Be Inspired With The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book!

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book cover. Image: No Starch Press

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book: 181 Simple Machines and Clever Contraptions is due out on November 20th. I’m a First Lego League (FLL) coach at my youngest son’s elementary school, so I’m always excited to check out a new Lego Mindstorms book. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book is the latest in a series of new Lego Mindstorms-themed books released by No Starch Press. If you like, you can also check out my review of the Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book to read about another one of their Lego Mindstorms book offerings. Or, you can read GeekMom Marziah’s review of the EV3.

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book is a fresh approach to Lego Mindstorms building. For starters, it comes with a flexi binding which is both sturdy and flexible. You get the feel of a hardback and a paperback simultaneously. At 223 pages, the book is packed with content too. The material is also conveniently ordered into 6 parts: 1. Basic Mechanisms, 2. Vehicles, 3. Moving Without Tires, 4. Arms, Wings, and Other Movements, 5. Sensors, and 6. Something Extra. Plus, every page is full of multiple full-color photos. As a matter of fact, there is virtually no text in this book after the introduction. Unlike other Lego building books with step-by-step pictures and instructions, the author of the Idea Book, Yoshihito Isogawa, intends to convey the ideas and building steps through picture parts lists and several multi-angled pictures of the finished part.

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The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book page 207, idea #165. Image: No Starch Press

For example, the images on page 207 for idea #165 are meant to convey a method for triggering the touch sensor through a secondary touch. That is, you usually trigger the Lego Mindstorms EV3 Touch Sensor by directly bumping it into something. On the EV3, that means that you have to have it mounted near the “edge” of the robot. However, that might not be convenient. With this interesting device, you can mount the touch sensor farther back on the robot, and the touch sensor will be triggered by the arm sticking out from it. I found this idea to be quite clever.

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The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book page 89. Image: No Starch Press
Wheelbase configuration for FLL robot. Image: Maryann Goldman

My First Lego Team has struggled with repeatability and reliability of our robot mission runs for this year’s challenge. If the team runs the same mission 3 times in a row, the robot does not perform exactly the same way each time even though the program and starting position have not changed. It seems like the robot does not go in a straight line as well as we’d like because the wheels are a bit wobbly. I was intrigued by the extra wheel support shown on page 89 of the Idea Book.  I definitely think the team should give this design a thorough evaluation and trial at the start of our next season.

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The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book page 155. Image: No Starch Press

I’m planning some activities for my First Lego League team to do after we compete at regionals on November 8th. Up until now, the team has focused on solving mission challenges. However, I’d like to have the kids build some fun contraptions that also serve as a learning tool for engineering and mechanical concepts. I just love the scissor gear and lift shown on page 155 of the Idea Book. I think the team will be very excited to build this device and try it out!

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The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book page 214, idea #172. Image: No Starch Press

Another idea that I found very interesting is using a device to press the Lego Mindstorms EV3 brick buttons during a program based on robot movement. Check out the pictures on page 214 in idea #172. Depending on the spin of the motor, either the right or left brick button will be pushed. Ingenious!

If you have a specific problem you’re trying to solve (e.g., you need a universal joint), this would be a great reference book to review for ideas. You could start out with the basic structures shown in the Idea Book, around page 74, and then modify them to suit your particular building needs.

Changing the angle of rotation. Image: Maryann Goldman

You can put names to parts you’re already using in your contraptions.  For example, our First Lego League robot makes use of a gear that changes the angle of rotation, but I’d never given it a name before.  Now I know how to reference it! I also learned about cam gears, worm drives, and how to calculate gear ratios. I hope to make good use of these concepts in future First Lego League endeavors.


Ball shooting contraptions. Image: Maryann Goldman

This year’s First Lego League Challenge has an interesting Sports mission where the robot needs to shoot a large rubber ball. Although our team has come up with one solution to this mission, they went through quite the process of designing ball launching mechanisms.The Idea Book dedicates an entire section to “Shooting things” starting on page 158. The team will definitely take those ideas into consideration for future designs!

Seriously, I could go on and on about all the inspiring designs in The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book, but I want to leave something for you to check out on your own. Pick up a copy and enjoy! The Idea Book retails on Amazon for $18.56, and you can pre-order your copy now.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Enhance Your EV3 Robot Experience With The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

Cover for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
Cover for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

I’m a rookie First Lego League (FLL) coach, so when I was offered the opportunity to review The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots by Laurens Valk, I was thrilled. I am very pleased to say that the book did not disappoint! Within 15 minutes of picking up the book, I had already learned 3 things I didn’t know. As I continued to read, I picked up many more concepts and tips to take back and share with my First Lego League team. Laurens Valk is very qualified to write about the EV3. He helps test new Mindstorms products, and one of his robot designs is featured on the EV3 packaging as a bonus project.

Johnny working on the EV3 EVR3STORM sample robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Johnny and friends working on the EV3 EVR3STORM sample robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I started working with the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot after my son, Johnny, received it for Christmas last year. Johnny and I installed the EV3 Software and set about building three of the sample robots (TRACK3R, EV3RSTORM, and R3PTAR) from the instructions. Then, in May 2014, I began the journey of organizing and coaching a FLL team. Although there are a lot of resources online, knowing what I know now, I’d recommend that each of my team members purchase a copy of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book. The book has an impressive 396 pages filled with all the information about the EV3 that you could possibly want to know. There is both a “brief” and a “detailed” table of contents covering 19 chapters that are divided into six sections. Each section contains a multitude of full color diagrams providing concise and detailed pictorial information about the topics being discussed. The book walks you through what’s in the EV3 box and the basics of using the EV3 software, then the book proceeds to explain in detail the robot sensors and more complex programs. There are additional sample robots to build (e.g., EXPLOR3R, FORMULA EV3 RACE CAR, ANTY, SNATCH3R, and LAVA R3X) as well as scores of activities to test your new found knowledge. Whether you already have some experience with the EV3 like me or are totally new to the EV3, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book has an appropriate starting point for you.

The Brief Contents of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
The Brief Contents of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

For a full run down on the EV3, check out GeekMom Marziah’s review. Although this book states that it requires the Lego Mindstorms EV3 retail set 31313, the vast majority of the book will also work just as well with the Lego Mindstorms Education EV3 Core Set 45544.

Here’s a short list of some of the take-aways I had from this book.  It’s amazing how much you can learn even when you’ve been working with the robot for a while. I learned:

  1. How to go back and forth between the Lobby, my program, and the Content Editor in the EV3 Software. (page 29)
  2. You can double click on a program name tab to rename the program to something more meaningful. What a relief to finally be able to give our programs a name related to what the program does instead of just “program”, “program2”, etc. (page 30)
  3. How to use the hand tool to pan around large programs. It didn’t take long before our programs became so large that they wouldn’t fit on the visible computer screen. It’s very useful to be able to quickly move around and scan our entire program.  (page 31)
  4. How to create My Blocks. These are essentially what I’ve always called procedures. You can save a group of programming blocks that perform a specific task into one block that you can insert anywhere in your programs without having to recreate all the individual blocks. My Blocks can be shared among team members or groups too. (page 53)
  5. How to view ports and sensor values, and move motors, all right on the EV3 brick. I knew you could do a lot more on the brick itself, but I hadn’t run into any text describing the specifics before this book. (page 66)
  6. Switch blocks have tabbed views. If your switch block has a lot of cases, you can use the tabbed view to tidy up your view and analyze one case at a time. (page 72)
  7. About the unregulated motor block. From the book, “When you don’t want the EV3 to supply that extra power to maintain constant speed, you can use unregulated speed.” (page 101)

As I mentioned earlier, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book is full of color images and samples. Page 52 has an awesome example program showing a loop. I love how easy these examples are to replicate on my computer in the EV3 software and try out for myself. The examples are visually accurate and taken directly from the EV3 software, and the extra write-in comment boxes make the examples easy to understand and follow.

Page 52 of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
Page 52 of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

Besides having great example programs, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book also has fantastic exercises for you to try in the form of Discovery sections. My favorite was Discovery #32 in Chapter 7 “Using the Color Sensor” where the EV3 color sensor is used to follow a track that you can design for yourself. Check out this video of my robot in action trying to move around and stay inside a green rectangular track constructed from white poster paper and green electric tape. I would never have known to try this if it weren’t for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book!

Whether you’re new to the EV3, a FLL coach, on a FLL team, or maybe your robot has been sitting for a while and you’re looking to breath new life into it, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book is for you! This book would also be great to include along with the EV3 as a gift this coming holiday season.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots retails for $34.95 but currently sells on Amazon for $22.10 (hardback) or $9.78 (Kindle).

In addition to The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book, No Starch Press has a large selection of Lego books including The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book due out in November. I can’t wait to check it out!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

EV3 Review: The Lego Robot

Photo by Marziah Karch

I know I need a new Lego robot. Actually, I need two. I have the Lego Education edition, and I’ve got a retail set on order from a local toy store.  I was sold the moment I saw them at CES this year.

I also had the chance to borrow (and return) a retail set from Lego in advance of their launch on September 1, and I’ve been putting it to the test to see how it performs. The EV3 is the first update to the Lego Mindstorms robotics set in three years, and it officially goes on sale for a steep $349 on September 1.

Is it worth it? Well, it depends. Do you have kids with an interest in robotics? Are you willing to spend this much on a toy? This is a toy that teaches kids (age 10+) programming and engineering skills. It allows exploration of robotics concepts without needing to understand electrical engineering or advanced programming, but it isn’t dumbed down to the point that it becomes boring for older kids or even adults. In fact, the GeekMoms and GeekDads can’t resist a good Lego robot building challenge.

EV3 Features

So what does the EV3 bring to the table? It still consists of the Lego Technic pin and beam construction system, which allows you to build strong robots with moving parts better than the standard Lego System. The CPU brain of the Lego Mindstorms is still the Brick. I’ve got a comparison shot between my NXT 2.0 brick and the new EV3 brick, so you can see how the system is still basically the same black and white display on a large, sturdy brick:


Underneath that similar brick, there’s a newly updated, faster processor. There’s also more expansion with an SD card slot on the side, and you can program directly on the bot. The NXT 2.0 allowed you to string together a few commands, but if you wanted to do anything fancy, it always had to be done on a computer and transferred to the bot.

There’s a caveat here. Full on-the-bot programming is cumbersome. It involves a tiny screen and a lot of hitting up and down buttons. However, the fact that you can do this at all is great news. It means you can have a team or a group of kids that have no access to a computer, and they can still program their robots. I’m immediately thinking of classes, club meetings, camps, and other settings where team robot building challenges would just be amazing.
The other price we seem to have paid for the revamped brick interface is in start up and shut down time. My NXT 2.0 brick starts and shuts off pretty much instantly. The EV3 takes 30-45 seconds for each. That’s not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it may be a long wait for kids with short attention spans.
The new EV3 has some of the same sensors and servos as the old NXT, and many have improvements. The large motor servos are the same, but there’s also a small motor servo. The color sensor is easier to attach to your bot. There’s now only one touch sensor, and there’s a brand new infrared sensor with a remote “beacon.” This replaces the ultrasonic sensor in the retail sets. (The Lego Education set includes the ultrasonic sensor but not the IR sensor and beacon.)

The EV3 seems more playful and just a little cooler than the NXT design. Everything matches the new red and black color scheme, instead of the Google-esque multicolor mismatch of the previous version. The IR sensor has eyes painted onto it rather than the implied eyes of the ultrasonic sensor. The mostly decorative “wing” pieces have stickers to make your robot appear more like a battle-worn survivor of a space war.  The old NXT included a paper test track that got torn up pretty quickly after you put it on the floor. The new EV3 has a test track that comes as part of the box itself. Cut off the outer layer of the box, and it becomes the test track.  It’s both sturdier and more interesting than the previous version.

One area that seems like Lego was trying a little too hard is in the naming conventions. The EV3 has an E to 3 substitution in all the demo model names, so the Track3r, the Spik3r, the R3ptar, etc. That feels a little too Leet, and it won’t age well. The good news is that once you build them, you can call your models whatever you want.

Models, Models, Models

Speaking of models, there are tons of models and instructions right out of the gate. The box instructions only include the bot pictured at the top of the page. Well, it’s actually three bots in one. You start with a simple tank, add the small motor servo for a spinning “blade of death,” and then add the IR sensor for a remote control tank. The  “Track3r” bot comes with a demo program that moves it a few times, makes some noises, and adds some on-screen eyes. The whole thing takes less than an hour to build, and it means you can make something that just works right away. You also get instructions on how to download several other models, and you can preview the instructions on your computer screen.

If you have an iPad, you can also take advantage of an app that shows you how to build the optional models. The iPad app, designed with the help of Autodesk, is just a brilliant idea. It offers animated, 3D, step-by-step instructions, so you no longer end up realizing five steps from the end that you missed a peg or axle at some point. Once you’ve mastered the basic steps, you can use the concepts you learned while building the models and make your own robots. The iPad software would be even better if it also supported iPad-based EV3 programming, but no dice.

The software for the EV3 doesn’t ship on disc like it did with the NXT 2.0. Instead, it’s a free download. Thank goodness. I have a friend who lost her NXT 2.0 software only to discover that she couldn’t just download it somewhere. I’ve even heard that the new software is compatible with the old NXT 2.0 bricks, other than not supporting some features that are exclusive to the EV3. The new EV3 software has an updated look and feel but still offers the same drag-and-drop visual programming. If you think that’s too much of a baby step, the operating system behind the Ev3 is Linux, and I’ve been told by Lego reps that they’ve made it easy to bypass the visual programming tools and just hack your robot directly. You can also hook up to four EV3 bricks together for some sort of super robot.

EV3 vs. Raspberry Pi, Arduino

You might ask yourself why you’d want to spend nearly $350 on a Lego robotics kit instead of buying a Raspberry Pi for $45 and learning some Python or buying an Arduino kit for under $200 and learning more about electrical engineering. It’s a legitimate question. Some people are going to want to just go for the cheaper options. Some people will want all of them. They do different things, so it’s not an all or nothing deal.

Here’s my take. The Ev3 costs a lot upfront, but it’s tough and reconfigurable, and used Lego Mindstorms kits have traditionally held onto their value pretty well on eBay. Other robotics platforms are either used up in the process of building them or go through processor innovations so fast that nobody is interested in the old models. It’s also a great entry point, especially for parents who aren’t robotics super whizzes themselves. You really can step in and assist your younger child or allow your older, enthusiastic child to go hog wild on their own. You can always work your way towards more complicated systems later on.

Bottom Line

Lego did a fantastic job updating the EV3 with new sensors and better peg slots for building with the old sensors. The expandable brick and new interface are fantastic once you learn how to get around on them. Sticking with the traditional black and white screen display means longer battery life and a more durable device, although eInk display would have been a great innovation here. I would have liked to see iPad and Android tablet versions of the programming interface to make the robot truly computer independent, but there’s still room for Lego to go in that direction in the future.

If you’re already a fan of Mindstorms, you’ll want to get this new model. If you are new to Lego robotics, I suggest looking for a First Lego Robotics League or similar group to explore the possibilities and make sure your child is enthusiastic enough with the idea. As with anything you program, you have to have some tenacity to problem solve. That’s the sort of skill you may want to cultivate in your children. Children under the suggested age of 10 will need a lot of guidance (there are small pieces, the pegs are hard to push into the bots, and Mindstorms can take some abuse—but not kids who want to step on them or throw them from great heights). My 11-year-old had no difficulty with assembly, and once she figured out how to transfer programs, she was debugging and problem-solving bot actions in no time. If you’re not sure if this toy is right for your younger child, you should probably wait a few years and re-examine.

However, if you want to buy it for yourself and pretend it’s for your child, we won’t judge.

New Lego EV3 Mindstorms Hands On

Photo by Marziah Karch

I saw the Lego EV3 in person last night, and let me tell you how much I wish I had one right now. At a CES-related trade show on Monday, Lego was on hand with multiple demonstration units to show off the new features. There were motion-sensing cobra bots, ball throwing humanoids, and color sensing roulette wheels on display along with iPads and laptops to show us the programing.

The newly updated Lego robotics kit builds on the concepts of the NXT 2.0 system and then adds better app support, and updated programming interface, and a new infrared sensor. The programming interface is cleaner, but still visual. It still uses interlocking pieces to create the steps, if you’re familiar with NXT programming, but they worked on simplifying the interface and showing all programming options at once. There’s also better on-the-bot programming, which makes it so much easier to do group sessions or debug without having to do the computer-to-Mindstorms shuffle.

The mobile interface is improved, too. You can get a remote control app for the current Mindstorms on Android, but for the EV3, iOS support is available from the start. The Android or iPad tablet can be used as an interactive building guide to show you how to assemble your robot, and I was told a programming interface was being developed for mobile as well. The kit starts with instructions for five robots, but you can download additional guides — or just create your own.

The new EV3 was built to be hacked. The computing brick in Lego Mindstorms is the key piece that controls all the other components, and in the new EV3, the brick uses a Linux base, which opens up new possibilities for advanced play. I can’t wait to see the mods that come out on this one. The roughly 600 piece kit is expected to ship sometime later this year for $350. I can’t wait to actually build a robot — er, help my daughter build a robot.

Muse of Nerds: College Physics, Innovative Robotics, Homeschooling — Dr. McColgan Can Do It All!

For my Muse of Nerds this month, I’ll formally introduce you to someone I have talked about in the past: Dr. Michele McColgan of Siena College. I met her through our homeschooling group (she has two elementary-aged children) and she has introduced my kids to science, math, robots, computer programming, alternative energy, a Lego Robotics Team…and more than I remember. I first mentioned Michele in this post about soccerbots. And then again about a year-long project our four children worked on with RPGs and robotics.

At the moment, she teaches the general physics sequence to science and math majors, and electronics and optics for physics majors at Siena College, homeschools her two children, runs the Saturday Scholars program for inner-city youth, organizes summer camps in Physics, Alternative Energy, and Robotics, uploads regular YouTube tutorials, mentors Siena’s physics teams to participate in Siena’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, supervises summer research projects for physics undergraduate students, and prepares pre-service physics teachers.

She’s also really nice.

Michele agreed to answer a few questions for GeekMom.

You use robotics to teach physics concepts. How did you come up with this idea?

Before he passed away, I often met with Les Rubenfeld, the founder of RPI’s CIPCE program (Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education.) He was a math professor and was passionate about teaching math with robotics. We would meet at Bruegger’s near Siena and discuss potential ways to collaborate to bring robotics to more students. He suggested that there was more to robotics than just programming the robots to take sensor input and program the robot to respond. He suggested that there was more science to teach. That inspired me to find the physics in robotics. So far, I’ve created robotics activities to teach physics topics including: kinematics (displacement, velocity, and acceleration); measurements to calculate gravity; force of friction; gear ratios for speed and power; impulse; angular velocity and linear velocity; and identification with light sensor data.

What aspect of your work inspires you? (and what are you currently fired up about?)

– Learning new things. I hate being bored. I’m always finding new problems to solve.
– I really enjoy the variety of things that I do. Change is really important for creativity. Revisiting past projects is important, too. Being a physics professor offers opportunities for both.
– Creating fun activities that naturally include science (like duct tape circuits.)
– Creating online resources to allow kids to complete projects at their own pace and allows me to grow my resources.
– Finding ways to show kids that science and math are interesting and fun when you’re solving real problems — not fake problems that someone makes up because you ” should” learn certain things.

Obviously you are a creative person in designing your programs. How can you pass along this creativity to your science and technology students?

I believe in modeling! I like to lead by example. I like to meet students wherever they are. I hate the phrase “you should know that”. I think it’s so important to meet students where they are. Shaming students shuts them down. Encouraging them, whatever their background, allows them to move forward and embrace learning about physics and math.

I think it’s so important for students to take control of their learning. I arrange my classroom and choose activities that require active engagement, not passive learning.

When students show an interest in any of my projects, I do everything I can to support their interests. I give out supplies and let students borrow equipment. I’m interested in their questions and problems and I believe they can do it. I also suggest that learning physics is a journey that takes time and effort. Even if you don’t completely master the material in my classes, that’s okay. Mastery takes time and effort and offers wonderful rewards. I believe that anyone can learn physics – it’s not a field reserved only for rocket scientists. Physics is so rich and covers such a broad range of topics, everyone can find something that’s relevant to them.

Thanks, Michele! And if you want to see even more of what she does, here’s some cool links: