Saturday, April 29, 2017, 02:08 | 1 Comment »

We get asked this question a lot. By kids who want to learn to make robots and parents who are looking for robotics activities for their kids.

Something my lecturer used to say to us at university comes to mind 'To learn programming, you have to actually program'.

It's true. A bit like learning how to play football. You can read some tips on how to control the ball better, you can watch other players and see what they do well, but ultimately the only way to be a real football player is to play the game. And to become a really good footballer, you have to play often and practice the right skills when you're playing. i.e. just shooting penalties will not make you a good footballer.


The same is true for programming, engineering, electronics and robotics. To be good at these subjects you need to be doing them on a regular basis, but also approach them correctly.

For example most of the books on programming have the same format and are exceptionally dull.

They take you through variables, If statements, while loops and so on but using really dull, lifeless and pointless examples.

No wonder people get put off. I recently enrolled on a java course and one of the main projects and examples used to teach the more difficult concepts was creating bank accounts! How many people is that relevant or interesting to?

So my approach, when I am learning and teaching, is now much different.

Instead of trying to get through books and pointless exercises I set myself a task or project which I find interesting and that will make use of hardware or software that I have not had much experience with - teaching kids is great but constantly teaching the basics can have the side effect of forgetting the advanced stuff!

Some of my current ones are:

Make a game using a touchscreen - this way I will learn to use new hardware with a purpose

Refresh on machine learning and neural networks - but do it in a language that I don't know and learn that at the same time

Build & program a drone - this will involve combining a lot of the skills and knowledge I already have but in a new way.

Learning like that is much more fun and rewarding.

When you've set yourself a project, you will likely have to go and research and learn specific topics. But because it is all relevant to a project you have chosen, you are much more likely to stay motivated.

So if you are new to programming, I am slightly biased, but I think the most enjoyable way to learn is to make something physical. This could be a robot, a bluetooth controlled lamp, a safe with a keypad lock etc. 

Or, second to this, a game, app or website. Something that has a useful output which you can use and other people, like your family and employers, will understand and see the effort that has gone into it.


So once you know what it is that you want to make how do you actually start?

Sometimes there are books available that work through a specific project that might be very similar to yours. I have a Make: Bluetooth book which is brilliant. The only downside to this is they tend to give you all of the code, so you may find that whilst you have a working project, you didn't really learn or do much to achieve the end result.

Online resources

Similarly, doing an online search for your project title will likely bring up some how-to websites that could be a good place to start.

Tech companies

Contact some local companies and tell them what you are trying to do. They may offer you a range of things from a helpful email to some free kit.

Local workshops

There may be some workshops running local to you. If you are in Bristol, Bath, Gloucester or anywhere near the South west, drop us a line and we'll give you the dates for our next iLearning robot workshop.

Get in touch

If you're starting a project or want to learn programming, or robotics or anything similar you are welcome to drop us a line and we'll be happy to help out.

Also take a look at our online course, it takes you from beginner level to being able to make a robot using arduino.

Sunday, February 19, 2017, 08:09 | 1 Comment »

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.

Monday, February 13, 2017, 05:38 | 1 Comment »

What do robots feel like? Most likely the same as the touch of a microwave or that cold, hard casserole our aunt brought last Christmas. A robots metallic body is one of the most recognizable characteristics, but the future could be much more familiar than we think.


A team of Harvard researchers in 3-D printing, mechanical engineering, and microfluidics have made the first soft robot nicknamed The Octobot. Inspired by the octopus's ability to have strength and dexterity without a skeleton of its own. 


The key to creating a soft body was avoiding any rigid components such as metal or wires. Instead, chemical reactions fuel the body, put more simply a robot’s muscles instead of its bones, anyone who has cancelled a gym membership can relate. It’s a big step forward to creating more advanced soft robots. 


Does a robot with no metal parts change our experience with them? If something is closer to our physical makeup, do we feel differently towards it? Would a soft robot that can crawl, swim and interact with us be different than a metallic one? Would we be jealous if a robot had softer skin than us? Would they let us borrow their hand cream?

Monday, February 13, 2017, 05:37 | 1 Comment »

Did you know sweating happens for reasons other than looking really shiny? When we use our muscles, sweating helps regulate body temperature by cooling us down. But what about when robots produce high torque demands on their parts? At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), Japanese researchers presented a humanoid robot that “sweats” water straight out of it’s robo bod.

Professor Masayuki Inaba added a cooling system to a musculoskeletal humanoid named Kengoro. Since Kengoro’s body is already filled with circuit boards, gears and 108 motors, they wanted to use the robot’s skeletal structure as a coolant-delivery system that leaks water out through the frame. In other words, Kengoro sweats.

Kengoro can run for half a day by hydrating itself, which proves this method works three times better than air cooling. Kengoro can also run at full power longer and can do push-ups for 11 minutes straight without burning out its motors. Kinda like that kid in gym class that makes everyone look like marshmallows. Does this human inspired survival factor change our view of how robots should perform tasks? Would implementing these types of structural challenges help robotics education teach us more about our own bodies? What would be the benefit from that?

Monday, February 13, 2017, 05:35 | 4 Comments »

Unless you grew up in the 70s, doing the “robot” might not spark memories of anything other than a lifeless metal body. But Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist at MIT’s Media Lab, believes their newest robot Jibo can entertain and help busy family members harmonize information into their daily lives. Hopefully not repeating our parents generation of "how do I turn this thing on" again.

As is the case now with many robots being developed for homes, Breazeal wants Jibo to go beyond question/answer exchanges, they want more human engagement. For example, Jibo can alert parents of important events, snap photos at social gatherings and read interactive stories to kids and laugh with them. Even helping grandparents use the web without a traditional computer can be done with simple voice commands, which can be a sneaky way to find out what they’re getting you for Christmas.

But is this what we want as humans? Robots giggling at their own jokes sounds entertaining. But is that necessary for a pleasant experience?

Breazeal opened Jibo to developers to expand its capabilities and usefulness over time. What kind of human engagement does Jibo need to perform to really be useful? How is it different than your well-connected smartphone? Does the novelty of entertaining reactions wear off eventually?

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