Looking Towards the Future in Creative Robotics
Image by Crossfire_ on Flickr
When LEGO announced last fall that they will be discontinuing the Mindstorm Robotics line, it really felt like the end of an era. First introduced in 1999, Mindstorms were a direct descendant of the constructivist technology movement of the 1970s and 80s. Named after a book by MIT Professor, inventor, and educator Samuel Papert, LEGO Mindstorms were a perfect blend of robotics components like sensors and motors with LEGO’s line of Technics bricks and connectors.
This simple idea would over the next two decades produce a wellspring of creative robotics and inspire a whole generation to pursue careers in technology. From the birth of First
Lego League to the proliferation of homegrown robotics projects like card shufflers and Rubik’s cube solvers, LEGO Mindstorms was about inspiring creativity and innovation in a field not previously known to be kid-friendly. For the first time, children had the ability to easily play with robots.
When LEGO introduced its Spike line of robotics kits in 2017, it was clear the value proposition for this movement was in transition mode. The Spike line skews younger with simpler components meant to be used with standard lego bricks. Moreover, one of its most touted features was its compatibility with tablets and phones. It was hard not to get the feeling that the era of serious robotics for middle and high school students was on the wane.
When LEGO made it official last fall, it was clear that features like AI and mobile device integration were the new wave and the ability to play much less a factor.
While some might be mourning this loss, the vacancy left by LEGO is currently being filled by its many competitors. VEX IQ has always been the main alternative in the educational robotics market, and their competitions certainly rival First Lego League in depth and complexity. That said, VEX pivoted largely towards its Virtual Robotics platform during the pandemic. Their classroom kits can also be expensive and out of reach for many schools.
One new competitor is the drone manufacturer DJI which released their RoboMaster robotics line in 2019. Built with the educational market in mind, the RoboMaster has excellent design features, but has little in the way of creative opportunities for students.
As I look to the future of my own curriculum, the best option for providing this ability for students to play and construct their understanding of robotics is the Hummingbird Robotics Kit. The kit is a circuit board that is integrated with the BBC Micro:bit microcontroller, and it includes LED lights, motors, and sensor components. This kit isn’t an analog for LEGO Mindstorm as it places more emphasis on the circuitry aspect of robotics; however, the feature I like most about it is its simplicity. It really is just a microcontroller and a bunch of wired components in a box. Imagination and curiosity are a prerequisite, and the bulk of the real work happens in the brain of the student (not a tablet). Cardboard, popsicle sticks, duct tape, and hot glue replace the gears and connectors of LEGO Technics, but the idea remains the same: Build something (largely from scratch), play with it, and then make it better.
While the status of creativity and imagination in technology education seems a bit unclear currently, I am hopeful that new products will arise to replace the old guard. Opportunities abound for drone kits or AI-connected robots in the educational market. And if you happen to be a teacher who has a LEGO Mindstorm kit still hanging around, there are options. One is PyBricks, a python platform for the ev3dev operating system which runs on the EV3 brick. Flashing a MicroSD card with Pybricks is really quite easy, and it can give your old EV3 bricks new life as a way to teach python.
Lego Discontinuing Mindstorms Brand
The End of Lego Mindstorms
Lego Mindstorms To Be Discontinued
Getting Started with Vex IQ
Best Robotic Toys to Replace Mindstorms
Lego Moving On From Mindstorms
DJI Robomaster S1
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