python code, and had a great time discussing numbers with young hackers – not bad considering I’m something of an arithmaphobe.

More importantly, we got two large groups of secondary-schoolers excited about programming, and even doing some of it for themselves. See the above – someone who had never written a line of code before turned a plastic cup into a robotic rhythm section.

The Robot Orchestra fun isn’t remotely over yet. Keep an eye on Manchester Science City for more details of upcoming events you can get involved with, and get yourselves to ESOF 16 for a chance to see the Orchestra in action!