April 15, 2014

Build Better Robots with LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3 | SLJ Review



LEGO’s Mindstorms Education EV3 (starting at $339.95) is the latest iteration of the popular Mindstorms robotic platform marketed for schools. What’s new? The EV3 set lets users create several different types of robots made of LEGOs, motors, and sensors. The programmable “Intelligent Brick,” housing the computer and power supply that runs the robots, is improved. While the EV3 provides clear opportunities for STEM teaching, it’s potentially applicable to the humanities, too.

The EV3 is one of those toys that transcends consumerism and becomes a pathway into new kinds of hands-on production and learning for kids and adults alike. The high cost of the kit may be prohibitive for some schools, and kids will need teacher support and the freedom to fail while building and programming each robot. However, with help, middle school students should be able to create the EV3 robots from scratch and use them in a range of activities.

A grade-A brick

The programming brick usually sits in the center of a robot, and short data cables connect it to the multiple motors and sensors used by each machine. Through programming, various connectors, gears, rods, spans, and wheels get remixed into axles, fulcrums, limbs, pivots, and treads to make the rest of the robot magic happen. Outfitted with tiny, ultrasonic “eyes,” this robot can detect obstacles.

Not only does the Linux-based EV3 brick have a faster, better processor than the previous NXT version of Mindstorms, it can also be programmed without a computer. Using the brick’s tiny green LED screen and input buttons, users can program the EV3 on the fly, which makes it easy and fun to use right out of the box. According to LEGO, the EV3 brick is also backwards-compatible with NXT data cables and sensors.

The new brick can communicate wirelessly with your computer or mobile device—iPad or iPhone—through a built-in Bluetooth antenna or a WiFi dongle, purchased separately. LEGO recommends the Netgear N150 WiFi USB Adapter, around $40. The Bluetooth feature lets you remote-control your robot with the mobile Mindstorms Commander app. It also allows you to give your robot commands using a control pad or voice commands activated by a microphone button. The Commander app includes special functions for robots built from the commercial EV3 kit.

The downloadable software offers a more robust user interface, a linear version of Scratch, the educational programming language—along with directions for several more robots. But there’s also a lot of fun to be had with the kit’s basic instructions for programming. After running through each sensor, teachers and kids should have several ideas about how to problem-solve a bunch of robot mobility issues, such as keeping a robot from running into the wall.

What comes in the EV3 Education kit?

The education version of the EV3 offers instructions for building a basic robot with any of the set’s sensors. This means that teachers and students can get a simple robot up and running in about a half hour while they wait for the more robust EV3 software to download to their computers. The kit also includes different pieces than the commercial version and a slightly different suite of sensors, as described below.

In addition to the fine brick and a bevy of LEGO pieces to build robot bodies, the EV3 education kit provides seven data cables, a USB cable to connect the brick to your computer, a rechargeable battery and power adapter (AA batteries can also be used), and an array of motors and sensors that help each robot accomplish its functions.

You’ll also find three Servo motors. Two have side-facing gears and work in tandem to power robots’ legs, treads, or wheels. The third features front-facing gear powers complex contraptions like crane arms and forklifts.

Then there are the sensors: an ultrasonic sensor allows a robot to detect and avoid obstacles, and a visual light sensor can help a robot follow a path or react when it runs into something of a particular color. A gyro sensor allows you to program specific movements and turns using angle measurements, while two touch sensors let you program robots that can feel their way around a room or play games like Whack-a-Mole, involving tactile input.

What can you make with the EV3?

The kit provides instructions for building a wheeled robot that uses each sensor to navigate and interact with its environment. By working through the instruction booklet, you learn how to program your robot to use each sensor through the brick’s own interface. You can also download the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Home Edition software to your computer and access instructions for additional projects and programming software.

For an extra $99.95, you can purchase the Education EV3 Software, which includes directions for building more robots, programming software, data collection and analysis tools, and editable content that lets you customize builds and missions for your kids. The education software also comes bundled with a construction kit for $433.95. The EV3 Design Engineering Projects Activity Pack, a 30-hour LEGO Mindstorms curriculum, is $299.95.

Even without those downloads or purchases, students can use the LEGOs, brick, and sensors to build a variety of robots that problem-solve particular missions or serve as trial-and-error experiments in learning how to master EV3’s code, motors, and sensors. And if you figure out how to join connectors that accommodate regular LEGO pieces, you can add non-Mindstorm LEGOs to your robot, such as mini-figure passengers.

How can you use EV3 in the classroom?

Because EV3 most obviously lends itself to coding, robotics, and math and science topics like measurement and physics, it’s a great fit for STEM classrooms. However, there are plenty of humanities applications waiting for you and your students to discover in that bucket of parts.

For example, our class paired small-group robot design with a reading of Peter Cherches’s “Lift Your Right Arm,” a poem about following orders. We went from building our robots to discussing the poem and what makes us different from machines. From that conversation we launched into small-group and whole-class readings of novels such as Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird (HarperCollins, 2000) and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies (S&S, 2005). This exercise helped us question the way society programs us to behave—and determine whether characters in our books acted more like people or computers.

It’s easy to imagine using the EV3 kit to create robots that travel physical story arcs and stop to knock over obstacles in the text or physically tackle models of antagonists from the texts kids read. While studying mythology, students could make a robot that travels into a model of the underworld to retrieve something to bring back to class. It might be possible to create a robot that “reads” the colors in an image or artwork and then picks up a brush coded to those hues and paints its own impression of the same picture.

The LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3 kit delivers on value, works dependably, and incorporates building and coding. While it takes some imagination and tech smarts to work it into humanities curricula, the EV3 kit is a great resource for STEM and humanities educators wanting to integrate technology in their classrooms in meaningful and interdisciplinary ways.

Chad Sansing teaches middle school language arts in Staunton, VA, and enjoys blending technology and learning. He blogs at “Classroots.org.”



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