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Robots Invade the Classroom

Copy of dash+dot_front_XLIn 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.

Dash dot programmingTo 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.

Copy of dash_front_XLExpect 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.

Copy of dot_front_XLWhile 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.

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Dot dash

Wonder Workshop Dash and Dot

$349 Wonder Pack

+ No assembly

+ Nice accessories and options

+ Flexible programming interface

+ Inexpensive

+ Includes lots of apps

 

- Better software for iPad than Android

- No online lessons

- Lacks case

 

 

 

 

See the Heat

Seek thermal aThere’s nothing like a period or two with an infrared camera to show students that heat is nothing more than electromagnetic radiation that’s out of the range of our eye’s ability to see. The problem is that these cameras have been out of the reach of all but the best funded schools, but Seek’s Thermal Camera is an attempt to level the science educational playing field with an inexpensive infrared camera that snaps onto a phone or tablet.

The tiny camera can be ordered in versions for an iPhone or iPad (with a Lightning plug) or an Android phone or tablet (with a micro-USB plug). It weighs half an ounce and once you install it on a phone or tablet you hardly know it’s there. Virtually identical, except in how they connect, the two cameras have a resolution of 206 by 156 pixels with a 36-degree field of view that senses infrared radiation with wavelengths from 7.2 to 13 microns.

Regardless of which version you get, they have two things in common: you can’t charge the phone or tablet while using the thermal camera and some larger cases will keep Seek’s plug from being inserted into the device. The camera itself is rugged with a magnesium shell and comes with a padded case. Just plug it into the phone or tablet and load the free app and you can show the class what heat looks like.

Seek thermal bThe device works with fourth or fifth generation iOS devices and phones and slates that use Android 4.3 or newer software. On the downside, it won’t work with Android 5.0 software and leaves PCs, Macs, Chromebooks and older devices out in the cold. 

There’s one more quirk to Seek’s Android design. Because the micro-USB plugs used on Android systems go in only one way, phones such as the Nexus 5 or many Sony Xperia models will point the camera at the user. Great for a thermal selfie, this makes using it awkward to point the camera at objects of interest unless you get a $5 adapter cable that lets you aim the camera while looking at the screen.

Everything shows up on the device’s screen, although its resolution pales in comparison to the phone or tablet’s camera. You can see and record temperatures that range from -40- to 330-degrees Centigrade and the camera has a Chalcogenide lens that could be a science lesson in and of itself. One annoying feature is that the camera needs to periodically recalibrate itself and makes a clicking noise.

The software really brings out the best in the hardware with a simple interface that visually shows the thermal image and displays the high and low temperatures. Using a Nexus 7 slate, I spent two weeks exploring the world of heat. Happily, the software offers the choice of Fahrenheit and Centigrade units and at any point you can zoom in or out of the thermal image.

Img_thermal-141085298You can set a threshold temperature and easily record the scene with a screen shot. To compare what we see and what we can feel, you can drag a dividing line between the system’s built-in camera and Seek’s thermal one, making for a great split screen image of a flame, ice cube or even record the progress of an exothermic chemical reaction without using a thermometer.

A great science classroom resource for schools on a budget, the Seek Thermal Camera can show what’s hot and what’s not. 

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Seek with phone

Seek Thermal Camera

$199

+ Inexpensive infrared camera

+ Small and easy to use

+ iOS and Android versions

+ Good software

+ Centigrade or Fahrenheit units

+ Rugged

 

- Some Android devices aim camera in wrong direction

- No PC or Mac apps

Weather Watcher

Acurite 01057Forget about expensive weather stations for teaching about the environment and meteorology because AcuRite’s 1057 kit can do it for less. The $160 set includes the sensing gear, an LCD receiving screen as well as the ability to remotely log in from a PC, Android or iOS device. The wireless sensing package is self-contained, solar-powered and can connect at up to 300-feet. In addition to rainfall, wind direction and barometric pressure, it measures and records temperature and humidity. You can easily share your readings with Weather Underground’s network of amateur meteorologists.

Snap-Together Electronics Lab

Little bits aWhen it’s time to teach a physics class about electronics, the soldering irons, alligator clips, resistors, capacitors and wires usually come out of drawers. That dynamic can be changed for the better with littleBits with an innovative set of discreet electronic modules that snap together to make all kinds of things from lights that turn on when you clap to a pressure switch that starts a fan.

An ingenious approach to teaching about electronics, littleBits is based on self-standing functional electronic modules that do a specific thing. They are color coded for power (blue), input (red), wires (orange) and output (green), but the key breakthrough is that the modules have magnets at their ends that draw them together, creating a circuit. In fact, the modules are so well designed that if you try to use one backwards, the magnets repel each other, making it impossible to make a mistake.

Education is front and center with littleBits. In addition to the $99 Base Kit, there's the $149 Premium Kit I used, which  includes enough modules for up to three students to make a bunch of projects. There’s also the 24-part $233 Student Set that’s good for small groups as well as the $999 100-module Workshop version and comes in a plastic case and is perfect for a full class. Finally, littleBits sells the $3,299 Pro Library with 100 modules packaged in a wall storage unit that’s more than enough for an afterschool activity or club. You can get the littleBits kits online or at Radio Shack stores

The included booklet provides nice descriptions of the modules along with their color coding and a photo with what looks like hand-written explanations of its purpose. Each module has its circuit diagram printed on the board and you can use them on a desk or attach them to a board that costs $15.

Little bits classThe booklet has a dozen projects with step-by-step directions for things like creating a back massager and drawer mounted burglar alarm. My favorite is involves using the LED lights as eyeballs for a haunted Halloween mask.

While the projects are fun, the real learning happens when you throw the book away and get kids to think independently to create their own projects from the modules and whatever might be lying around the classroom. For instance, I animated a small Teddy Bear by putting the vibration motor underneath its arms along with the pulse generator and topped it off with the sound level trigger that makes the stuffed bear moves when you talk to it. All told, 5 minutes to think-through, 10-minutes to make and less than that to take apart for the next project.

There’re several videos of how to make projects as well as 50 lesson plans and a workshop guide. It, however, falls short of a teacher’s ideal because there’re no measurement modules, for things like voltage, resistance or current that could help make littleBits part of a physics lab. I was able to sneak in a multimeter’s probes but the connections are a tight fit.

A USB module with simple measurement software for a tablet or notebook would have been a great addition to the kit. littleBits does sell an Arduino-based control module and a software development kit, so this could be the class’s next project. 

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Little bits d

littleBits Premium Kit

$149

+ Snap-together electronic modules

+ Wide assortment of parts

+ Inexpensive

+ Project videos

+ Lessons

+ Quick to make and take apart projects

 

- Lacks module for meters

 

 

 

Let it Rain

Netatmo rain gaugeIf you like Netatmo’s minimalist weather station, you’ll love the device’s add-on rain gauge. The small unobtrusive device costs $79 and immediately lets you know that it’s started to rain. Like the temperature and humidity gauge, it connects to the base station wirelessly. Inside is a tipping bucket that empties itself every 24 hours so that you get accurate daily rain-level readings. The device requires a pair of AAA batteries and is accurate to within 1 millimeter an hour.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.