Maverick Atari School
Idaho kids program Lego robotsby Gregg Pearlman, Antic Assistant Editor
Why are adults the only ones doing research and development? Kids can do it, given the chance," says Patrick McShane, 42, headmaster of the PCS School for Advanced Learning in Nampa, Idaho.
McShane, a former schoolteacher, gives those kids the chance at PCS—a "true R&D think tank." PCS originally stood for Patrick's Computer Service—an entirely different McShane venture—and students decided to adopt the name for their school.
PCS students range in age from first grade through 12th. Three years ago a nine-year-old student said "I want to run my Lego motorized stuff from the computer." That's how CAMLU (Computer Activated Motorized Lego Unit) got started as a course of study.
"I started teaching out of my home in 1984," says McShane. "Eventually, people whose kids couldn't get what they wanted from computers at school came to me. I had a reputation of knowing a little about computers, so I started taking on students, and then it grew and grew and grew. Last summer I taught 15 students out of my home, and I decided, 'Whoa—it's time to expand to a public building.'"
Word of PCS gets around without help from advertising. "I've never had to advertise," McShane says. "I just keep adding students. I even had a student from France. We have 70 now, and several enroll just for the summer. No one's dropped out—well, one student had to move to Montana. Only 10 of the students are girls, but I try to recruit more."
There used to be an age minimum of nine, but a couple of people who really wanted to enroll their children "didn't exactly tell the truth" about their children's ages. One boy turned out to be six. "He can handle even the 1040ST as well as the other kids," says McShane, "so I dropped the age restriction."
CLASSES OF THREEEach student has a time slot, but there's no actual class structure. "We start with a three-month 'introduction' series of classes," says McShane, "and then students pretty much choose their own direction. They start writing programs for controls, which is very involved, and they have to understand a little machine language."
Students attend PCS once a week for 90 minutes. There are never more than three at a time in class. "They're mostly average, mainstream kids," says McShane. "Sure, some are gifted, but others have learning disabilities. The difference between these kids and the kid down the street is the drive and desire to excel and explore.
"I used to balk at taking on kids with learning disabilities—dyslexia, autism and mild retardation, but now there are some in our program and they're doing very well. In fact, our CAMLU graphic was done by an autistic boy who drew it in 15 minutes with NEOchrome. Little is known about autism except that it's difficult to deal with and that communication is limited, but the computer has unlocked things for this boy. He has a better self-image and he's doing better in school."
The school owns about $3,000 worth of Lego pieces. Besides the supply for PCS students, McShane also needs some when he takes CAMLU to other schools once or twice a week. "Last fall we got a grant from the Whittenberger Foundation in Idaho, which has let us bring demonstrations of our teaching concept to the classrooms," says McShane.
Lego has provided sets that aren't publicly available—for example, PCS has a plotter made of Legos. The students have modified the original design "because it didn't work quite right," and now it's connected to an Atari.
"Lego was developed originally to teach mechanical engineering principles at the high school and university levels," McShane says. "They're true miniatures of things that work in the real world. I'm not trying to create little mechanical engineers, just to open up an understanding of it." John Crowley, director of the Technic division of Lego Systems, Inc., visited PCS in August, 1987.
"We have a hoist that travels on a rope and lifts 41 pounds—with a 4-volt motor—all made from Legos," says McShane. "The Lego people couldn't believe it. They thought it couldn't lift more than two pounds. It took 46 students three months and it all started when someone asked, 'What should I build today?' I said, 'Build something that climbs a chain.' It's an extremely complicated, very fine piece of machinery."
LOW TUITIONMcShane charges $25 per month per student. Some families have more than one student, but the most he charges any family is $40 a month. "Maybe I'm selling myself short," he says, "but I'd rather see this technology available to anyone, not just upper-class families who can afford more. We're making money now—a year ago I'd have said no. All extra money goes back into the school for whatever we need."
Since the sole source of income is student fees, McShane isn't in a position to pay anyone. "So if something happened to me today," he says, "the technology would go right down the tubes. Only about 40% of what happens here has been documented."
PCS students come from 50 miles around. "I'll be expanding PCS to Boise, the state capital," says McShane, "which would be a good move financially. But I have an ethical obligation to my original students here, that's why I want to stay in Nampa. I'm doing this expansion jointly with Dr. Trudy Comba, head of Small World Center, which takes children up to first grade—naturally leading to PCS afterward. I envision three PCS centers by next year.
"I think we could market some of what the kids develop here. However, I'm not a businessman. People say I should raise my prices, do this, market that—I'm not a money-raiser. It should be done—but by someone with those skills."
McShane runs the school with the help of a volunteer bookkeeper and 14-year-old youth instructor Tim Rhodes. "We don't teach, we guide," says McShane. "We help the kids set a direction. We provide enough information to get started, and their creativity takes over.
"Our bookkeeping is done on an 8-bit computer. The big database for our Lego inventory is done with SynFile+. I think it's important to know that you don't need an IBM for this kind of thing."
McShane typically works at PCS from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and it's even more hectic in the summer. Does he ever get time off? "Not really," he says.
McShane and the students write their own texts. Available resource material wasn't geared high enough for their purposes. "Even the little kids were insulted by stuff written for junior high," says McShane.
All the kids learn word processing, database management and spreadsheets. McShane believes that those three pieces of software will be crucial in their lives. And they all work on CAMLU News, the PCS newsletter, on a rotating basis.
"The technology we've developed should be available to kids," says McShane. "It's important for them to be creative and use their imaginations. Let's face it, the schools don't have the resources, trained teachers or, especially, money. We can't find anything even remotely close to what we're doing here."
ATARI ROBOTSRobotics is the main subject at PCS. "I say that if you can think it, you can do it," says McShane. "I wanted to show that a joystick isn't only for games, so the kids came up with a space shuttle where the robot arm is controlled by the joystick.
"We use the Logo programming language, which is fine for teaching elementary robotics command controls. There's also Atari BASIC, but it's too slow, so we use BASIC XE, Turbo BASIC XL and ACTION!. Sometimes we pop in the Microsoft II BASIC cartridge, which has features that others don't."
This year PCS is building optical and touch sensors for its robots. "Let's face it," McShane says, "a robot without sensors isn't a robot at all."
PCS has an old 800—"which I won't get rid of"—a modified 800XL, three 130XE systems and a 1040ST—"we drool over a hard drive for it." There's also a CompuServe account for the kids to do research. We've had no equipment turnover whatsoever. We had our ST since December, 1986, and if we lost it, we'd be in trouble—everybody uses it."
But how do these Atari computers control the robots?
"We use joystick port 1 on the 8-bit computers to access the Peripheral Interface Adapter (PIA) chip and we configured memory location 54016 as output," says McShane. "Once we found the right combination of bits for using that address, the students split it into two nibbles. The low nibble is used for output and we can still access the other nibble for input devices. (See Stepper Motor Robot Controller in Antic, December 1986, pages 62-65.—ANTIC ED) So the kids' Logo programs can use not only the keyboard to control robotics, but also the joystick in port 2. The programs can also send information to the interface in port 1 and a Covox Voice Master."
The students developed the technology, with help from a Hewlett Packard technician who teaches electronics twice a month. "Antic Magazine is our resource material," says McShane. "Lots of good support. If the place caught fire, Antic would be the first thing out the door."
CUSTOM COVOX"When the kids wanted to use voice control, I bought a Voice Master from Kevin Gevatosky at Covox," McShane recalls. "Location 54016 was locked up—and that's the address we absolutely must have. Kevin never dreamed we'd use his product this way, but he rewrote the code for us. We probably have the only Covox version that permits output on port 1 to control our vehicles. The implication here is that the controls can be used for anything. So quadriplegics using Voice Master, as long as there's nothing wrong with their speech patterns, should be able to control anything.
"The interface we've built for our motor control unit (MCU) costs only about $5 in parts—I'd really like to make that available. We've written tons of programs for the controls, and so many people have Lego sets at home. There's a wide market for it."
PCS has had its MCUs for two years. They've been banged around and subjected to cold, heat and rain. "They haven't failed," says McShane. "You can't hurt them—they never need any repairs."
While McShane hasn't needed to advertise, he and PCS have had local television and press coverage. "The media people ask the wrong questions, though, and are very patronizing," he says. "But we've considered approaching public television at Boise State University about a series on micro-robotics.
"But when you say Nampa, Idaho, people don't know where it is, and they figure that nothing exciting develops here. And they think Lego's a toy—they're unaware of its educational value."
The students have been in contact with some of the movers and shakers in the Atari community—as well as the computer field as a whole. PCS students have written to retired Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper, the inventor of COBOL, Steven Witzel, president of Multibotics, Inc. in Woodcross, Utah, and Tom Hudson. "The kids must understand that they can approach the movers and shakers," says McShane. "Just because they're important in their field doesn't mean they're unapproachable. The very worst that could happen is not getting a reply."
McShane impresses upon his students that their main responsibility is to their families and themselves, then their schoolwork and finally PCS or other extracurricular activities. "If students get a D or F in any school subject, they are suspended from PCS," says McShane. "Those grades are important. State law demands a C average to graduate. But with one or two exceptions, the kids are all A or B students.
"Most of them participate in sports. That's important. If you're not physically fit and sit in front of a CRT all day long, you'll become a computer nerd."
McShane says that adults often are intimidated by PCS—it's over their heads, etc. "I say they don't need to understand it—just to appreciate the creativity. I mean, some of it's over my head. But if they really didn't like what we did, they'd pull their kids out of class."
The three simple school rules are "be respectful, be realistic and be reliable." "It's important to keep things in proper focus," says McShane. "For example, it's unrealistic to try building something out of Legos that could fly—Legos aren't aerodynamic. However, I'll give $1,000 to any student who can do it—short of throwing the Legos against a wall."