Robotics is an exciting way to learn or teach about science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s also a great way to build teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving skills.

Robot kits exemplify the phrase “some assembly required,” but that’s all part of the fun. Kits can have hundreds of plastic and metal parts along with a number of electronic components, including servo motors, battery packs, and microcontrollers (the robot’s brain). Some kits can be assembled into more than one type of robot. The Robo TX Training Lab, for instance, comes with 310 parts, and you get to choose which of its 11 models—everything from a forklift to a lawn mower—you want to construct.

Kits are often modular, allowing you to buy a box of additional parts to add functionality to your robot. One example is the Mindstorms Education Base Set that uses the Tetrix Building System, a platform that includes an assortment of wheels, gears, motors, and aircraft-grade aluminum connectors.

All of the robots featured here are programmable. Some even come with graphical software that makes it easy for beginners to generate code. Fischertechnik’s Robo Pro, for example, uses a flowchart utility that translates building blocks into machine language.

A few kits employ a microcontroller that will work with multiple programming languages. The VEX Protobot works with easyC, ROBOTC, and MPLAB.

Most robots receive code from a desktop computer or laptop connected by a USB or serial cable, but other technologies allow data transfer without wires. The LEGO Mindstorms NXT can receive commands remotely using Bluetooth technology, the PicoCricket uses infrared reception, and the Protobot can be radio controlled.

Robotics kits often include a few basic sensors, and many manufacturers sell an assortment of others that you can add on. Sensors are the eyes and ears of the robot and can even enable it to guide itself based on data it collects from the environment. Some kits include distance, light, sound, touch, and even color sensors as standard hardware.

Programmable robotics kits can be expensive, especially if you want to outfit an entire classroom. Manufacturers sell basic kits that are more affordable, but be aware that these often do not include the key components, such as a microcontroller and programming software, necessary to create a fully functional robot.

—Paul Wurster

Copyright © 2010, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 1.800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 1.541.302.3777 (Int’l), iste@iste.org, www.iste.org. All rights reserved.

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