Toys
Our Adventures With Robotics: The Lego Mindstorm Kit

Using the Lego Mindstorms Kit to design robots

I have a daughter who wants to design robots. She used to want to be an astronaut, and now she thinks that maybe she’d still like to go into space, but “only for a year or so,” since she’s discovered it could be a dangerous job. I assured her that a career in robotics looks spiffy on an astronaut’s resume. Howard Wolowitz got offered a chance to go into space, right?

Anyway, I’d been waiting for the day when she’d be old enough for a Lego Mindstorms kit. It’s expensive. That Amazon link is the best price I found. And yeah, I’ll admit that a lot of the reason I wanted one was as a toy for me. She agreed that this year it was her combined birthday/Christmas present. That’s something I usually don’t do, because as a fellow December birthday girl, I hated when it was done to me. I’m impatient and didn’t wait until her birthday to let her open it, so we got started last week.

I’d debated skipping the Lego kit and just going into soldering robots from kits, but that requires much, much more supervision for a nine-almost-ten-year-old. Her interest is more in programming robots than building them, so I decided Lego was probably the better approach. We also looked for nearby robotics teams, which is a great suggestion for anyone looking into it. We may ask the school about starting a team next year.

The Lego Minstorms kit is pretty awesome, and many fellow GeekMoms have blogged about their own adventures with Lego robotics. I worried that they’ll come up with an upgraded version of the kit as soon as I got one, since the NXT 2.0 version first came out in 2009, but I suppose that happens with everything, right? The iPad programmable version will be awesome. I’m sure it’s coming.

My son wishes he was old enough.

My son wishes he was old enough.

So far, it’s been a big hit. My son wants to play with it, but his mother isn’t ready to let him scatter pieces around. Call me selfish.

Some kids would be better at a younger age than others, but the building robots phase is pretty tricky. My daughter was only half patient for that portion of the building and needed a lot of help and encouragement.

Organization Is Key!

Lego Mindstorms Kit If anyone is wanting to get started with the Lego robotics, I think the first step before you open anything is to have a way to store it. There are bunches of teeny tiny pieces, and you really don’t want to lose any of them. Originally I went with a plastic bin and bunches of ziplock baggies, but my husband decided small fishing tackle boxes would work better stacked in the box. You can pick these up in the sporting goods section of any store. When we were in art school, that’s how we’d store all our stuff.

How did it go?

She and I built the first robot together from the instructions included in the box. It’s a simple vehicle, and it looks like this:

First Lego Minstorms robot Once that was built, I backed off and let her explore. She’s a kid who can do great things when you get out of her way. She programmed it to go back and forth, using the buttons on the NXT brick itself.  The brick is the brain part of the Lego Mindstorms kit, and NXT is the language used for Lego robotics programs, and she figured out how to do this basic bit of programming on her own.

Next, she wanted to add the visual sensor to the front. She did, and I challenged her to make the robot avoid collisions. She figured out how to use the NXT interface on our desktop computer and how to download  her program to her robot. So far, she’s managed to get it to stop when it detects something in the way, but not to turn or start again when the path is clear. It’s a start, and I love how she immediately wanted to take her robot further and modify what she learned.

We bought The Lego Minstorms NXT 2.0 Discovery Book, which I’d recommend, since it takes you from the “now what?” phase of building the robot from the included instructions to more projects, but I had to talk her into it when her dad wanted to take apart her existing robot to build one from the book. I look forward to see how she modifies this one.

 

Marziah

Marziah Karch is an educational technologist, book author, About.com Guide, grad student, and a digital broad. Sometimes she even finds time to be a wife and mother.

11 Comments
Mim

November 12, 2011 9:31 am Reply

I am so happy that my school district has every student in 6th grade learn lego mindstorms and claymation movie skills. My son- a current fifth grade student- can’t wait :)

    marziah

    November 12, 2011 11:05 am Reply

    Oh, I’m jealous. What a great opportunity for those students!

Coach Jim

November 12, 2011 11:03 am Reply

Even if the school won’t start a team you should start an FLL team. Finding the coach is the hardest part and you sound like the perfect coach. I coach my daughters FLL and my sons FTC team. My daughter insisted on an all girl team, and it was very easy to find enough for a team. Next year adding a third team for my youngest, 3rd grade and trying to get the school involved.

Craigslist is an easy way to pick up more kits for a team. There are many kits collecting dust, from kids who have moved on to other things.

The set tasks of the competition, the too short timeline, and the pressure in performing in front of a crowd are great experiences.

    marziah

    November 12, 2011 11:07 am Reply

    Those are really great suggestions. I’m going to have to look into that. Thank you!

      Kim

      November 12, 2011 10:32 pm Reply

      My son wanted to do FLL and there were no teams at his school, so I started one. I knew nothing about robotics, but I read everything I could lay my hands on and recruited a couple of engineer dads to help us out. We are in now in our third year, preparing for a qualifier next week, and having a blast. If I can coach a team, anyone can. You should go for it!

Tony

November 13, 2011 6:23 am Reply

My 10 year old daughter is in an FLL through our local natural history/children’s museum. Try contacting the First Lego League folks about local chapters or how to start your own. It’s worth it. Our local colleges sponsor it as well as the museum. Make contacts at all levels. You’d be surprised how much interest it will have.

    marziah

    November 13, 2011 10:02 am Reply

    My daughter is making a list and taking it to present to her principal to see if there’s interest at the school. I think we may well be on our way to making a team next year.

Jay

November 13, 2011 7:42 pm Reply

That was the hardest part, waiting for my son get of age before buying the kit and getting into FLL. We’ve since found that the Jr FLL kit, WeDo, is an extraordinary introduction to robotics basics. My daughter will be coming into FLL with more knowledge than my son about gears, pulleys, and other mechanisms. WeDo is only available from Lego Education. Highly highly recommended.

champignon2

December 1, 2011 6:35 am Reply

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Donna

February 6, 2012 11:47 am Reply

I did a Google search on ” 10 year old girl mindstorms robotics” because I, too, have a 10 year old who has set her sights on a career in robotics an received the mindstorms kit over the Christmas holiday. I was pleased to find your post and to know that our girl is in good company ; )

Mindstorms was a huge hit in our house as well. our daughter has built and re-built the kit many times over (I’m not technically inclined, so I am of little help). To help her “go beyond” what she might learn on her own, I invited the son of a friend over to “consult” once in a while. He is in high school and on the robotics team. It’s been incredible to see what our girl has taken from these sessions, how they have collaborated, and how she has incorporated and adapted this knowledge into future creations.

We are fortunate that next year, in Middle School, there is a robotics club for our girl to join. It continues through the high school, too. There are some FLL clubs in nearby Charlotte thru the NC Robotics Assoc., however, I was told we cannot join an existing team – we’d have to create our own.

Exciting stuff – thanks for sharing!

    marziah

    February 6, 2012 11:59 am Reply

    I did end up finding a club that meets twice a month for her through 4-H. They also do soldiered together kits, so it’s going to be a great learning experience for her either way.

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