Monday, July 7, 2014

REPORT: Student Robotics Materials @ ISTE Conference 2014

Another ISTE Conference has come and gone (this year’s installment/June 28 – July 1 in Atlanta). Among my varied activities at the conference were repeated forays out onto the ISTE Expo (trade show) floor to see what is being promoted and sold these days in the area of Educational Technology. It was gratifying to see that Student Robotics Materials were on display throughout the expo and seem to me to be expanding and proliferating significantly… and, as I’ve long felt that Student Robotics is one of the very most promising and effective approaches to foster important student learning across the curriculum (STEM learning, yes, but the learning possibilities extend significantly into other important areas  of the curriculum, too), I was heartened to come across each and every one of the robotics materials vendor displays that I found. I may have missed one or two; and if I did I invite such vendors to contact me with some info that I’ll add to this blog post. I engaged representatives at all of the sales exhibits in in-depth discussions about their offerings.

Here’s what I found. There were 2 major trends in student robotics materials to be seen this year: a) general robotics kits that for want of a better descriptor either could, or are specifically designed and developed, to be alternatives to the perennial favorite in student robotics materials, the LEGO Mindstorms family of materials (covered thoroughly in my book Getting Startedwith LEGO Robotics and other posts in this blog)…  and b) robotics materials for very young students.

First let me run down the general robotics materials – and there truly were some wonderful things to see at ISTE:

I think the place to start here is by mentioning that LEGO(Mindstorms) was back at the conference with its usual, impressive demo/sales exhibit. I didn't see anything that struck me as radically different there, but I don’t expect this group to come up with something revolutionary every year. Over the past year or so it has introduced its newer generation of materials, EV3, and this year what I was shown were some specific curricular focus kits that incorporate these materials. Let me just say upfront that it seems to me that the LEGO Mindstorms materials remain the first choice of schools for robotics materials and there is good reason for that. Simply stated, they are wonderful, practical materials for schools (and for other situations in which adults want to provide kids with opportunities to learn robotics)!

Having said that, I’ll also opine that to some, it is a welcome development that other companies are now providing materials that represent alternatives to those from LEGO … “It’s good to have choices!” and here are some that caught my attention at the conference:

VEX Robotics - VEX IQ:

This just may be the most viable alternative to the LEGO Mindstorms materials available. VEX IQ was on display at the conference and what came across right away from its  hands-on display (replete with enthusiastic kids using it) was  how strong and robust the robots are that you can build  with this variety of material. If you are considering equipping a classroom with this sort of ‘snap together’, student friendly, robotics parts, electronics, and programming resource, I think making a comparison between this and Mindstorms would be informative and worth one’s while. I think a good number of folks might find some advantages to IQ. Take a look at the price of the basic kit and what’s included; you might find this to be attractive. There are some strong differences between the 2, the inclusion of a gaming type controller in addition to programability of robots with VEX IQ, for instance. But, of course, while there are similarities, there are differences to consider, too.  For instance, LEGO Mindstorms over the years, has established a strong and large community of dedicated users who have and continue to share ideas, experience and reflections, finished projects, etc. about how to use their products with kids. LEGO has also developed a strong connection to the very important FIRST Competition (and organization…
FIRST = "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.") I’ll be watching the progress VEX IQ makes; I think it is good that this variety of material has emerged. 

PITSCO’s TETRIX PRIME materials were on display. These are flexible in the way they can be used, offering strong and robust robotic constructions that result from student design. According to print materials I received at their booth, these can be snapped together, but also reinforced and made stronger and more permanent by connecting parts with ‘specialized thumbscrews.’ Interestingly, TETRIX PRIME can be paired with a variety of processors, including: LEGO’s NXT and EV3 “bricks” (small computing processors that are integrated into the robot construction itself, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and others. In addition to programming student robots, they can be controlled with a “gamepad style, four channel wireless controller”, which may provide “easy operation of the motors and servos that bring robots to life.” These seem to be very worthwhile materials to me.

“Futuristic building blocks of ingenious invention. No programming, no wires, oodles of possibilities.”

I think there’s definitely a place in STEM and other subject area instruction for Mod Robotics’ MOSS robots. Simplicity of use is obvious here,  but these materials still offer kids opportunities to acquire much of the important body of learning that comes from putting together robots and programming them. MOD Robotics was at the ISTE Conference’s Start-Up Pavilion, where new and smaller companies are afforded the opportunity to show off what they’ve developed and offer. While this system is somewhat similar to the modular building block approach of the companies below that offer robotics materials for younger children, this stuff has a good deal of sophistication. And while MOSS appears to be infinitely easier and simpler to handle than some of the other systems mentioned above, there is  clearly a good deal to be learned by kids in working with this variety of material. I recommend you follow the link  to the company web site and to the YouTube video… informative and inspiring.

*BirdBrain Robotics: I lOVE the spirit of this company’s vision. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and opine that this is where Student Robotics ought to be headed, providing robotics activities that include designing, building, and programming robots… but go beyond that, applying robotics skills to something more than simply creating machines. In the case of BirdBrain Technologies' materials (specifically, its Hummingbird kit) that means expression of ideas and stories and feelings… The Arts! We can see a tad of this in LEGO’s WeDo Robotics materials for young students (they provide character figures, etc. with which to tell stories); the vision at BirdBrain, though, seems to go all the way. (see) (I hope to write more on this theme soon.)
My take on the 2nd (and perhaps most interesting) trend in student robotics at the conference was robotics for very young students. Here are items that would fall into that category that I experienced at the conference:

KinderLab Robotics "KinderLab Robotics creates toys and educational tools that enable young children to learn critical technical, problem-solving, and cognitive skills."At a booth at one of the hands-on playgrounds at the conference I saw some very nice robotics  materials for younger students that are offered by KinderLab Robotics ( @KinderLabRobot ) These seemed very appealing and instructionally functional to me. These materials take advantage of the 'building blocks' approach, in which children program the robot (already complete) by putting together blocks in sequence, each of which has a simple programming command written on it. These are interpreted for the robot with a bar code that appears on the block, as well. The child passes the bar code over the robot's built in scanner and the robot knows what to do.


Play-I Robot:

I spoke with Alicia Chang of play-I at their booth at the same playground and was given a look at their very compelling resources to teach young children how to program. Click on the link above and check out the YouTube video below for the full picture.  

Bee Bot / Pro Bot: +

Very simple and very easy to implement, Bee Bot and (intended for slightly older kids) big brother Pro  Bot are highly established student robotics resources that (seem to me) to have been overshadowed by flashier alternatives recently. These are great resources, though. I can't imagine a better way for a school to get itself started in teaching robotics concepts and simplified programming ideas than with these. Check out the links above and the YouTube video (below) for a better look at these. It was great to see these items in the flesh again  at the conference.  



And here’s an interesting outlier, not student robotics in the sense that the items above are, but still a robot that I feel that every school district should inform itself about… Double Robotics

One more thing… There were a couple of poster sessions (my preferred format for getting important information quickly at these conferences) of note that involved LEGO Robotics – one of the very best was produced by Ms. Merry Willis, a teacher at Carmel Elementary School in Woodstock, Georgia, who presented some very sophisticated STEM learning activities.

However, the (robotics-supported) student-centered presentation that most truly won me over was the Sustainable Cancun exhibit (presented by students of the Cumbres Cancun school / Cancun, Mexico) this project titled Turtle-Robo Map was very impressive because not only did it involve students in conceiving and creating a robot (in this case a classic LEGO Robotics Line Follower) but that activity was done in support of a more overarching one, the creation of a museum-style informational exhibit (on Sea Turtle Ecology) with the student created robot playing a supporting role in what the students were reporting on, the true purpose of the project. Kudos to the educators at Cumbres Cancun for anticipating what I feel is sure to be the next-level of student robotics-based instruction: communication and EXPRESSION of ideas!

View of the Cumbres Cancun school's student robot supported informational display on sea turtles

PS – Here’s last year’s report on the materials offered:


Mark Gura

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