Making Learning Fun with Electronics and Robotics

In my last two posts I discussed my thoughts on making learning fun. In the first post the vehicle was games while in second post the vehicle was scientific experimentation. Electronics and robotics seem to me another possible vehicle. While I have a fair bit of experience with these topics I have not done much with them as a educational tool.

I'm most excited about using the Lego Mindstroms. This is Lego's robotics kits. While it is recommended for kids ages 10 and up it actually allows for construction of real autonomous robots. It comes with several sensors for measuring features of the environment such as light intensity, color, distance to the nearest object, audio, and the rotations of it's own motors. It introduces children to programming using a language called NXT-G which is a visual programming language. Think programming via legos. And of course it's compatible with all things Lego.

I look forward to use the Mindstorms to teach everything from mechanics and programming to how to use sensors and basic motion planning techniques.

My motivation for using the Mindstorms as an educational tool comes from my experience volunteering for First Lego League (FLL). FLL is a program for children between 9 and 15 years of age that promotes science and technology. Each year the kids are given a topic about which they must learn. To aid in the learning process they are given a large game board with lots of challenges built out of Lego pieces. The kids must then build one or more robots to solve the challenges. FLL is part of a larger program called FIRST, but is my favorite because the robots made by the kids are actually truly autonomous. For several years now I have volunteered as a robot design judge and through that effort I have seen just how excited the kids can get about learning and solving real world problems.

My children are not yet old enough to participate in FLL. However my son and I have started a Jr. First Lego League (Jr.FLL) team. Jr.FLL is like FLL but shoots to teach the basics of design, mechanics, research, and team building. In fact he and his team will be showing off they have learned about natural disasters on January 25th (2014) at the University of Utah Student Union building. Please feel free to come talk to them. I must warn you though, the FLL finals will be going on at the same time so the place will be an absolute mad house.

An alternative to the Mindstorms are Bo & Yana by iPlay. They are meant to teach the basics of programming, sensing, and actuation. We have not received ours yet but they look promising and are even compatible with other systems like the Mindstorms which should allow for a simple transition when the time is right.

Still another alternative are the solutions from Modular Robotics called Cubelets and their latest product called MOSS. These are just cubes with basic sensing and actuation capabilities that snap together using magnets. But in connecting them one is making simple robots. Unfortunately the MOSS Kickstarter came and went before I could get involved. If anyone has these, I would be interested in hearing about your experience with them. Specifically MOSS.

Of course to build a robot it helps to know something about electronics. One need not be an expert by any means but it helps to be able to build simple circuits. A few years ago I encountered a method for teaching children about circuits called Squishy Circuits. The foundation of this idea is to use "playdough", i.e. modeling compound, to make circuits. It turns out that if you make a modeling compound using a salt base it conducts electricity. Conversely, if you make a modeling compound with a sugar base it does not conduct electricity. As such you can make small sculptures from the two different types. Circuits can then be formed by connecting conductive portions of the sculpture with discrete components like a battery pack and LEDs.

There are a lot of other solutions out there for teaching children about electrics and circuits but I have no experience with any of them. Some of the ones I have found are:

Again, if you have any experience with these I would like to hear your thoughts.


Making Learning Fun with Experiments

In my last post I talked about how to take advantage of games to make learning fun. By no means is this an original idea. In fact it's rather obvious. Another approach which is probably again pretty obvious is to do experiments.

Their are numerous sites describing fun experiments. One that everyone seems to know is the classic baking-soda-vinegar volcano. For anyone that may be unfamiliar you take something like dirt or clay and sculpt a volcanic cone with an extra deep caldera. From there you pour in some baking-powder into the caldera. Finally you pour in some vinegar. The baking soda and vinegar react and discharge carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles that are heavier than air so, when done correctly, the bubbles overflow the volcano and spill down the sides much like a lava flow from a real volcano would.

This experiment is a great experiment because it opens the door to talking about all kinds of things from the structure of the earth, to how volcanoes form, to how volcanos can lead to other natural disasters like earth quakes and tsunamis, how pyroclastic flow can in a way preserve whatever it hits. For us the volcano devolved to just mixing baking soda and vinegar. After all, who doesn't like watching a vigorous chemical reaction? Even this is great though as it opens the door for talking about things like pressure, surface tension, and chemistry. In a similar vein, the Coke and Mentos experiment is always fun to do. Last I read the reaction wasn't well understood but it's clear that the process is releasing a lot of gas in short order.

Another experiment we have had fun with is the basic electromagnet. Again for those that are unfamiliar you wrap a length of wire around something like an iron bolt and connect the two ends of the wire to the opposite ends of a battery. It is important that the object around which you wrap the wire is ferrous. We usually call this object the core. The movement of the electrons through the wire then produces an electromagnetic field which is amplified by whatever you use for your core.  From there you can use whatever other magnetic objects you have lying around to show the formation and destruction of the magnetic field as you connect and disconnect the battery.

It is not necessary for the experiment to seem obviously fun though. Take for instance testing soil types. In this experiment you gather a couple of soil samples from different places. Potting soil and dirt from outside are great. You put the potting soil in a jar, the dirt in another, and then mix of both into yet a third. Then fill the jars with water, cap them, and shake. What do you get? Mud! Of course the educational part comes from the discussion that ensues when everything settles and talking about how long it takes to settle. My son and I played with this experiment for a couple of days.

As I eluded to earlier, the list of possible experiments is endless. They often lead to the same discussions but that doesn't make them any less fun. To close out this post I will leave you with some links to other particularly fun experiments:
  • Rock Candy: This one takes a bit longer but you get a treat in the end.
  • Fluorescent Jello: Not so tasty, but it glows in the dark!
  • Squishy Circuits: This is great for introducing children to both chemistry and electronics.


Making Learning Fun with Games

In the last few days I have had a couple of conversations with friends about teaching children. These conversations have inspired me to write a bit about my thoughts on the topic. My experience basically comes from teaching my own son. I strongly believe in the need for parents to supplement their childs education. To the point that I try to work with my kids a little bit every day.

As anyone with children will likely tell you it can be difficult at times to maintain their interest. Even if you are incredibly passionate about a topic it can be challenging to imbue them with that passion. One thing I have noticed while working with my son is that he gets excited when the solutions come easily. Conversely, failure to immediately understand quickly leads to disinterest. This would seem to imply a need for instant gratification. For that reason I often seek ways of removing that need or replacing that need in some way.

One obvious but still great method to address this problem while still providing a lesson is through games. Any gamer will tell you as much. Not just because they are attempting to justify their pastime but because any games provide myriad lessons in the guise of entertainment. Two of my favorite games are DragonBox and LightBot.

DragonBox teaches the principles of algebra without focusing on the mathematical foundations. It simply challenges the child with a puzzle that involves isolating an object from a set of others using the rules of algebra. Early in the game it doesn't even use numbers, just pictures, so that the child may focus on the rules. Unfortunately there isn't enough content. My son has beat this game numerous times and basically lost interest.

LightBot teaches the basics of programming. The objective is to get a robot to turn on lights placed throughout an environment. The crux is that the series of commands needed to execute the task must be provided before the robot ever does anything. As with all games it starts off simply and increases in complexity. In this case the complexity comes from restricting the number of commands the player can use, requiring the use of subprocedures, requiring the application of recursion, and the like.

Another game we have been playing is from MindSnacks. Specifically we've been studying French to help our son prepare for entry into the Montreal educational system where at least a third of the class is taught strictly in French. In total it has nine subgames but only permits the child access to two at the beginning. The child must gain levels to unlock the others. It also focuses the child on certain aspects of the topic of study. In the case of French, and probably the other languages it supports, the topics include numbers, colors, days of the week, and greetings for a total of 50 different topics.

Of course games don't have to be deemed educational to in fact be educational. One of my son's favorite games is Minecraft. He prefers creative mode and will play for hours constructing little houses and zoos for all the animals he hatches. I don't particularly care for the game myself but it has a lot of great educational aspects to it. For instance it is great for talking about Geometry, from the different types of shapes we study to the difference between 1D, 2D, and 3D. Because it is in part focused on crafting it also offers a segue into talking about how real things are made.

Another "non-educational" game that I like is StarMade. This one is inspired by Minecraft but takes place in space. The objective is to make a spacecraft and fly it around collecting materials and fighting space pirates. I particularly like this one because it is more challenging than Minecraft but my son finds it interesting enough to work through the challenges. For instance, he would prefer to play and have to practice his reading to accomplish his goal than not. This is significant because he has not yet found that reading for the sake of reading is fun. It also offers additional lessons to those found in Minecraft. For instance, building a spacecraft requires an understanding of the different parts including the different computers required (e.g. control computer, weapons computers) to engines and shielding.

Games are not the only method for making learning fun. I also like to use experimentation to bring lessons to life but I'll talk more about this in my next entry. I have also been looking for a way to introduce my son to real world electronics and robotics. As part of this we have created a Jr. FLL but this is limited to simple machines and designing solutions. There are a lot of products being made to go beyond this which I will also discuss later.