It’s now pretty much impossible to buy LEGO Mindstorms kits in Australia.
LEGO Australia have made a deliberate decision to stop importing the kits. A new version is due out in the Northern Hemisphere’s Autumn and so they are running down stocks. Given the new version wont launch in Australia until September at the earliest that makes for an inconvenient gap.
The official LEGO store is no longer selling the kits to Australia; although they remain available in the USA if you have any way of buying there. There are also stores in the USA, Toys’R'Us for example, that seem to still be selling Mindstorms NXT 2.0 and some will ship internationally.
Using Enchanting to program a LEGO® NXT robot is a rewarding experience. It is far, far more intuitive that the packaged Mindstorms software and far less prone to errors caused by the users’ inability to wield a mouse with precision. The fact that Enchanting is intuitive is good, because until very recently the main problem with Enchanting has been the lack of materials explaining how to use it.
Now Monash University has released a free iBook, Robotics with Enchanting. This book is a project-based introduction to Enchanting and it does a simply excellent job. It starts off with a generalised introduction to robotics, moves smoothly through how to get up and running with Enchanting, and culminates with a series of challenges designed to consolidate the students’ knowledge. The presentation within iBooks is crystal clear and there are a number of interactive elements. Much of the description is done through embedded videos which would be great in a classroom environment.
The book comes with a word of warning from the authors. They say that it is not a fully self-contained comprehensive introduction to programming. It is designed to be used as support material in a flipped classroom where a teacher will facilitate the learning. I think the authors are rather under-playing their achievement with this book, as I can well see it being used by a motivated student to get them up and running to quite a sophisticated level without any additional input.
I do have a couple of quibbles. There is a bit too much focus on BYOB and the background context to the authors interest in Enchanting, which is probably far more top of mind for the authors than the average reader. This is one of the downsides of an e-book, skipping the introductory stuff is not as intuitive as it is in hardcopy – so it might be better to put background materials at the end. Also, and more materially, it would be nice to see some more of the programs from the videos also printed out in the book so they can be easily examined in detail and left up on a Smartboard more easily.
Overall Robotics with Enchanting by Aidan Lane, Bernd Meyer and Jonathan Mullins is a beautifully produced and truly useful resource. What makes that even more amazing is that it is, as far as I know, the only book on Enchanting. And it’s free. Put all that together and you get an unbeatable package.
The book can be downloaded from iTunes (and it will, apparently, become available in other formats in the coming weeks). Enchanting itself can be downloaded from here.
You only have to read Robocup Junior’s objectives to know it is a good thing. The first two read:
1. To encourage young people to take an interest in scientific and technological fields, to cultivate their interest through robotic competitions through hands on creation.
2. RoboCupJunior Australia will help young people to expand their social, intellectual and problem solving skills, helping them to develop into creative and independent adults.
There are basically three levels of competition: Dance, Rescue and Soccer. In Dance teams create a show using their robots and, if they wish, themselves. It’s a great way to demonstrate creativity as well as building and programming skills. The other two competitions are more what people might expect of robotics. In Rescue a robot is programmed to independently negotiate a maze and rescue an object. In Soccer, teams design and program two robots to compete against an opposing pair of robots by kicking an infra-red transmitting ball into their designated goal.
Sumo wrestling bots in the competition lead-up.
The resulting competitions show a depth of skill, creativity and teamwork that would warm any educator’s heart. From my own experience the most important lesson to come out of Robcup is the most unexpected. It’s not about the technical programming or the building – although these are valuable. Indeed, I think it’s terribly important for the kids to understand how the real world can impact on what they are doing. If you create a computer program it will run pretty much the same the whole time. A robot adds in a whole pile of variables: the friction from the carpet, are the batteries charged, did someone remember to tighten the wheel. All great learning experiences but not the most important thing. No, the most important lesson is how to work as a team. That can be the most difficult thing for a group of techy kids to work around: when to compromise, when to let go of your personal killer idea that no one else agrees with, when to not be the centre of attention. These are tough lessons but ones that will carry the kids a long way in life when taken together with their technical skills.
The team I’m mentoring have called themselves the Awesomely Random Geeks. They range in age from 8 to 11 and are building their robots using LEGO Mindstorms and the excellent Enchanting programming environment. I love watching them come up with ideas and solving problems; although keeping ten kids on task, without actively taking control, gives me a deep appreciation of the work done by sheep dogs.
The competition takes place nationally. Here in NSW the Sydney Regional Competition is on Sunday 12 August in Chatswood and the NSW Open is on 20-21 August at UNSW. Full details are on the Robocup Junior web pages.
Aha! Finally a really good way for kids to program Lego robots.
Building things with Lego Mindstorms is not terribly difficult. The average kid has been playing with Lego for long enough that they have some idea of how to put things together. There are some restrictions thanks to the small number of holes provided on the ‘brick’ and the lousy wheels, but these are not real problems. The real problem, though, is programming.
The Mindstorms programming software is simply not intuitive, I’ve yet to see a kid work out what to do without some serious help. Worse, it is fiddly and unforgiving – it requires tons of fine mouse-skills to join up little wires on the screen and a small mistake can mean starting everything all over again. It is simply not up to the same standards as the NXT kits themselves.
So I was thrilled the other day to stumble across Enchanting. Enchanting is an easy-to-use graphical programming tool for NXT robots. It is based on Scratch from the MIT Media Lab, and powered by leJOS NXJ (Java for the NXT). Enchanting is also free and open-source.
Now you don’t get much simpler and intuitive than Scratch in my view – not when teaching kids at any rate. And if the kids have already been exposed to Scratch, then using Enchanting could not be easier. Better yet, the way Scratch and Enchanting present programming is much more useful as a long-term educational tool – the principles learnt will safely carry the user into more complex programming languages.
All in all, I cannot recommend Enchanting highly enough for anyone teaching robotics to kids. Or, for that matter, for anyone building things themselves!
There’s also a nice Australian connection to Enchanting, with the interesting Jonathan Mullins being given a shout-out thanks on the home page.
Enchanting can, and should be, be downloaded from here.