Scott Hanselman

Getting Started with Robots for kids and children in STEM this holiday season

December 26, '14 Comments [27] Posted in Parenting
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Now's the perfect time to buy your kids/nieces/cousins some robots. Robots are a great way to get children excited about computers. Robots get them stoked in a way that a simple Hello World console app just can't.

If you're not careful you can spent hundreds on robots. However, I'm notoriously frugal and I believe that you can build some amazing stuff with children with a reasonable budget.

Here's some of the robot and electronics kits I recommend and have built with my kids.

4M Tin Can Robot

This is just a teaser but it's less than a trip to the movies. This silly little kit takes 2 AAA batteries and will take an aluminum can and animate it. It gets kids thinking about using found objects in their robots, as opposed to them thinking custom equipment is always required.

tincan

Quadru-Bot 14-in-1 Solar Robot

One of the challenges is "what age should I start?" and "how complex of a robot can my __ year old handle?" Kits like this are nice because they are starting with batteries and gears and include two levels of building, basic and experienced. It's also a nice kit because it includes solar power as an option and also can work in water (the bath).

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OWI Robotic Arm Edge

This isn't a kit but it's a reasonably priced robotic arm to get kids thinking in terms of command and control and multiple dimensions. OWI also has a cool 3in1 robot RC kit if you prefer driving robots around and more "rebuildability."

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Mirobot

This Christmas my 7 year old and I built a Mirobot. You can get pre-soldered and solder-yourself kits. We got the main Mirobot Kit PLUS the Addons Kit which includes clever additional modules for Line Following, Sound, and Collision Detection.

The whole Mirobot execution is brilliant. The hardware and software are all open source, so if you want to acquire the parts and make it yourself you can. You can get kits in various levels of preassembly.

It's built on an Arduino but is preloaded with some very clever software that takes advantage of its onboard Wifi. You can program it in C with Arduino tools, of course, but for kids, they can use JavaScript and an in-browser editor, much like Logo. It will create its own ad-hoc wifi network by default, or you can join it to your home network.

image

The creator is also building an Apps Platform so you can control the Mirobot from other apps within your browser and websocket your way over to the robot.

It took us about a weekend to build and you can see in the pic below that my 7 year old was able to install a pen and get the bot to draw a stickman. He was THRILLED.

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Edison

This isn't the Intel Edison, although you can make some great robots with it as well. No, this is Edison, a little LEGO compatible robot from the makers of Microbric, a great robot platform from a few years ago. I actually made a Microbric robot in 2007 and blogged about it.

Edison is fantastic and just $50. If you're a teacher and can get a multiples pack, you can get them as cheap as $35 each. You program Edison with a clean drag and drop icon system then download the program to your robot with a cable from your computer's headphone jack.

Out of the box you can have it follow a flashlight/torch, follow lines on paper, fight each other in a sumo ring, avoid walls, and lots more. In this picture there's two Edison's stacked on each other. The top one has the wheels removed and replaced with Lego elements to make robot arms.

image

LEGO Mindstorms

OK, yes, LEGO Mindstorms are $350, so that's not exactly frugal. BUT, I've seen parents buy $500 iPads without a thought, why not consider a more tactile and engineering-focused gift for a girl or boy?

This is THE flagship. It's got Wifi, Bluetooth, color sensors, iPad apps, collision detection, motors galore and unlimited replayability. There's also a huge online community dedicated to taking Mindstorms to the next level. If you can swing it, it's worth the money and appropriate for anyone from 6 to 60.

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Snap Circuits

I couldn't love Snap Circuits more. I started with the Jr. Snap Circuits and we eventually graduated to Snap Circuits Pro. They are my #1 go-to gift idea for kids of friends and relatives.

While this isn't a robotics kit, per se, it really builds the basic understanding of batteries, electronics, and motors that kids will need to move to the next level.

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What robot kids do YOU recommend?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Friday, 26 December 2014 02:26:13 UTC
Thanks for this Scott. There are some fantastic ideas in here to really engage the kids. I have a question though, have you come across a kit that would allow for perhaps more custom builds? Perhaps Arduino based or similar, y'know, really engage the kids on the tactile side whilst giving them an intro into code (and... Well... Showing off what it is we do best!).

There seems to be a new robot kit every day, but so few are reviewed in nearly the same manner as your stellar review technique.
Rob Tingay
Friday, 26 December 2014 02:47:55 UTC
Great list!

I got my daughter Dot and Dash from here: https://www.makewonder.com/robots/dashanddot

Pretty neat little robots that you can program.
Friday, 26 December 2014 03:51:46 UTC
My six year old son spent a couple hours playing with his snap circuits kit today. We did the first couple simple circuits together and then he made a couple all on his own. I was so proud of him when he brought it over to me to show that if he replaced a jumper with the resistor then it would change the volume.
Dave
Friday, 26 December 2014 04:38:15 UTC
Got my daughter a little bits kit. She loves it.

littlebits.cc
Una Unan
Friday, 26 December 2014 09:33:28 UTC
Hey Scott , amazing post!

i think , i will buying me on of them! For myself :D
Friday, 26 December 2014 17:00:19 UTC
Former Capsela, now IQ-Key is also great

IQ-Key on Amazon
Saturday, 27 December 2014 00:04:45 UTC
With the Lego Mindstorms kits, you also can be set up to participate in FIRST Lego League (FLL) when the kids are 4th grade. FLL gives a team of kids a chance to create and program a robot to accomplish a series of missions for points. They also have a component on a project which the team needs to come up with their own solution and research it. More information can be found here:

http://www.firstlegoleague.org/
David
Saturday, 27 December 2014 02:03:18 UTC
Scott,

It would be wise to include some Arduino kits in this selection.

Learning robotics starting with Arduino will give you a solid grasp of programming fundamentals, and electronics fundamentals. Out of the box solutions simply give you an idea of how to use a proprietary language (typically) to send movement commands around.

Here are some examples of what I would gift for the holidays: http://www.devfactor.net/2014/12/12/official-arduino-buyers-guide/

Cheers,

Andrew
Saturday, 27 December 2014 08:53:37 UTC
Take a look at Fishertechnik: http://www.fischertechnik.de/en/Home/products/computing.aspx

This is a German company that produces amazing robotic kits. Very technically sophisticated. As a teenager nerd I absolutely loved assembling those kits. Kind of like Lego, but I found Fischertechnik much more interesting, because their assembly parts offer more flexibility, allowing you to build different models with the same kit (if Lego is for common crowds, Fischertechnik is for geeks).
Jure
Sunday, 28 December 2014 07:41:35 UTC
I'm Definitely getting that Robot Arm for my little brother and a Raspberry Pie for myself. :D
Sunday, 28 December 2014 23:10:50 UTC
Have you seen ezrobot (www.ez-robot.com)? They've got some pretty cool kits and the programming experience ranges from drag and drop to full on programming against an SDK.
Jonah Simpson
Monday, 29 December 2014 15:53:09 UTC
LittleBits (http://littlebits.cc/) is a interesting system. Really more of a electronics kit than a robotics system, it has the ability to create a robot, because it has a much more digital focus than the snapkit.
joe
Monday, 29 December 2014 22:38:44 UTC
How about some pure programming first, e.g. like in http://robozzle.com or in http://lightbot.com/ ?
Victor
Monday, 29 December 2014 23:14:32 UTC
Cool stuff, Scott.

If MS can get web serial API implemented soon this doesn't have to be exclusively chrome: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/johnny-five-chrome/gjnfhdmcgnaiogffpdoiecllabiabdee

Johnny-Five plus an arduino in every kid's hands is a good thing.
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 01:27:33 UTC
While pricey, the Lego Mindstorms are great. Even better is if you can get your child into Lego League. Nothing like some positive peer team experience to really ignite an interest in programming/engineering in your children.

My oldest daughter (10) participates in Lego League Her Team Here.

This did more to get her interested in programming than all of my efforts combined. This Christmas when she opened up her Lego Mindstorms EV3 she was so happy she started crying.
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 06:34:35 UTC
Please take a look at the Royal Institute Christmas lectures. This year the theme is "Hacking your Home".

www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures
Aron
Friday, 02 January 2015 21:45:39 UTC
Hey Scott thanks for the list. I have been looking into trying out something with my daughter.

Have you tried any of the Arduino projects?
Saturday, 03 January 2015 21:17:28 UTC
Some good stuff here. A quick mention of Hot Wires - an electronics kit which I got my 8 year old daughter.
Matthew Blott
Sunday, 04 January 2015 12:32:57 UTC
Thanks for doing the research for me. I was thinking about robots for my 5 year old daughter, so you've saved me a lot of time!
Sunday, 04 January 2015 17:08:01 UTC
Hi Scott,
Nicely researched list, as always.

On this side of the pond, Raspberry Pi's as hot, and the www.piborg.org has some interesting projects. I got my 8yo a Diddyborg. Again it's not cheap and probably more suitable for a 10yo. But he got interested enough to assemble it. Still doesn't have the patience to run the programs to control it or write some new ones himself, but it's a start.

Programming is in Python. Got me started with Python anyways ;-).

Cheers,
Sumit.
Tuesday, 06 January 2015 18:52:30 UTC
I'm really enjoying the programming interface for MINDSTORMS. My daughter has shown me a few things on it (like how you can check the status of the sensors while your brick is connected).
Chuk
Wednesday, 07 January 2015 20:22:01 UTC
If you like Snap Circuits, check out Circuit Scribe. Similar concept, but you draw your wires with a pen. They just delivery on a successful KickStarter campaign.

http://www.electroninks.com/
David Osborn
Sunday, 11 January 2015 09:29:46 UTC
I disagree with your age range for Lego Mindstorms. We got my 68 year old Dad one for Christmas and it's definitely suitable for that age :)
Louise
Sunday, 11 January 2015 09:29:58 UTC
I disagree with your age range for Lego Mindstorms. We got my 68 year old Dad one for Christmas and it's definitely suitable for that age :)
Louise
Wednesday, 14 January 2015 07:13:58 UTC
Hi Scott,
I've just taken delivery of 2 Edisons. They look fantastic and both my children are spellbound. I can't wait until the weekend to start hacking with them.
Rich Linnell
Friday, 16 January 2015 15:36:37 UTC
have you seen http://www.gosphero.com/sphero-2-0/
My 7 yo daughter is having a blast at school with it.
Nicolas
Wednesday, 04 February 2015 03:17:10 UTC
Following-on to what others have posted already, something with/for Netduino or Arduino could also be a part of things. With all of the Visual Studio love that MS has been giving lately, it would be a shame to exclude Netduino.
SteveC
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.