In science fiction movies, robots may be bent on conquering the earth, but in the classroom their mission these days is to teach kids about programming. A case in point is Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot. The pair work together to teach basic coding skills using one of the simplest interfaces around.
Dash and Dot are two of a kind. Both have lighted eyes and can talk to kids. Dash has infrared sensors front and back as well as two drive motors, an accelerometer, gyroscope and three microphones. Dot is stationary. Unfortunately, neither can accommodate add-on sensors for ultrasonic sound or infrared light, as is the case with MindStorms.
The $349 Wonder Pack that I looked at is a complete kit that would work well in classes from first-grade through high-schoolers. It includes the two robots as well as accessories like a snap-on xylophone for Dash to play, a plow for gathering small items and a carrier for a mobile phone for doing this like using Dash as a roving video camera. You can get the two robots for $259, but the accessories really help to extend the creativity.
Both have micro-USB ports for charging their internal lithium batteries and come with cables, but no AC adapter. They keep a charge for several hours of intense use and will likely need to be charged during the school day if they’re used continually. The robots are made of heavy-duty plastic that should last for several years, but the kit lacks a case to store the items between classes or to carry them between rooms.
To start, unlike many other educational robots, Dash and Dot come assembled and ready to play and teach. In other words, there’s no time spent putting them together, as is the case with Lego Mindstorms EV3, although that can be half of the fun.
Software is the key to getting the most out of Dash and Dot in the classroom, but there’s an emphasis on iPad apps. There are four programs available that need to be downloaded and installed separately and can only be used with the tablet horizontally. The four cover the territory well for iPads with Go (for acquainting yourself with the robots and what they can do), Path (where you can map out Dash’s movement), Xylo (for playing the optional xylophone) and Blockly (for programming the robots to do tasks).
By contrast, only Blockly and Go are available for a small group of Android systems that includes the Nexus 7 and 9 models as well as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 and Galaxy Tab 3 8.0. There’s nothing for using Dash and Dot with PCs, Macs and Chromebooks.
Plus, the four programs each have a different look and feel and require a few minutes to scope out and get used to. Blockly is the gem of the bunch and uses Google’s drag-and-drop visual programming interface for moving premade chunks of code around. You’ll never see a line of code, but each block has a quickie description of what it does.
On the surface, it seems simple, but Blockly can be used to create complicated programs and there’s no limit to the number of blocks that can be assembled. On the downside, you need to grab each block separately because there’s no way to copy existing items or groups for reuse.
Expect that it will take a couple of minutes to get started. After pairing the robot with an iPad, Dash and Dot get very personable with start-up greetings. For instance, when you set Dash to spin, it squeals and at times bobs its head up and down. When they haven’t been used in several minutes, they yawn and go to sleep.
There are several premade projects to explore how Dash and Dot work. On the downside, there’s no software simulator for trying out programming sequences before loading them on the robot as is the case with Mindstorms EV3.
The robots use Bluetooth connections between an iPad and the robots and a class can use 20 or 30 of them at a time without interference (CHECK). After using the robots with a trio of 17-year olds, I found that using Dash and Dot works best in groups of two or three with the kids exploring their capabilities and then diving into programming. In other words, set aside a get-acquainted period. We played with them for a while to get the feel of the controls, used the xylophone attachment to play a crude song, programmed Dash to plow marbles across a floor and then had it move around in a spiral pattern. A word of warning, Dash works best on the floor because if you’re not careful it can drive right off the edge of a table.
While the robots and software work well together, there are no lesson plans included. The company is working on creating curriculum and a forum for teachers to share their ideas and favorite robot routines. There should also be a software development kit coming for others to add new capabilities to Dash and Dot.
The variety of projects you can make with Dash and Dot pales compared to Mindstorms, but Dash and Dot have an ace up their sleeves. With the optional $19 Building Brick Connector, the robots can have Lego bricks attached to their heads.
Overall, using Dash and Dot to teach the basics of programming not only provides instant feedback for students but is less daunting (for student as well as teacher) to try out, use and become engrossed in.
$349 Wonder Pack
+ No assembly
+ Nice accessories and options
+ Flexible programming interface
+ Includes lots of apps
- Better software for iPad than Android
- No online lessons
- Lacks case