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