4-H Robotics with Lego Mindstorms After School

The CasterBot

This week we’ll be completing the second of two after-school programs using the 4-H robotics kits and curriculum. I’ve been working with a group of eight middle-school students, grades six and seven. The kids are divided into teams of two. Each team has a Lego Mindstorms 2.0 Robotics kit. The kits were provided by the 4-H as part of their extensive technical curricula. This has been a great learning experience, and not just for the kids.  

1. Most kids like building the robots. Those with Lego experience will have a leg up on those who haven’t built with Lego. As with any building set, there is a plethora of a tiny pieces; over 600 are included in the stock Mindstorms set.  Managing these can be a challenge. The “retail” Mindstorms set doesn’t come with any kind of box to separate everything.  I went to our local crafts store to get boxes with divided compartments to store the smallest pieces.

2. Most middle-school kids have never programmed before, so that will be a new experience. The NXT-G programming environment is a graphic environment that allows the programmer to connect “blocks” of functionality.  It is a derivation of LabView from National Instruments.  The software is surprisingly slow and buggy on Windows, and in my experience, useless on the Macintosh.  It works much better on a desktop computer rather than a laptop, let alone a netbook as a large screen is helpful.

3.  Mindstorms comes in a several different flavors. The retail version for Mindstorms 2.0 was released in 2008.  There is an educational version which requires purchase of the software separately for another $79.00. This includes (maddeningly) a few different parts from the retail version, as well as a couple of enhancements, including a lithium battery pack to replace the six AA batteries, and (hooray!) a set of trays for all of the parts. If I had my choice, I’d go with the educational version.

4. There is a fair amount of information, curricula, lesson plans and so on available in print and on the web. Much of this is directed toward a specific version, so if you want to build a project designed for the education version, and you have the retail version, you will need to modify the project, or buy extra Lego pieces. The original 4-H curriculum was based on an older version of Mindstorms, so I ended up assembling my own curriculum from bits and pieces that I found on the web.

5. We delivered our after-school program as six ninety-minute sessions.  We started with a discussion of the previous week’s work, and an introduction to the current week’s work. The kids worked in teams of two for about 55 minutes, and we left 5-10 minutes at the end of the session for cleaning up and organizing the kits.

6. Participants will have gaps in age and experience, and some kids will be slower than other kids, of course. My way around this was to have extra “bonus” challenges ready for the fast kids, so if they finished the weekly challenge, they would have something to work on. This is an issue in the first two weeks, however as they have gotten the hang of programming, they are happy working on their programs, so they don’t need the bonus challenges.

7. There is considerable preparation involved. Even though I had lots of lesson plans to choose from, I ended up making my own. For the after-school program I estimate that I’ve spent at least a hundred hours in preparation and delivery. The 90 minute delivery blocks are a relatively small proportion of the total.  I think this may be one reason why there are not more similar programs in the schools; it takes an awful lot of time to prepare. Many parents and educators might expect this type of hands-on work to be delivered during the course of the normal school day as part of a math or science class.  I think such programs may remain rare as they would require a substantial revamping of the school curriculum to accommodate longer class sessions, longer prep and set-up times, and a special emphasis on STEM (Science, Engineering, Math, and Technology) in our public schools. Still, even as an after-school program, it may help spark some kid’s interest in going further with math and science.

8. Typical start-up costs for a similar program might be around $4,800.  This would include $1200 for the Mindstorms kits, $2,800 for laptops (if computers are otherwise not available), and $800 for miscellaneous Lego pieces to augment and replace parts in the kits, as well as provide for paper, printing, travel, name tags, etc.  Assuming volunteer faculty are available running the program after the startup costs would only be a few hundred dollars, at most.  In my nefarious long term scheme, I’d like to get Rotary Clubs or other service organizations to adopt a local school and fund the start-up costs, and perhaps even deliver the program.

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