May 30, 2015

Review: Robots 4 U

Having taught a lot of engineering/STEM curriculum, I am always on the lookout for highly flexible kits that truly have science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As I walked the recent Mom's Expo, I was lucky enough to stumble upon such a kit.
courtesy of Robots-4-U

The I-ROBO kit made and used in camps by the Robots-4-U company is a promising blend of authentic materials and tools, physics concepts inserted right into the numerous scaffolded projects, and an engaging contextual framework of how robots relate with society and humans.

Okay, I think I've been hanging around educators a bit too long. Simply put, this seemingly basic kit looks a bit like a modern erector set with electronics and a microprocessor. The lesson book looks has cartoons to explain construction and STEM concepts. They remind me of comics I brought back from Hong Kong in the 70's, sort of pre-anime. What differentiates it from other "educational" robotics kit are:
  • Authentic materials: Plates, bars, and screws are used instead of patented snap-together pieces. But unlike the standard erector set, the projects speak to the product's Asian origins, composing not just machinery but also everyday devices like kid-sized glasses and organic creations like animals. You can also see inside the microprocessor unit; dispelling the "black box" is so important for the novice, and it plants the seed for learning more about the technology.
  • Tool instruction: One beef I have with kits is they often assume that the user knows how to use the tools. Being Montessori-based, the instruction booklet has engaging exercises that provide essential skills like using the wrench and screwdriver which are then built upon in future activities.
  • STEM-integrated: Another issue I have with some robotics curriculum is the lack of science foundation beyond simple machines (which is really more of an engineering concept than science in my mind). This curriculum embeds entertaining comics that discuss action-reaction forces and even the lift-weight-thrust-drag engineering science concepts behind projects.
  • Mechanical, then electronic, then computer: The activities in the instructional booklet develop in this manner: starting with simple static devices like glasses and moving into more complex items such as a helicopter which I'm told actually flies (!). This sequence is a standard evolution I usually do with my engineering and robotics courses as well because it seems to be the best approach to introducing true novices to thinking like an engineer. It's the way that humans developed fields of engineering, and it develops your budding mechatronics engineer (as we are known in the profession) with the ability to determine if the problem is best solved mechanically, electronically, or logically. Other robotics kits on the market often start with simple or set mechanical designs and focus only on the electronics and programming as the core place for creativity.
  • Time for play: And then, after the children make the project, they play with it. Imagine that! The product is part of a game, invites imaginative play, or lays the foundation for new ideas.
I know that most of the company's efforts are around camps, but their products look great for the STEM school, after-school, and even home-school markets. If you're looking for a creative way to make mobile mechantronic (robotic) devices, you need to check this out.

Until next time ~ Yvonne

May 5, 2015

Mom: A Child's Front Line Support System in STEM

image by gabriel77 (gabriel), via
This Mother's Day, I would like to talk a bit about my own mother. A mathematician, physicist, environmental scientist, and, at the end of her career, a chemist, my mom was a STEM pro.

Visits to her lab were what I did on my days off, before there was ever a "Take Your Daughter to Work" day. And cooking was a reminder of chemistry concepts from high school: "Put water in there," she would say as I burned my peppers and onion in the wok. "Don't you remember that the temperature stays constant at 100C when the water changes from water to steam?"

I told her once that it wasn't fair that she knew so much chemistry. Other mothers, I explained, tell their children "old wives tales" which their children would realize later were inaccurate or wrong. It would be a moment of maturity, when you realized your parents were just people, not all-knowing beings. But what about me, I told her? She tells me that this vitamin is important for this disease, and I'd find out later, she was right. When was my time to realize that my mother was fallible? She just chuckled and said to eat the favorite meal she had cooked for me.

STEM was not the only thing I learned from my mom. She also taught me grammar (using her Brighter Grammar books from Hong Kong) and had me read great literature so I could write better: Dickens was a great favorite of hers. She responded to ideas that I had with an action plan: for example, when I mused that there were a lot of kids in 12th grade who would be more than willing to tutor kids in other grades, she had me write a proposal and present it to the principal, birthing the volunteer tutoring program at our high school.

She also showed me the ways that one could be a mother, a student, and a professional. I appreciated the opportunities her "absence" due to work or class gave me to take care of myself, to do the laundry, to cook dinner, and to watch my sister when she had a long commute. My father helped when he could, and it made me realize that housework was something a family did, not just the women in the family.

Her life wasn't without issues. Our school didn't have a cafeteria because all the kids were to go home and eat a home-cooked meal. She told me each morning which friend I was to go home with for lunch. I thought they did it because they were my friend. I was extremely appreciative for the sandwich one made or the trip to Wendy's another provided. I found out only recently that she actually paid the parents to feed me, enough to take me out every day with their kid.

She told me once that she thought she would have made a good engineer. "You sure could have, Mom," I told her. She had the practical mind and the fortitude of spirit. "But, I couldn't," she said, "women weren't accepted into the engineering school. The girl who won firsts in math, physics, chemistry, and biology wasn't accepted into the engineering school. It was a clear message that women didn't do engineering." But I think she's happy that her daughter was able to, both due to her efforts and our changing society.

Thanks, Mom!

~ until next time, Yvonne