Making Learning Fun with Electronics and Robotics

In my last two posts I discussed my thoughts on making learning fun. In the first post the vehicle was games while in second post the vehicle was scientific experimentation. Electronics and robotics seem to me another possible vehicle. While I have a fair bit of experience with these topics I have not done much with them as a educational tool.

I'm most excited about using the Lego Mindstroms. This is Lego's robotics kits. While it is recommended for kids ages 10 and up it actually allows for construction of real autonomous robots. It comes with several sensors for measuring features of the environment such as light intensity, color, distance to the nearest object, audio, and the rotations of it's own motors. It introduces children to programming using a language called NXT-G which is a visual programming language. Think programming via legos. And of course it's compatible with all things Lego.

I look forward to use the Mindstorms to teach everything from mechanics and programming to how to use sensors and basic motion planning techniques.

My motivation for using the Mindstorms as an educational tool comes from my experience volunteering for First Lego League (FLL). FLL is a program for children between 9 and 15 years of age that promotes science and technology. Each year the kids are given a topic about which they must learn. To aid in the learning process they are given a large game board with lots of challenges built out of Lego pieces. The kids must then build one or more robots to solve the challenges. FLL is part of a larger program called FIRST, but is my favorite because the robots made by the kids are actually truly autonomous. For several years now I have volunteered as a robot design judge and through that effort I have seen just how excited the kids can get about learning and solving real world problems.

My children are not yet old enough to participate in FLL. However my son and I have started a Jr. First Lego League (Jr.FLL) team. Jr.FLL is like FLL but shoots to teach the basics of design, mechanics, research, and team building. In fact he and his team will be showing off they have learned about natural disasters on January 25th (2014) at the University of Utah Student Union building. Please feel free to come talk to them. I must warn you though, the FLL finals will be going on at the same time so the place will be an absolute mad house.

An alternative to the Mindstorms are Bo & Yana by iPlay. They are meant to teach the basics of programming, sensing, and actuation. We have not received ours yet but they look promising and are even compatible with other systems like the Mindstorms which should allow for a simple transition when the time is right.

Still another alternative are the solutions from Modular Robotics called Cubelets and their latest product called MOSS. These are just cubes with basic sensing and actuation capabilities that snap together using magnets. But in connecting them one is making simple robots. Unfortunately the MOSS Kickstarter came and went before I could get involved. If anyone has these, I would be interested in hearing about your experience with them. Specifically MOSS.

Of course to build a robot it helps to know something about electronics. One need not be an expert by any means but it helps to be able to build simple circuits. A few years ago I encountered a method for teaching children about circuits called Squishy Circuits. The foundation of this idea is to use "playdough", i.e. modeling compound, to make circuits. It turns out that if you make a modeling compound using a salt base it conducts electricity. Conversely, if you make a modeling compound with a sugar base it does not conduct electricity. As such you can make small sculptures from the two different types. Circuits can then be formed by connecting conductive portions of the sculpture with discrete components like a battery pack and LEDs.

There are a lot of other solutions out there for teaching children about electrics and circuits but I have no experience with any of them. Some of the ones I have found are:

Again, if you have any experience with these I would like to hear your thoughts.

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