Saturday, July 4, 2009

Engaging Students Using Robotics

All humans must share some innate fascination with robots. Who among us hasn't imagined a future with robot housekeepers, butlers, or personal servants? Robots have certainly captured the imagination of Hollywood with movies like iRobot, Disney's WALL-E and DreamWork's Robots. Kids and adults alike can't seem to get enough of them.

In an effort to both satisfy my own interest in robotics and hopefully inspire some of my students along the way, I requested two robot kits to review from two different companies. To my delight, both companies sent me kits to try out, so as soon as they arrived, the fun had begun. The first was the Lego Mindstorms NXT. I quickly passed it off to a couple of students who volunteered to assemble it, but I wasn't sure how long the kit would hold their interest. First of all, since it's made by Lego, I figured it's kind of a toy, so I didn't know if it would be too juvenile for them. In addition, they would be giving up their lunch recesses to work on it (and sixth graders love their recesses as much as anyone). To my surprise, they wanted to work on this robot week after week for over a month! Every day, the boys made more and more progress. I remember the first time they programmed it to move. They were so excited.

About The Lego Robot

The Lego Mindstorms NXT offers modern interfaces such as USB and Bluetooth (as for the Bluetooth interface, the cell phone we used was able to see the robot, but was never able to actually control it). They ended up using the serial port. This kit offers a cool set of sensors including an ultrasonic ranger, a sound sensor, light sensor, and touch sensor, along with three servo motors, designs, and software to program commands into the robot's main CPU.

Lego hosts an online store and offers volume discounts, a community of like-minded lego mindstorm fans, activities, support, and an education center for that offers lessons for teachers who integrate lego robotic products into the curriculum. One robot kit costs $249.99 from their website. To learn more, click here.

About Boe-Bot Robot by Parallax, Inc.

I released two other students to work on a more complicated robot kit by Parallax, Inc., known as the Boe-Bot Robot. These two students were tenacious, giving up not just their lunch recesses, but voluntarily coming in after school as well. This kit involved reading a fairly thick manual, connecting wires, assembling hardware, installing infrared sensors, resistors, capacitors, installing and running a computer programming application to assign commands, and more.

There were days when the boys were utterly stumped. They'd look at each other and wonder why a light wouldn't turn on, or a motor wouldn't move. But even though it was hard, neither student ever gave up. One day, I overheard one say, "I bet we hooked that wire backwards." The other responded, "I guess we shouldn't have skipped that part of the manual." One student summed up the experience matter-of-factly, stating, "This was challenging." The other student said, "It was frustrating, but in a good way."

The company's website suggests a 1-2 hour build time, but it took my two students easily twice that. One Boe-Bot kit sells for $159.99 and is available from their website. To learn more about Boe-Bot, click here.

This was a great experience for my students for several reasons. Both build teams became familiar with reading step-by-step instructions, following technical diagrams and charts, and learning the vocabulary of a new discipline. The process taught them the importance of trial and error, reading complicated directions, the value of teamwork, and the reward that comes from persistence.

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