Small robotics / engineering kits for classroom use?

It looks like we’ll be returning to school in a hybrid model, with about 50% of the class present at any time. I teach two sections of Intro to Engineering, mostly grades 9 and 10, but occasionally some grade 11. It’s about 64 students total, so I suppose it would be about 16 at any given time. For the past decade, I’ve taught this class heavily with Vex EDR (older PIC controllers) and it has gone very well. We have about 16 very complete kits and many extra parts, to where we have about 8 motors per kit now. We typically have 4 students per kit.

With COVID-19, it looks like we’re making an effort to not share items, and to provide individual materials for each student. We don’t have enough VEX EDR to do this, and getting more seems way out of the price range, so I’ve begun to look at other options. I’d like to keep the class engaging with physical hands on project-based work that involves more than just sitting at a computer all day. There are so many different kits out there though. So I wanted to ask, what are teachers using these days? I’m not tied strictly to robotics, but robotics does seem to be pretty engaging.

Whatever I select, I would want it to be well supported with curriculum, relevant to students pursuing studies in various fields of engineering, and engaging for a full semester class. Ideally, it would be usable well beyond the upcoming school year.

Ideally, I’d like students to easily be able to take the product home and work with it at home as well. If it works with a Chromebook, all the better, but that’s not mandatory. Way back in the day, I got my start with a Parallax BOE-Bot. It looks like they have something similar nowadays for Arduino, and I know the Parallax stuff has good texts to go with. There’s also the Sparkfun Redbot, but I have no experience with that. I’m not sure if I want students breadboarding, due to fragility of components and possibility of damage, but I do like giving students the ability to build and customize things. The mechanical aspect of VEX EDR was a real plus in that area.

As for budget, I would say $500 ea is out of the range, but lesser amounts may be an option depending on the quality and utility of the product. So with that, what products should I be looking into?

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I wasn’t looking at this through the same lens as you, but the other night I was spitballing what the cheapest kinda-FRC-class BLT drivetrain would look like.

The answer was derived from AndyMark’s Fight Night ruleset, with construction from cardboard. (I’m fond of three-ply corrugated, which may not quite be robust enough as those robots have gotten more lethal but is 200% adequate for a non-combat drivetrain.)

  • $20 Harbor Freight 18V drill kit for its battery/charger/handle
  • $30 REV SPARKmini x2
  • $36 REV UltraPlanetary kit x2
  • $100ish for AndyMark C&D bundle ($72 by itself), lever nuts for power distribution, extra wire, power switches, etc.
    • Alternative: Solder up some XT30 connectors for power input and use REV’s PD block for power distribution. A little more expensive, but you could leave the SPARKmini in COTS condition.
  • $5 REV UltraPlanetary long reach mounting bracket pack
  • $10 REV 90mm traction wheel pack
  • $5 glue for some cardboard
  • Gift cards or scrap lexan as a front bearing surface

That would be $272 by my math, which is surely omitting some hardware but does include a battery (and a NiCd pack is relatively harmless), charger, and lots of UltraPlanetary parts you could upcycle into an FRC build down the road.

Pros:

  • Upcycle opportunities
  • FTC-class 550 motors are difficult to kill (and 18V ain’t gonna change that)
  • Cardboard is ubiquitous, laser-friendly if you have access, hand-tool friendly if you don’t, and encourages iteration.
  • Easy to control a spec for competitive situations

Cons:

  • No curriculum
  • Extra circuits are somewhat limited with the C&D. With tank steering, really two others with the trim knobs. With a V-tail mixer allowing arcade driving, three or four by freeing up a stick.
  • Tasks that use the 18V drill motor/gearbox (I mean, you’ll want a third motor soon enough) will require some custom parts

I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re looking for, but I thought I’d mention Spheros. You do need a phone app. We used them for quite a while in our tech class (8th grade I’m pretty sure), and they were fun to program.

I also remember making circuits in class, which is a fun way to learn about electricity. If you go to Amazon and type in “Snap Circuits”, there are a bunch of different sets. You don’t need an app or anything, which is a plus.

If it’s an intro to engineering class would VEX IQ work? It’s still within the same ecosystem, much of the EDR curriculum would still be relevant, and there’s also IQ curriculum. Post COVID the kits could be kept at high school level, or recycled down to middle school and the high school can resume V5/EDR.

VEX IQ Super Kit - $379.00 each

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It’s a little light on the mechanical side of things, but I’ve found programmable drones to be an incredibly engaging option. In this case a programmable drone which is compatible with a Chromebook will run you $120 each, and can easily be sent home with students without needing to worry about losing tons of small pieces. This means your equipment won’t erode over time and there will be a lower cost of ownership.

There is fantastic curriculum developed by RoboLink that walks students through how to program the drones. I’m also working on creating more curriculum that challenges the students to modify their drones with household items to perform various activities - think about gripping and moving payloads around and stuff like that… it’s a work in progress but I would be happy to share what I have with you!

I can also answer any questions you have about the drones if you’re interested. I’ve run many dozens of summer camps with them and have had a lot of positive feedback.

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Folks,
Even at $200 a kit, for each if his students you are looking at $13,000 just for his classes. I know entire school departments that don’t get that much in a year. @sanddrag what’s your budget? Are you looking for a set of 16 or 64?

16 students at a time * $120 would be ~$2,000 for the drone solution running at a 1:1 ratio at any given time. That’s not terrible… but obviously any solution that requires 1:1 equipment to student is going to be somewhat expensive. Especially if you want equipment that is useable year after year.

He also somewhat defines the budget at the end of the post.

Lots of great ideas so far. Thank you, and keep them coming.

@Billfred Not exactly what I was looking for, but good ideas nonetheless, and yes, we do have a laser, and I do incorporate CAD and laser cutting into the class. I have some higher level classes that do more custom build stuff too. I’ve always wanted to do something with all those Throttle control motors, but I don’t want to derail this thread for that. I am looking more for well documented and supported COTS hardware for this intro class.

@Karaoke These are interesting. Tell me more about what activities you do with them.

@Allison_K Vex IQ looks like a great option, because of it’s durability and inclusion of mechanical things like gears. The price is on-point for what’s included, but may be out of reach for us at a 64 quantity.

@Ryan_Swanson I will definitely keep this reference on file for the future. Before COVID, we were looking at starting a drone program. But I don’t see it as a practical solution for the time being. I am worried about damage to them and things they crash into when something goes wrong, and many of my students live in small apartments and would not have an open space to fly these. For on campus though, this could be a nice way to get the class outside once in a while, and it’s definitely something new beyond what we are currently doing with our classes and existing equipment.

@wilsonmw04 I do not have any particular budget from our school district, but I understand they are looking at options. Large purchases are not unprecedented. My thought is that we would be looking at ~64 units, so it would be 1:1 for home use as well as class use.

While I might have only 16 students at a time, it is likely that there will be a rather short changeover time between classes. If it’s something like a Sphero robot, that wouldn’t be too difficult to clean between uses, but it still takes time, is a question of who is doing the cleaning, and cleaning supplies and processes have a cost as well. If it is something like a Vex kit, it becomes almost impossible to share between classes, not only for cleaning, but also for continuity of building. I have shared Vex robots between classes in the past, but they have all been built to a standard configuration, and in that configuration they used only for programming, not for building.

I have done some things with PICAXE, Arduino, and BASIC Stamps in the past. Raspberry Pi boards are affordable but are they too complex for an intro class? Is there clear and comprehensive curricular support? I’ve also looked at the Sparkfun Redbot. Anyone have experience with that?

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So the drones I linked are actually intended for flight indoors. All my camps take place in traditional classrooms, and in my house I fly the drones in a ~12’ x 10’ room with no issues. They’re super small and designed to withstand 3rd graders flying them if that tells you anything about their durability. I’ve flown the same drone for dozens of hours and I haven’t even needed to change out a propeller yet.

I also ran 47 “Stay-at-Home” camps with the drones in which families would rent them out for a week to use and then return them back to me. Out of all those I didn’t lose any drones, and really only couldn’t track down a few of the extra propellers which are <$5 to replace. Pretty easy to use for socially distanced applications like students bringing them home.

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Spheros - Our teacher set up an obstacle course in the shop (which can easily be done at home). In the app, you can draw the path you want it to take, drive it around using your screen, or program it to do a set of actions (it’s very, very similar to Scratch, but you have a physical thing to work with) such as drive forward, turn 90 degrees, change color, make noises, etc. Our main task was programming the Sphero, but we did have some fun driving them at each other. Spheros are also very durable, considering they were in the hands of middle schoolers (one even got thrown at a teacher’s head, long story, but it didn’t break)

Snap Circuits - This teaches you about electricity. I think of it kind of like Legos but for electricity. Our teacher gave us these little books like “now make it turn the lightbulb on with the switch” or something. I don’t remember these as well, and I can’t remember if the set comes with the tasks. I do remember having a lot of fun with them. There’s still a video somewhere in my phone of my friend and I launching the little plastic helicopter thing into the air.

We built pi robots last year (for camp). We didn’t follow any particular kit/curriculum. The nice part was I managed to get each simple robot built for sub-$20 each. Though I’d want to allow for some more sensors, so the cost is probably in the $30-50 range for more capable robots (encoders, line follow, ultrasonic, etc). We used Pi Zero Ws, a L298N, and TT motors. The construction was wood and hot glue.


These are what we made during camp, and while a good start, there are opportunities to make it better mechanically.

As far as raspberry pi goes, it would be good to know if students could SSH into them on Chromebooks. I assume it is possible, but haven’t done it before. For students working at home, that might be the largest hurdle. The controller is another one. We ended up using Android phones, and bluedot app, but not everyone has that.

Curriculum-wise, I don’t know much other than they have some guides: Build a Raspberry Pi robot buggy - Raspberry Pi

Our basic use was to edit our python script in SSH and add it to rc.local so that it started up with the RPi0. Then connect over Bluetooth the the Android phone app to drive it. The python wasn’t too complex, but could be more so.

And after the robot, you can make a low-cost airship.

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Adafruit has some decent stuff. I got one of these kits when I wanted to play around with interfacing a pixicam with an arduino.

https://www.adafruit.com/category/34

Also, if you have plenty of motor controller 29s from VEX they are easily modifiable to be used with other motors (+C : The Variable Constant: Thrifty Roboting: The Vex Motor Controller 29). I run an RC sumobot project using them, and they work great. It would certainly be possible to pair them with an arduino, battery pack, and some cheap gearmotors to have a running chassis.

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