TESTING TOOLS FOR TEACHING ROBOTICS – CHILDREN 10+

RoboCAMP first took on teaching robotics and programming in 2006. Since then, we’ve managed to test multiple platforms that are indispensable to teaching robotics and facilitate understanding many programming issues. In recent years, the selection of tools for teaching robotics has significantly expanded and this tendency is bound to continue. And yet, creating a beneficial and practical set for teaching in school is not an easy task and all creators commit mistakes – smaller, or bigger ones. What’s worse, even the tiniest oversight becomes meaningful when using the set, which translates into worse quality of the robotics class – whether it’s conducted in school, or somewhere else. It is no mystery that in RoboCAMP, we favor solutions by the pioneers of educational robotics, LEGO Education. Although, occasionally, we have reservations about their products (even LEGO makes mistakes!), we still consider them the best currently available solution. However, this doesn’t mean we belittle novelty – on the contrary! In this article, we advise what to look for when searching for the robotics set for your workshop and present our thorough review of the most interesting robotics sets currently available: LOFI Robot, LEGO Mindstorms EV3mBot Ultimate 2.0 and Arduino.

This week, we’re reviewing tools for teaching children of 10 years old and older. The second part, describing robotics and programming solutions aimed at younger children, will be published on our blog in several weeks.

THE PERFECT SET

Due to the interdisciplinary character of robotics, organizing a class is difficult from a logistic point of view. During one lesson, there must be time for theoretical introduction, construction, programming and testing of the robot. In between lessons, teacher must maintain equipment in the best order possible, provide power supply and necessary materials, prepare and test all programs and finally, get ready for the class. A good teaching tool should make these tasks easier. Taking all of this into consideration, what are the qualities of the perfect set for teaching robotics? We asked our most experienced educators to unleash their imagination – and wrote down the conclusions.

Firstly, the set should be standardized and ready-to-use straight from the box. No one wants to lose time by assembling elements on their own. A set that already contains all necessary parts allows to set up a workshop anywhere (which is especially important for mobile workshops) and can be safely recommended to fellow teachers. Moreover, it’s easier to find replacement parts and lesson materials. In essence, the more popular the set is, the more building and programming instructions you can find. Sometimes, it’s even possible to find complete curricula.

Secondly, the perfect set should be contained in a solid and durable box that can be easily stored and transported, even in large quantities. The container should be practical and convenient to use, so that you can avoid taking all elements out before starting the lesson. It should also be wide and flat, as it minimizes the effort when looking for the desired part. Also, it would be great if the container included a tray to sort the elements.

The construction system should be age appropriate and easy enough – to make the building process more effective. At the same time, the construction possibilities of the set should be as large as possible. Children should be able to create numerous and various robots quickly and easily, to test their own solutions and ideas. This way, students not only enhance motor skills, but also gain practical knowledge in mechanics. The perfect set also provides opportunities to develop creativity and cooperation skills, as long as children work in pairs, of course. When it comes to parts, they should be durable, usable for a long time and sufficiently varied to give children chance at constructing miscellaneous mechanisms: transmissions, transmission shafts, mobile platforms, grippers, etc.

In addition to construction elements, the set should include electronic modules. The absolute basics include input/output elements such as: sensors, motors, diodes and a microcontroller. The microcontroller receives signals from and sends them to the devices connected, and executes the program through which the robot interacts with its surroundings, so it’s a must-have. The mentioned elements should be durable as well: all electronics should be encased and the connecting cables should rely on resilient plugs and sockets.

The battery, or accumulator, of the set should allow teacher to conduct 1-2 classes without recharging them in between. It would be better, if the set was powered by the classic AA batteries, not by accumulators created exclusively for the set – whether exchangeable, or (worse still) built-in. You can purchase AA batteries cheaply in large quantities, you can use them with various sets and, in the event they run out of charge during classes, replace at a moment’s notice. From a student’s perspective, there’s nothing worse than being unable to finish the project, because the batteries of the robot went dead 5 minutes before the end of the lesson – and charging them takes 3 hours.

Connecting with the microcontroller should be seamless and straightforward. The perfect set could either rely on the Bluetooth technology – the popular solution nowadays, which some producers still manage to botch, the WiFi connection, or the good ol’ USB cable. What’s important to remember is that whichever solution is implemented, the educational value of the set won’t change. Instead, it’s worth checking whether connecting the robot with the computer, or the tablet, is foolproof and easy enough for children to do it themselves. That’s the reason why devices connected via USB are often the most reliable ones.

Programming should have a broad spectrum of possibilities; the more options, the better. After all, it’s supposed to show your students a preview of the real thing. At the same time, the software must be age appropriate, intuitive and user-friendly. In our experience, students younger than 14 learn and create best with VPL (Visual Programming Languages). With VPL, you don’t waste time trying to learn difficult text-based languages, or searching for syntax errors. Some sets can be programmed in several languages with varied difficulty and possibilities, which is a valuable asset indeed.

Lastly, teacher must be able to conduct a full robotics class within a short and inflexible time frame, so being able to conduct a class with the chosen set in less than 90 minutes would be perfect. During this period, teacher should include introduction, building, explain the mechanisms constructed, find time for programming, tests and playing with the robot. Moreover, any spare time should be used for dismantling the robots and preparing the sets for the next group.

As you can see, we expect quite a lot from the perfect set.

OUR TESTS

During the last two months, the RoboCAMP team has raked through the market of educational tools and examined majority of the currently available sets for teaching robotics. Out of all options, we selected the most interesting and noteworthy few, in order to thoroughly test them and see how close to the “perfect set” they manage to get.

Every product was assessed in three categories, which take into account several aspects. The KIT category grades the set content from multiple angles: what are possibilities and building mechanics of the set, how durable are the elements and whether the set helps children to develop their motor skills and creativity. In the PROGRAMMING category, we tried to evaluate whether the programming software is age appropriate, what are its possibilities and educational value, as well as how user-friendly the product actually is. Since some products make it possible to program in several environments, we assessed them separately, in order to compare them later. The final category, quite essential from teacher’s point of view, is the CLASS USE. It takes into account the time needed to commence the lesson with the set, its availability, the quality of materials provided for the teacher and logistics in the classroom. As you are probably aware, the overall logistics is influenced by multiple factors: the very box the set comes in, time and means of construction, power supply, connecting the robot to a computer or tablet, even the space needed to work with and store the sets.

Every category and every aspect of it was graded on a scale of 0 to 10. The category score is the average of individual aspect scores, while the total score is the average of all categories. Please note that the total score is indicative only – since usually, you can program in more than one application, the final assessment is more dependent on the Programming category. Therefore, if you are considering purchasing the set and using it in your classroom, we recommend you to pay closer attention to scores in individual categories, rather than the overall outcome.

Before we proceed to the results of our tests, a short disclaimer: RoboCAMP is an educational company with vast experience in this domain, which is why we grade robotics sets through the lens of its utility in the classroom, be it a part of curriculum, or after-school classes. While some products are graded less favorably in this review, they may be great for individual learning at home, or in robotics clubs. However, this article focuses on reviewing sets in terms of their efficiency for school environment.

LOFI Robot

Best for: children over 12 YOA

Use at: home, robotics club

LOFI Robot is a fresh project brought about by the LOFI company from Gdansk, Poland. The entire set has a characteristic old-school design, which easily strikes the nostalgia cord of numerous teachers and educators. Even with no make-up, it would look absolutely stunning on the cover of a mechanics magazine from the 60’. For building robots, the set relies on Arduino modules and laser-cut wooden elements that you connect with screws and nuts. The programming environment was inspired by the inestimable Scratch.

We tested the basic EDUBOX set, which allows you to create several robots. To further expand the EDUBOX possibilities, you can upgrade it with the additional FLIPBOX set. There’s also an option to purchase a smaller set – EDUBOX mini.

KIT

The product is packaged into a neat wooden box, lockable with screws (screwdriver inside – sic!). Upon opening it, you are bedazzled by the amazing scent of wood and the multitude of elements. Unfortunately, you need to take all elements out in order to work with this set, which means that you must also have a sizeable workspace.

Lofi RobotContained inside are electronic elements, construction parts in the form of wooden laser-cut blocks that you need to separate before use, as well as a set of screws, nuts and a screwdriver to connect the elements. You won’t find any paper instructions in the box – all building and programming materials are available on the official website, so you must have access to a nearby computer to start working.

At first, this multitude of wooden elements can be baffling. Yet very soon, you discover that to create one wheel, you need all laser-cut parts of one board. What’s more, the elements also include decorations and washers, so in the end, the number of construction elements is not very high at all. Sadly, the base set does not include cogs, but you can purchase them with the FLIPBOX addition.

To put together a LOFI robot, you need time and skill. Even pushing the elements out of wooden boards is troublesome. Damaging the elements in the process is quite easy, so you can expect cavities and splinters. You can sand them, obviously, but it will take even more time. Especially children can have problems with pushing the elements out of the wooden boards – it requires some strength and may deliver splinters in fingertips.

Lofi partsUnfortunately, it’s not the end of the problems. The construction system relies on screws and nuts to cleverly keep wooden parts together. But their tiny size and hard to reach places (especially perpendicular joints!) do not make the entire process easy. Even us, adults, almost ran out of patience. In consequence, the building time can unexpectedly lengthen and become quite frustrating. Yet inarguably, your motor skills are bound to improve 🙂

The electronic elements might also become an issue. The set is based on Arduino, which means you get a lot of delicate electronics that on one hand, look really cool up close, but on the other, can get damaged easily. There are numerous electronic modules in the set, like the programmable LOFI Brain controller with Arduino module, 2 DC motors, LED diodes, photoresistors, a potentiometer and a distance sensor. The robot is powered through a USB cable, or by the Powerbank included in the kit, which allows it to operate autonomously. The electronic parts are connected with the Arduino controller via cables with pins – it’s easy to plug the wrong end by mistake and damage the element as a result.

Because of all the reasons above, this robotics kit is best suited for slightly older children (12+). The biggest problem seems to be the construction time. Preparing the elements and putting together the simplest mobile robot took us 2 hours. Note that we made no mistake and worked non-stop, which rarely happens when working with children. Durability is another worrisome aspect of this set. In time, wooden parts will wear away or break and the tiny screws will get lost. It’s difficult to predict for how long the delicate, unsecured electronics can survive. Assembling and disassembling these robots often will surely decrease its longevity. On the bright side, the producer claims to exchange broken wooden elements for completely new ones. You can also ask for a .dxf file with designs of the wooden boards and laser cut them by yourself.

The undeniable advantage of the LOFI Robot, which makes it stand out on the market, is the range of possibilities it offers for the low price. If used cautiously, you can build several different constructions with one set. To further expand its potential, you can purchase the FLIPBOX add-on without regrets. With it, you receive servo motors, cogwheels, and beams – all necessary elements for a robotics set.

PROGRAMMING

You can connect LOFI to a controlling device (PC, tablet, or smartphone) by means of the traditional USB cable, or Bluetooth technology. Before you start programming, you will need to install several apps, plugins and LOFI Brain firmware – which is quite tedious. At present, the producer offers two programming apps: LOFI Blocks, based on the Google Blockly, and ScratchX, which is basically a Scratch mod.

LOFI Blocks

LOFI Blocks is a visual programming environment based on Google Blockly. The user creates scripts by dragging and arranging colorful blocks with programming instructions (just like in Scratch). The app allows to simultaneously control two motors, four input/output elements, a distance sensor and a buzzer. What’s interesting, it’s possible to use this app not only for programming the LOFI robots, but also with any other set based on Arduino.

While trying to connect the robot to the application, we came across several problems. We succeeded in the end, but only through USB cable and after installing a special plugin for Chrome browser. The information describing the issue is available on the producer’s website, but well-hidden and scattered. There’s no clear instruction on how to proceed and resolve problems.

The possibilities of the app are more modest in comparison to Scratch. It lacks several useful (even essential) blocks, such as waiting for an event, negation of a truth value, infinite loop (one is included in the program by default, but you cannot use it inside the script, or add another one), or even a starting block. Therefore, programming will be troublesome. Often, due to lacks in the blocks department, you are unable to make an idea happen and are forced to look for another solution, which is not always doable. However, since the programming environment is still in the beta version, these issues are somehow understandable. We simply hope that solutions are underway.

The app is compatible with Android and iOS mobile systems, as well as with PC through the Chrome web browser. The creators are currently working on the offline versions of the environment for Windows and OS X systems, as well as on the “junior” version of the app – containing only icons with no text instructions (like WeDo software). However, since the robot construction process is complex and quite advanced, we are still wondering as to who would actually use the “junior” app.

LOFI Robot ScratchXScratchX Lofi

Undoubtedly, it’s the better app out of the two. It is available online via Chrome browser, but configuring it to work with the robot isn’t easy. First, you must install the LOFI Robot ScratchX CHROME plugin, which allows the browser to communicate with the robot. Next, you need to allow LOFI to communicate with your computer. So, you must install Arduino Software (IDE), necessary to load firmware onto the Arduino board inside your robot, then you must download the software and upload it to the board. Finally, by using the LOFI Robot ScratchX CHROME plugin you’ve already installed, you can connect the robot to the computer. If you managed to go through all these steps without any errors, you should be able to program LOFI by means of an environment that’s very close to the classic Scratch. It includes a script editor and a palette of colorful blocks divided into 10 categories. To create scripts, you simply need to drag, drop and arrange the blocks in the editor area. Blocks for controlling LOFI robot are in the More Blocks category.

With the app, you can control two motors, four input devices and four output ones. You can also control the buzzer and observe distance sensor readouts. The instruction blocks of the LOFI Robot add-on are less straightforward and more complex in comparison to the original Scratch blocks, or even the official LEGO WeDo add-on. The names of the elements are rather abstract and the blocks include numerous parameters. In consequence, this Scratch version may work better with slightly older children. Overall, the application is well-constructed and equipped with worthwhile content, which is partially owed to Scratch.

MATERIALS FOR TEACHER

With little effort, you can dig out a lot of interesting materials on the producer’s website. Among others, there are building instructions for six robots to assemble from the EDUBOX set. Unfortunately, the instructions could use some improvement. The outlines are sometimes barely legible, the length of screws is a mystery and constant scrolling is a must. The electronics layouts are not exactly clear either.

The Lofi reviewmost significant resource on the website is the teacher guide – currently available in Polish only, unfortunately. It contains instructions on how to install and configure the necessary software, all the links included. What’s more, you can find there 8 lesson plans designed by the producer and apply them in your class.

COST

EDUBOX: €159

EDUBOX mini: €109 (fewer wooden and electronic elements)

FLIPBOX addition: 249 zł (around €60)

CONCLUSIONS

The LOFI Robot project has a lot of potential. However, the complexity of construction drags out time needed for building, which not only creates a logistical challenge, but also hinders students in freely developing their creativity. After all, creativity develops best when you can swiftly test and verify your ideas. The programming applications need improvements as well. Because of these reasons, in addition to the general chaos visible in the materials, we are inclined towards using this set in robotic clubs, where pressing time is not an issue and problems can be considered challenges, not a prelude to a catastrophe.

Nonetheless, one can try using the set in the school environment. In such a case, we recommend to focus on programming. You could build a robot during one class, then during the several next lessons design different programs for it. This system would allow you to maximize possibilities of every construction and prolong the longevity of individual parts. Even the producer proposes a similar solution: one robotics “project” for one semester. However, both of these scenarios have one essential flaw – the sets are stuck with one group for a long time. You won’t be able to conduct robotics classes with several groups, unless you have at your disposal copious sets and enough space to store them.

So in order to work with LOFI you need a lot of space, a lot of time and even more patience. It’s worth underlining, however, that the LOFI system is excellent in fostering motor skills and can become an efficient tool for teaching basics of electronics and programming. And don’t forget that its possibilities are vast in comparison to other sets in this price range.

LOFI Robot is a product created by creative people from our own backyard. The principles that motivate their work speak true to our team as well, which is why we are rooting for them and keep our fingers crossed that their robots will get better and better.

LEGO Mindstorms EV3

LEGO Education

Best for: children over 10 YOA

Use at: home, robotics club, school, extracurricular classes

LEGO Mindstorms is a pioneer series of tools for teaching robotics, produced by LEGO ever since 1998. It merges LEGO Technic bricks with sensors, servo motors and a control unit, simply called the “brick”. Thanks to this union, it’s possible to create various types of robots that interact with its environment. The third generation of this set, LEGO Mindstorms EV3, is currently available on the market.

We’ve been working with EV3 sets, both the Education (45544-1) and the Home (31313-1) versions, from the moment they first appeared in 2013. Thus, the testing took four years in this case. For educational purposes, we absolutely recommend the LEGO Education set #45544-1. It’s also the version we focus on in the review. However, since the Home version is popular and readily available, we describe it in a few words as well.

KIT

The Education version of the set comes in a handy, wide and durable box with a sorting tray inside. In a set containing 541 elements, including many tiny ones, such a tray is a very welcome addition, because it significantly shortens the time needed for construction. Moreover, you’ll find a paper list of all elements inside, which facilitates sorting the bricks. Please note that even if you try hard to maintain order, sorting these sets once in a while will be necessary.

The box contains all sorts of bricks that easily stimulate children’s imaginations. There are Technic beams of different lengths and shapes, all in light colors. To connect them, you can use small elements called “pegs”. There’s quite a selection of them: smooth ones, with friction, or various ends to create different kinds of connections. In the set, you’ll also find a multitude of axles, gears and connectors, as well as other elements: hubs, tires, caterpillar track, panels to enclose you robot… This myriad of elements explains the huge construction potential of the set.

ev3 reviewThe majority of children already know how to use this system. And since the elements are so diverse, it’s possible to create constructions that are more interesting and more mechanically advanced than most solutions offered by the competition at present. What’s more, the simplicity and the possibilities of the set enhance creativity more efficiently.

Among electronic parts, there are two large motors and one smaller, several interesting sensors (touch, color, ultrasonic distance sensor and an accelerometer), as well as cables with reliable plugs. All of them are manageable by means of a microcontroller – the EV3 Brick. It has a small display, buttons for navigating the menu, 4 input ports, 4 output ports, a USB port to connect the brick with the computer and finally, a case for 6 AA batteries. The set also includes a dedicated accumulator, but you must separately purchase an expensive charger to be able to use it. The mentioned accumulator enlarges the EV3 brick by one module, so you cannot use it in all constructions. In our opinion, it’s better to let sleeping accumulators lie and equip your workshop with a lot of AA batteries.

The EV3 brick works decently. Nonetheless, its start-up takes some time (30 seconds) and it can crash once in a while. If you are experiencing some problems with the brick, you may find this tutorial helpful: http://www.legoengineering.com/ev3-gone-wrong-what-to-do-when-your-ev3-stops-working/

The building elements are real tough. LEGO is very particular about the quality of bricks, so you can expect the plastic parts to be almost indestructible. Sometimes, the pegs may be vanquished between the teeth of some overenthusiastic pupils. Even electronic parts are reliable; the very first defects usually appear after several years of intense use. The producer also sells variety of spare parts. In particular, you should watch out for cables, which are first to fail, elastic bands, individual electronic elements and small parts, which can easily get lost. There’s also an option to purchase additions, for example the Expansion Set containing 853 additional bricks and sensors (e.g. infrared, or temperature sensors). If this solution still doesn’t meet your expectations, you can also consider buying products by other companies that create accessories to the Mindstorms EV3 set. We recommend HiTechnic products, e.g. compass, angle, gyro, or magnetic sensors.

The set is very well prepared for learning in school. It has handy packaging, simple and well-liked construction system, durable elements, readily available spare parts and amazing building potential. Overall, LEGO Mindstorms EV3 is a product that is well thought out and polished.

PROGRAMMINGMindstorms software

The EV3 brick connects with the computer, or a tablet, by using the Bluetooth technology, WiFi (if you attach the WiFi module) or by the USB cable – the easiest and the most foolproof method. Once you upload the program to the brick, you can disconnect the robot and it will operate autonomously.

The set can be programmed in the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Software, based on LabView and available in two versions: for computers and for tablets. As students grow older and wiser, you can introduce text programming by using EV3 Basic or Robot-C educational languages, or perhaps one of the classic programming languages, such as Python (but you must install new OS on the brick before – more on EV3Dev.org).

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Software – PC version

The dedicated programming environment allows to program robots using a visual programming language. It includes blocks of action, flow, sensor, data, advanced and a separate category for blocks created by the user. A program is created by attaching instructions to the starting block – from left to right. Every block can be adjusted with multiple options (actually, the majority of them is just a combination of several instructions). The environment makes controlling the LEGO robot easy, yet allows for precise instructions as well. As a consequence, programs are designed easily, almost spontaneously. All block-defining options are visible right away, but since the blocks themselves are quite big, complex programs do not fit in the preview. In order to continue programming, it’s necessary to scroll. This lack of space grows into a real problem with more advanced programs, as the limitations of the environment translate into students’ frustration. Nonetheless, it’s rarely an obstacle when creating projects during class. The application itself is quite user-friendly. Besides creating programs, it allows you to document projects and store the results of experiments.

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Software – tablet version

The software for tablets, due to the limited number of blocks, offers way fewer opportunities. You can merely use three types of blocks, in comparison to six available in the version for PC. There are no data, or advanced blocks and you cannot design your own blocks. Therefore, this app can be used to create only the simplest of programs, which lowers the educational quality of robotics classes.

MATERIALS FOR TEACHER

When you download the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Software, you receive instructions for creating 10 robots. Unfortunately, 6 of them require elements found only in the Expansion Set. And keep in mind that these models are so complex, you shouldn’t count on finishing them in one lesson. The building instructions are based on the classic LEGO template, so they are quite clear. There are no programming instructions – only screenshots with finished programs and links to rough descriptions available online on the producer’s website. The materials also include: short videos demonstrating how robots work, programming exercises with focus on particular blocks (useful for introducing certain instructions), descriptions of electronic parts, as well as information about the tools in the software that collect data, record sounds, create images, etc. The producer offers additional exercise packs: Science, Space Challenge and Design Engineering Projects (open projects with no building instructions). However, they require bricks from other sets.

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Home Edition #31313-1

The set version designed for individual users differs slightly from the educational version, but in key areas. The single-use cardboard packaging that is not suitable for storing bricks (but has a cool robot on it!), the aggressive reddish-black colors that make finding the desired element harder, even the contents of the set – everything here is dictated by marketing. And yes, inside you will find a lot of decorative elements: six (!) swords, for example. But the bricks assembled in this set are completely different from the ones included in the educational version, so even if you disregard the colors, you won’t be able to use these two kits together. The infrared distance sensor of the Home version is weaker and less precise than the ultrasound one of the Edu version, but it allows you to control robots with a remote. However, bear in mind that this advantage is not an educational one – the remote is basically an additional palette of touch sensors, which are abundant already (in the EV3 brick, for example). Meanwhile, the Home version lacks an accelerometer, sturdy caterpillar track, colorful bricks for the color sensor and many useful construction elements.

The programming environmentMindstorms EV3 review for the Home version (31313) is very similar to the one for the Edu version. The most important aspect, programming, is conducted in exactly the same way. Even the programming blocks are almost the same (some blocks refer to different electronic elements in the set). The only things you won’t find are the tools for collecting and presenting data and materials for the teacher. Just like the contents of the set, the programming environment was visibly influenced by marketing. The noisy lobby, automatically activated upon start, encourages to create one of five warriorlike robots: a shooting humanoid, a cobra, a gripping model, a tank with exchangeable tools and a scorpion. The materials include step-by-step building and programming instructions.

COST

LEGO Education Mindstorms EV3 Core Set #45544: $389.95

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Home Edition #31313: $349.99

CONCLUSIONS

The Education version of the set is very well adapted for school – the construction system is fast and easy, the elements are durable. Since this set has truly vast possibilities, it can be used on several education levels. Many technical colleges and universities make use of these sets during robotics and mechatronics workshops. The diversity of construction parts and electronic components is the key feature of this set: it allows to effectively teach basics of mechanics and physics, yet it also develops creativity by encouraging individuals to test out their ideas. With LEGO bricks, the robots are easy to assemble and most importantly, the building process takes little time. It has a positive impact on the workflow and enables to conduct an entire robotics lesson (introduction, building, programming, testing) in 90 minutes. The only issue is that finding materials adjusted to such time frame may prove problematic. Nonetheless, you can create a curriculum yourself, or use the professional solutions that are already on the market (e.g. RoboCAMP courses).

The described work system makes effective use of these sets. By the end of every lesson, the robots can be disassembled and the next group of students will be able to use them right away. And as soon as the robotics class is over, the LEGO sets can be easily put aside to make space for another activity scheduled in the computer room, such as unplugged robotics for younger children, or Scratch programming.

The dedicated programming environment is a good tool for learning coding. Students can create advanced programs with little effort, which stimulates computational thinking and helps them understand many programming concepts without prior knowledge of complex syntax present in the text-based programming languages.

mBot Ultimate 2.0

Makeblock

Best for: children 12+ YOA

Use at: home, robotics club, school, extracurricular classes

mBot is yet another platform for building and programming robots based on Arduino. The producer offers a lot of various mBot sets, with which you can create one or several robots.

We tested the most elementary and the most popular set in the series – mBot v1.1. It’s great for getting to know the platform, but not sufficient for conducting robotics classes. In our subjective opinion, the most interesting set offered by the producer is the mBot Ultimate 2.0 and that’s the set we selected for the final assessment.

KIT (mBot Ultimate 2.0)

The packaging of all mBots is made out of cardboard, therefore it’s not lasting. Inside, you’ll find layered elements of the set, secured with sponge filling. Unfortunately, such a box won’t be useful during robotics classes, so in order to work with mBots, you need to purchase additional containers.

mBot testAluminum construction parts are connected by means of different kinds of screws. The set includes a special box with sorting compartments for storing them, a special screwdriver, wrench, socket wrench and a hex key. The mBot screws are more user-friendly than the ones included in the LOFI Robot set – they are larger and usually don’t require nuts. In addition to construction beams and plates, there are also plastic gears, wheels and a caterpillar track. All elements were produced with high quality and attention to detail in mind. Consequently, they seem almost indestructible. But in case some elements get damaged, you can browse through a wide selection of spare parts and extension kits, or simply buy exactly what you need – many parts are sold individually.

The electronic components include an ultrasound distance sensor, an accelerometer and gyro in one sensor, a color sensor and a shutter release, which allows you to integrate the set with a camera. You can further expand the possibilities of the set by purchasing additional sensors, for example a gas sensor, or a compass. All components are enclosed quite well and secured against damage. The same thing with cables – modules can be connected through plugs, not connectors, which constitute standard parts of the classic Arduino and LOFI sets. Thanks to abandoning the idea of connectors, the risk of damaging electronic components is much lower. This solution is paired up with high-quality construction elements, so we predict that the estimated lifespan of the set is quite long.

The microcontroller board (MegaPi) is based on the Arduino MEGA 2560, compatible with both Arduino and Raspberry Pi. With it, you can control motors and sensors, also via wireless communication. The power of this board is especially notable: at the same time, you can control 10 servo motors, or 8 DC motors. This factor makes the set superb for robotics.

The RJ25 inputs are secured with a casing with appropriate plug-in. The inputs (ME) are marked with colors, which facilitates connecting modules to the right place. What’s more, the set has an adapter (ME-RJ25) that proves especially helpful if you plan to use sensors other than default ones.

This product is well-prepared for activities with children. Although the box is less than satisfactory, its contents are thought out with regard to education. The building time is longer in comparison to LEGO, but according to the producer, you shouldn’t need more than 2 hours to finish constructing the proposed models (note: building only!).

PROGRAMMING

The producer created apps for mBot, thanks to which it’s possible to use visual programming: mBlock, which can be used on PC, as well as mBlockly for mBot, intended mainly for tablets and smartphones. It’s also possible to program the set with text-based languages: either by using Arduino Software (IDE) or Python, since the board is compatible with Raspberry Pi.

Connecting is straightforward and can be done via Bluetooth, or with USB cable.

mBlockmBlock review

When using a PC, you can program your mBot by using an adapted Scratch 2.0 platform named mBlock. Interface of the modified environment looks exactly the same as it does in Scratch. There’s the blocks palette divided into categories, the scripts area, where you assemble your program, and the Scene, where you either add objects (Sprites) and program their behavior, or where you display sensor readouts and values of created variables. The engine relies on visual programming with text cues on blocks, which you arrange from top to bottom. In comparison to the official Scratch version, this environment was augmented by several new blocks for controlling the elements of the set, just like in the LEGO WeDo extension. However, they are more numerous and more advanced, which is perfectly understandable – after all, the entire platform is more complex as well. Just like Scratch, the mBlock app is available online (http://editor.makeblock.com/ide.html ) and works without issues.

mBlockly for mBot

If you prefer unplugged programming, you’ll be interested in this app. It’s based on the Google Blockly engine, which is compatible with mobile systems and allows you to program mBot by using a tablet, or a smartphone. There is no Scene-equivalent in mBlockly, so you are limited to controlling the set only. Besides this one absence, the application is very similar to the PC version.

mBot App

mBot reviewThis application is available for tablets and smartphones with iOS or Android systems, and allows you to control the mBot remotely. By using its options, you can navigate the robot and manage LED diodes. There are also some built-in programs, such as following the line, or avoiding the obstacles according to the distance sensor readouts.

MATERIALS FOR TEACHER

The set comes with a paper handbook with building instructions for 10 robots. It’s available in the .pdf version as well, on the producer’s website. The materials include the list of elements, description of electronic modules and a short commentary on the programming apps. Unfortunately, the legibility of instructions could be improved – it’s often difficult to decipher where to connect the electronics.

COST

mBot V1.1: $94.99

mBot Ultimate 2.0: $349.99 (discount price)

mBot Starter Robot Kit: $149.99

While browsing the sets on the producer’s site, you may come across mysterious sets for primary and middle school. However, except for their price ($409 and $689 respectively), there’s little other information. We managed to find the list of all included parts on another website.

CONCLUSIONS

mBot truly is a decent platform for teaching robotics. Both the construction elements and programming apps are well developed. The main drawback is in the price table. The cheapest and currently the most popular set, mBot v1.1, has enough elements for constructing one robot only – a mobile vehicle equipped with distance sensor. It won’t suffice for regular school classes. In order to fully use possibilities created by mBot, you must get your hands on the mBot Ultimate 2.0 sets, or choose the even more expensive solutions for schools.

Building robots from the set takes time, but isn’t too complicated. Undoubtedly, this solution enhances motor and manual skills of students. Also, it creates an opportunity to communicate the mechanics knowhow. Polished construction parts and well functioning apps make this set a great product for teaching the basics of robotics, electronics and programming, be it in school, during extracurricular activities, or in clubs.

Arduino

Best for: children 14+ YOA

Use at: robotics club

Arduino is an open-source platform that allows you to have fun with electronics. You can use Arduino microcontrollers and assemble your own robotics kit by selecting motors, sensors and construction elements you prefer. This solution is in accordance with the principal idea behind this brand: “Arduino At Heart”. It inspired producers of mBot, LOFI Robot, LIXBOT, or EMoRo, who implemented this idea by creating their own sets. Nonetheless, most teachers will find it problematic to furnish an entire robotics workshop with Arduino on their own. Not everyone specializes in mechanics, physics, electronics and IT at once.

Arduino robotArduino producer offers a ready-made solution for schools, intended for students from 13 to 17 years of age. The CTC 101 set (Creative Technologies in the Classroom) incorporates a series of STEAM projects with all necessary building materials (electronics and construction parts), sufficient for 6 groups of students (for 24 people max). Unfortunately, the set was unavailable during our test period, so we couldn’t see it for ourselves. Nonetheless, it seems an interesting solution to keep in mind.

Instead, we focused on testing the Arduino platform in its most genuine version. We reminded ourselves how to work the board and how the dedicated programming app actually looks like. For manual testing purposes, we used the LIXBOT set produced by the Propox company. It is based on the original Arduino platform: it includes Arduino Uno board, electronics and construction elements without any modifications. This rudimentary equipment helped us imitate a single-handedly assembled set.

Before we proceed, please note that Arduino/Genuino Starter Kit is a set for learning electronics and programming (not robotics). The electronics provided is very delicate, not secured in any way. Before one starts working with this set, it’s necessary to acquire basic knowledge on electronics: what a resistor is, how to use a breadboard, etc. The set does not include mechanical parts. It is consistent with Arduino platform principle, and therefore concentrates on electronics and software, but leaves mechanics up to each user. The Arduino/Genuino Starter Kit contains elements and instructions for completing 15 projects relating to electronics and programming.

KIT

Arduino software IDEThe Arduino board constitutes the heart of the platform. Although there are various types available on the market, in general, a board consists of a simple microcontroller and add-ons that facilitate attaching other modules and programming. Standardized connectors are something to consider in this case, because they allow you to select the sensors and motors that fit your board.

The remaining elements, such as electronics and building parts, must be selected and put together by you. And the resulting set contents must match the materials you plan to use during your lessons.

PROGRAMMING

The official application for programming Arduino boards is the Arduino Software (IDE). However, you can also use a number of other apps, for example the aforementioned mBlock and LOFI Block, or others, such as Scratch4Arduino, Snap4Arduino, Johnny-Five for Java Script… the list goes on and on.

Arduino Software (IDE)

Arduino Integrated Development Environment (IDE), or simply Arduino Software, is the dedicated environment for programming Arduino boards. You can use it through a browser online, or download its app version for offline use.

The text editor, where you write the code, takes the main place in the environment. In addition, there’s an area displaying messages about events (e.g. saving the program), a text console showing errors and a taskbar with often used functions, such as save, verify code, upload the code, etc.

Arduino reviewWhen programming Arduino, you use C or C++ languages, but with some structural limitations. As you’ve probably already realized, programming in IDE is lower-level than in visual languages. In simple terms, it means that in order to realize a seemingly easy task, such as lightning up a diode on the Arduino board, more effort is required. Due to this reason, we do not recommend this environment for teaching children, especially in school environment. Nonetheless, it may prove a meaningful resource for afterschool clubs, where you work with students that are curious and able.

MATERIALS FOR TEACHER

The producer created a platform for exchanging educational materials – http://playground.arduino.cc/. Users post information on configuring boards, hardware, software and libraries, there is also a multitude of projects that you can try to use during your classes. At times, you may even stumble upon an entire curriculum, but they mainly focus on electronics and programming. Full materials for robotics lessons with Arduino can be found in the CTC 101 set – it should allow you and your students to realize 25 various projects and experiments.

COST

Arduino/Genuino Starter Kit: €79.90

Arduino CTC Kit 101: €1 750 (no VAT)

CONCLUSIONS

In our opinion, Arduino, in its pure form, is not enough to conduct robotics classes. For one person, searching for the right elements for the set is too difficult, time-consuming and can lead to costly mistakes – let’s leave it to hobbyists. While in school, it’s better to implement a ready-made solution, such as the CTC kit, or use one of the sets that are based on Arduino: mBot, LOFI, EMoRo, or others. In addition to well-selected and compatible construction parts, these products come with dedicated environments that incorporate visual programming and allow you to present Arduino to children.

Arduino was the last platform for students above 10 years of age we tested out. Soon enough, you can expect another article from this series on our blog – next time, we will focus on tools for teaching younger kids.

We sincerely hope that our conclusions and reviews will be of some help to you, especially if you are planning to upgrade your robotics workshop. If you already had a chance to work with these sets, we’d be happy to hear your opinion. Were your experiences similar to ours, or completely opposite? Or perhaps you’d like us to test yet another set? Let us know your thoughts either by submitting a comment below, or by sending us a message directly at support@robocamp.eu.

By | 2017-11-06T20:29:24+00:00 September 15, 2017|