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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.
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!
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:
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.