When it comes to teaching about technology, engineering and programming, one thing brings it all together: robots. SparkFun’s ProtoSnap MiniBot Kit can inexpensively give kids an introduction to how to design and build a basic robot and then program it.
Doing is better than teaching and the MiniBot kit comes with almost everything you’ll need to have kids make a two-wheeled vehicle with just enough intelligence to try out some programming. It costs a reasonable $75, which can be reduced to $60 when a school buys 100 units. The MiniBot probably should be put together by a team of two or three kids, and when they’re done, some of the parts can be reused for more advanced projects. If the MiniBot is the goal, it’s guaranteed that the students will fight over who gets to keep it.
The electronics parts list includes the MiniBot circuit board, a 9-volt battery case, a pair of infrared emitters and detectors for sensing any obstructions in front of the Bot. The board has a power supply and Arduino microcontroller chip for holding the programming and processing the commands. There’re also motor controller and basic FTDI chips for connecting via a USB cable. Together, these parts form the physical and electronic backbone of the MiniBot. For more advanced work, there are two strips for adding other components.
The kit also includes a Tamiya dual-motor gearbox, set of tires and wires to connect it all together. Rather than a third wheel, though, the Bot comes with a stick that forms a tripod with the two rear wheels. There’s some soldering, which makes MiniBot a great way to introduce this skill to the class. The class will also need some 9-volt batteries, a few USB cables, wire cutters, strippers and some small spade and Philips screwdrivers; SparkFun sells them for less than a dollar each.
Putting it together is not as hard as it sounds, but technophobic teachers should try one out ahead of time to get a feel for it. Expect that it will take a couple of class periods. There’s a schematic circuit diagram for teaching about how digital electronics and sensors work and a great construction manual that has a good variety of illustrations and explanations. The manual has a simple tutorial on soldering.
It comes programmed to go straight and when it comes close to a wall, backup spin around and seek a new and hopefully better direction. The MiniBot ends up looking like a huge mechanical cockroach, but shows the power of the simple built-in programming.
This is where the fun really starts, because the class can spend several periods learning about and writing new commands and trying them out right away. The beauty of the MiniBot is that programming can be done in the Arduino environment and transferred to the Bot via a standard USB cable in a matter of seconds. The site includes not only the basic commands that are already inside the MiniBot, but curriculum, some ideas and samples. There are examples of more advanced programming, like changing speed, using a brake or having the Bot follow a line.
The ultimate in low-cost robotics, the MiniBot is minimalist and doesn’t even have an on-off switch; you have to put in or take out the battery to use it and an LED lights up when it’s active. It all works together remarkably well and can help teach kids about electronics and programming. It all works together remarkably well and can help teach kids about electronics and programming.
Price: $75 ($60 each when buying 100 units)
+ Inexpensive robot kit
+ Can teach soldering and construction
+ Powerful programming lesson
+ Comes preprogrammed
+ Can be expanded with more parts
- No on-off switch
- Stick instead of third wheel