Robots Take Over the School
What is the one thing that’s more rewarding than teaching kids about mechanics, computers and programming? Actually using the knowledge to make working robots that do their bidding can be sure-fire hit with students and can show teachers a thing or two about physics, creating software and working with technology.
Aimed at fourth-graders and older, LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3 is the company’s third generation robot kit and the company has learned a lot over the years. The $433.95 EV3 set up is the easiest and most educational of all. It comes with everything you need to create anything from building a science curriculum around robots to setting up an afterschool enrichment activity.
It all starts with a huge assortment of plastic gears, rods and wheels. All told, there are 541 mechanical parts and the kit comes in a reusable plastic box that stacks and has trays with indents to help keep parts together. Sooner or later, though, parts will get lost.
The kit can be a little daunting at first because there’s so much to deal with, because the parts can be arranged and snapped together in an almost infinite number of different arrangements. In fact, the more you use the EV3 in the classroom, the more things you (and your students) learn they can do with it.
While the documentation that comes with the EV3 set is more than adequate to get the process going, No Starch Press’s “Lego Mindstorm’s EV3 Laboratory” book can give you a leg up with detailed instructions on how to make five different robots, comics, additional construction ideas and some extra help in programming them to do specific tasks. There’s even a section with order numbers for getting replacement parts. The printed book costs $35, which includes a .pdf eBook version; the eBook alone is $28.
The center of attention is the EV3’s Intelligent Brick, which contains a small powerful computer that controls the robot. Inside is an up to date 300MHz low-power ARM 9 processor along with 64MB of RAM and 16 MB of Flash memory to store its programs. If that isn’t enough, you can add an SD card with up to 32GB of extra storage space. This should be more than enough for several classes using the same equipment.
It’s powered by six AA batteries or an optional 2,050 milli-amp hour rechargeable battery pack. The Brick has a basic 6 button interface that lets you communicate directly with it. I particularly like the 178- by 128-pixel monochrome display, which can show programming details, what’s connected as well as how much charge remains in the battery pack. It can also display a graph or be programmed to mimic eyes or show a message. The Brick has a single speaker, which can give the robot a voice.
The EV3 system can be controlled with its Linux-based software. There are four input ports for sensors that can accept up to 1,000 samples per second and relay instructions to the kit’s actuators via four output ports; the connectors resemble the RJ-45 jacks used on LAN cables.
The Brick connects with a computer via a USB cable, WiFi or via a Bluetooth wireless connection. Unfortunately, you’ll need a PC or Mac computer to work with EV3’s programming environment. It doesn’t work with a Chromebook, Android or iPad.
That’s just the start because along with all the cables you’ll need, the kit comes with sensors that can detect color, touch or ultrasonic vibrations as well as a solid state gyroscope; there’s also an optional $30 infrared sensor that measures heat. At the receiving end, EV3 comes with three digitally controlled servo motors that have built-in rotational sensors so EV3’s processor always knows what position they’re in.
After giving the Brick its own name, a group of three or four students can turn it into a real (almost) live robot. There’re instructions for creating a wheeled machine that picks up a cube, but this should be nothing more than an introduction to the world of Mindstorms Education EV3. After they’ve mastered the first project, it’s time to let their creativity rule and build something new.
On the downside, there are several rules that you need to adhere to for EV3 to work. For example, motors and sensors have their own ports, which can be confusing. It’s all spelled out in the instruction manual although it might require some page-flipping and a little head scratching to figure it out.
Once everything is put together, it’s time to connect and program the monster. Rather than jumping into programming right away, I suggest using EV3’s useful test mode, which can troubleshoot any problems before they get in the way. This mode lets you run any of the actuators or look at the sensor’s signals so that you know that everything is connected and working.
The Brick comes with five built-in programs and dozens of tutorials already set up. My favorite is the Robot Educator, which is a series of videos that can ease students into the mindset of making robots. It’ll get your class started in less than an hour. All of this provides an easy entry into the details of making and using a robot for everyone from the class geek to its technophobe.
It took me and a 16 year old about three hours of trial and error to finish our first project. Figure on four periods of group work with a teacher or two hovering, ready to answer questions. But, the real fun and educational potential comes from getting the kids to create their own programs and mixing and matching the hardware. Several EV3 controller Bricks can be daisy chained for a whole-class project that uses most of not all of the parts from several kits.
As far as programming goes, there’s no better way to introduce this valuable skill to students. Rather than typing arcane commands, EV3 has a drag and drop interface for creating new programs. Just click on a block of code from the side that brings in a sensor’s data (like the light level) or makes a motor spin (to make a wheel turn) and put it in the middle of the screen. Then, grab another and another until you have the rough outlines of a program. You might need to change the order or swap a few code modules, but the robot’s program emerges in a left-to-right linear fashion.
The magic really starts when it’s time to try it out. If it works, it’s time to celebrate and play with it. If not, it’s back to the drawing board to see what went amiss and rewrite the program or redo the robot so that a sensor or actuator isn’t blocked. All told, it is a great exploration of a class’s ability to collaborate, create and problem-solve. And, that’s what school should be all about, isn’t it.
+ Great way to teach about technology
+ Complete set of mechanical and computer parts
+ Thorough software
+ Storage box
+ Online resources
+ Add-on items
- Kit can be daunting
- Requires computer