Sunday, February 19, 2017, 08:09

Hi All,

Another half term comes to an end and we have another teaching packed term coming up.

Before it starts, I want to share a few things with you.

We get asked by a lot of teachers which robotics kits are worth investing in?

I have promised information to lots of you, so here is a snapshot, and we will be putting more detail in some explainer videos on our website very soon.

A couple of things to note: This is a short guide, there is probably lots more to say about each kit, but I don’t think an essay would be ideal - if you have questions or comments, let me know.

I’ve picked the kits that I am experienced in teaching with, I know there are lots of others available, please use this as some additional info, not an exhaustive list.

I won't be discussing the micro:bit here, schools are all different in terms of how/when they are planning to use them, and as they have been freely available there isn't much risk for you in testing them etc.

So the kits I will be covering are those that will need to be purchased and this will help you in deciding which ones are worth your money.

We evaluate kits with the following criteria:
1: Ease/speed of use - not to be confused with a kit that only covers simple topics. What we mean by this, is: Is it easy to install? Does it work straight away? Is the interface easy to understand??
2: Breadth and depth: How advanced can student projects be? Which age groups can use them?
3: Shelf life: Are they durable, or will you be forever getting parts fixed and replaced?
4: Cost.



Lego Mindstorms NXT - our all time favourite

We have used these with Year 3 students through to year 12 students, with enough breadth of activities to challenge all age groups.

The software interface is gorgeous and intuitive, kids and teachers pick it up very quickly and its easy to remember how to change speed of the robot or where to find a particular sensor block.In terms of depth, you can do data types, use variables and constants, and use several sensors at once which requires nested IFs and functions.

In all the years that we have used them, we have had very few technical issues.

They are built well, ours have survived thousands of robot wars matches, if that’s anything to go by and a good few falls from tables and other crazy obstacles that students have built.
So our ratings:
Ease of use: 4/5
Not 5 because some of the pictures are a little confusing and its not always obvious to younger students how to download a file and find it on the robot itself.

Breadth/Depth: 5/5
Because there’s always something new that can be done and is great for all ages, you can also progress onto using robot c (a typed programming language).

Shelf life: 4.5/5
Not 5 because sometimes the chargers randomly stop working, but normal AA batteries can be used instead.Cost: 4/5 They are a little on the pricey side when bought new - have a look on eBay for a deal - but this is offset by the amount of time they last for.

Overall a very good kit!



2. Lego Mindstorms EV3

This is the newer version of the Lego Mindstorms … sadly we feel that this new revision has lost its charm.

The software has had a complete overhaul and as a result it looks cleaner and more slick, but it is now much less intuitive. Students both in Primary and Secondary - from our teaching experience - find it much harder to use. The symbols used to represent ‘change robot speed’ , ‘change length of time’ etc. are all a bit confusing.

I’m not saying the older version is perfect, there are still things like the download button and the image for the move block that could be improved.
But after running the same 6 week project with the old mindstorms and then with the EV3s, I found students found the EV3 frustrating to use and they made less progress.

I have also had students who have used the newer version first, at home for example, then used the older version and have said they prefer the older version as they find it easier to use!

The smart bricks in each kit have also had a complete overhaul, with the EV3 its now very easy to continue to run a demo program instead of your own and its very difficult to actually find your downloaded file and run that one. This means students are often debugging when its not necessary because they have been testing the wrong file! It also takes about a minute to start up, which is a pain.

We wish lego had simply updated the looks of the previous software and kept most of it the same, with a few tweaks to some of the symbols and the download process.If so, it would have been the perfect kit.
Our rating:

Ease of use: 2/5
For reasons explained above

Breadth/Depth: 5/5
Once you get past the usability, it still has all the great components and features that let your students continue to learn and experiment as the old version.

Shelf life: 4.5/5
We’ve not used this as much as the older lego, but the quality seems just as good.

Cost: 3/5At just over £300 per kit, ex vat (£400 inc VAT) its pricey.



3. VEX IQ - relatively new to the market

We like this a lot - not as much as the old lego mindstorms of course, but it is a very good competitor.

There is no software to download for this kit, the software is used online and is, in fact, a modified version of scratch, which is great for progression as lots of schools already use scratch.

You will need to install a small application on to the device you are using - by the way the new lego and the VEX IQ all work from tablets which is really handy - the application is called modkit link and this is what creates the link from the software to the hardware. Its easy to install and runs quietly in the background.You then simply navigate to the website, it recognises the device you have plugged in, and you’re ready to go!

The kit comes packed with sensors, including a gyro and colour sensor - 2 more when compared to the lego kits.The smart brick is quite nice, though it does lack some of the features of the lego bricks. For example there is no option to program the robot without the software, which is something we miss. It’s also a bit grey, a brighter colour would have been nice - though recently they have released an array of coloured building parts for it which we’re very excited about!

Our ratings:

Ease of use: 4/5
Most people are familiar with scratch, so the interface is good. However when the battery gets too low, it doesn’t charge and has to be jump started with a power supply, there is no option to use standard AA batteries.

Breadth/Depth: 5/5
You can do lots with the scratch like interface there is also an option to use Python with this, which we’ll be looking into very soon, and you can also use Robot C.

Shelf life: 4/5So far the rating is based on my personal use of the kit, around March/April we will be taking these into classrooms and I shall update my verdict then if necessary.

Cost: 4/5
At just over £200 per kit, around £260 including VAT (that’s for the starter kit) this is much more affordable than other similar kits, and all of the software options are FREE!

If you would like a demo of this kit, drop me a line and I’ll see if I can pop in to show you, if you would like a vex IQ robotics workshop for your students, book one in for April onwards.



4. Arduino

This is very different to the above kits, and much, much cheaper.

Originally I would have only recommended this for Year 7 upwards, but there is now a scratch type, drag and drop programming software available for it, so might be possible to use with younger years.

The arduino board was designed with non-tecchies in mind, so it is generally quite easy to download and install the software etc. (which is also free by the way!)

There is an annoying issue in that now and again it seems to lose the USB connection and won’t download the program. Its not clear for a newbie on how to solve this either - sometimes a replug in and reset of the software still doesn’t eliminate the problem.

Apart from that it is a nice, fairly gentle way, of introducing script based programming to students.You will need some components: LEDs, push buttons, motors etc. and these are usually cheaper to buy separately then with the arduino starter kits.

I am conscious, whilst writing this, that many of you are probably thinking about the micro:bit as a better alternative to the arduino, which is absolutely fine.

I myself haven’t had much time yet to play around with the micro:bit, but perhaps in the future a side by side comparison would be useful…

Our ratings:

Ease of use: 3/5
The arduino board itself is easy to use, but you will need to understand how to use a breadboard and basic electronics knowledge to do something useful

Breadth/Depth: 4/5
Although its a good way to teach kids scripted programming, once your students are comfortable with coding, it does tend to hide a lot of the complicated stuff. So, for example, A -level students will enjoy using it but may find it easier then the requirements for their course.

Shelf life: 3.5/5
The board itself is pretty good, I’ve not had a student produce the magic smoke yet.. but components will disappear and LEDs will blow…

Cost: 5/5
An official Arduino board is around £15 - £20, with some unofficial ones starting at around £5.

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