Robots, the Next Generation ...: Program Them to Play Golf or Drive Race Cars. Four Exciting Robotics Packages Challenge Elementary, Middle, and High School Students with High-Tech Problem Solving. (Picks of the Month)

Article excerpt

Early ed tech pioneer Seymour Papert and his students at MIT made a major contribution to educational technology when they built the first robotic turtle, a simulated reptile whose movement and activity were controlled by the then-new programming language LOGO. The turtle and the program that gave it life gradually traveled to elementary classrooms where kids had their first encounters with the power of a computer, a power that they themselves could control. Since then, hundreds of schoolchildren have learned to use programming language to send a small simulated turtle through amazing geometric journeys on a computer screen, and later software packages have used LOGO as a basis for more sophisticated, multimedia-enhanced programming.

All four of the robotics packages we review here reflect Papert's commitment to the idea that students should be commanding the computer, and not the other way around. LEGO's Robolab and the K'nex TechnoK'NEX offer programmable robot-building sets, while Educational Robot's Cye and ActivMedia's Basic Suite are preassembled units that operate with student-authored programming commands. All packages include introductory through advanced activities to exercise kids' spatial and critical-thinking skills. However, given their complexity, these programs require a substantial financial and time commitment--these aren't plug-and-play tools. But for educators who want to take computing to a powerful new arena, where motivational play yields sophisticated programming and technology skills, then consider one of these powerful offerings for teaching engineering and design.

ActivMedia Robotics Basic Suite (ActivMedia)

ActivMedia offers a distinctive Basic Suite software package designed to work either with a pre-assembled robot or alone as a robot simulator. While we test drove only the simulation software, schools can choose from one of ActivMedia's several stand-alone robots to accompany the software, including the Pioneer 2-DXe, PeopleBot, and AmigoBot, the latter of which has the ability to store and repeat sounds on command, adding a wonderful vocal dimension to your robot.

The screen environment in Basic Suite is a large coordinate plane. The on-screen robot rests at home on point (0,0) and from there can be moved in any direction. The grid provides a scaled metric platform onto which kids can transfer measurements of an actual or imagined area with text labels (like sofa or door) and flags, which the robot can identify and navigate. Three basic travel modes offer different ways of moving a robot on the screen, ranging from simple point-and-click commands to letting the unit roam freely while responding to objects in its path, such as a desk or chair. Educators who tested the software with the preassembled robot told us the fun really starts when kids map a robot's route and test it offline. ActivMedia robots like the AmigoBot use sonar to locate where they are, so feedback will cause them to either stop when they encounter an obstacle or, when in "wander" mode, seek a new path to avoid collision. Both computer-based and real-life scenarios provide a fascinating look into the possibilities and limitations of the robot's ability to solve spatial problems.

More advanced tasks such as writing procedures for the robot require learning Colbert, a complicated programming language that lets students use forward and back commands as well as speed and direction to control the robot. Commands can then be strung together into programs that can be saved, labeled, and executed. Such complex tasks increase the learning curve and make this portion of the program less accessible to younger students but a motivating challenge for advanced middle or high school kids.

Cye (Educational Robot Company)

Unlike design and construction programs from K'nex and Robolab, Cye is a fully assembled robot looking for directions from a good programmer. Complete with a heavy-duty wagon that can be used to pick up messages from the office or deliver attendance rosters, Cye needs only a map and communication via a small radio transmitter to execute programmed tasks. …