Robot kits and the whole "kids should code" movement has picked up a lot of steam in 2016. It's one the year's better legacies. STEM talk is everywhere in the tech scene. But adults can talk all day about such things -- what do the kids actually think?
It all comes down to what actually excites and engages kids to find programming fun and worthwhile. So it's been a pleasure to watch my two kids, Oscar, 10, and Emily, 8, fall in love with the UBTech Jimu Explorer Level robot kit. The kit says ages 8+ at an "Easy to Intermediate" difficulty level, so we figured this was a perfect audience.
It's simple to use, required no tools and very minimal supervision, and once it was built the control and coding features had a promising "easy to use, hard to master" quality that would make this kit valuable for years to come.
There are many basic DIY robotics kits out there for much less money. But many cheaper kits require real tools, or are more difficult to piece together, or lack any true programmability.
For $199 (£149; AU$299) the Explorer Level kit offers instructions to build a number of predesigned robots (a penguin, a T-Rex and others -- we built the T-Rex) with step-by-step instructions through an interactive app for iOS and Android. Each step is illustrated and animated, with full 3D modelling to zoom around and see exactly where elements fit together.
The build snaps together as simply as Lego (and more easily than Lego Mindstorms) and the process integrates all required servos, power units and brains to bring the package to life when the build is complete.
Letting the kids loose, guidance was only required at the very start to clarify how to navigate the interactive manual and at one stage where balancing the body while attaching the second leg of the T-Rex got a little tricky.
Once the robot was pieced together, Bluetooth pairing to the iPad was simple and we could immediately take control of the T-Rex with a set of ready to go commands. Move forward, back, left, right were all there, but the favourites were a bunch of weird dance moves that showed off the excellent subtlety and balance of the servos involved.
Beyond these basic controls, you can program the Jimu robot through a visual, threaded programming interface. Our kids were familiar with Scratch programming, so found this system fairly easy to get a handle on. From here you discover you can program controls to create sequences of movement, or even based on tilting the iPad.
Movement can also be managed at the individual servo level (every servo is numbered so you know what's what), allowing more advanced programmers to create their own fundamental movements for the robot they've built.
And this is where the larger potential kicks in. My kids found this comfortably challenging to build and felt the immediate rewards in the controls and programming were everything they'd hoped for (and they can hope for a lot). But to see layers of programmatic detail available that could push the kids toward new horizons and teach them a lot more about both programming and robotics was a very pleasant surprise.
This kit might cost a little more than many others, but it could easily play a role in my kids lives as they grow in technical skills for years to come. That seems well worth the price of admission.