With STEM education being more prevalent these days, I was curious about a number of toys on the market geared towards teaching kids how to code. With all the options out there, which toy is the best investment? In the interest of scientific inquiry, I picked up four popular toys that support both simple block-based coding as well as advanced coding languages and gave them a try.
Dash is an adorable little robot that was created by Wonder Workshop. It also has a little sibling, Dot, which is anon-mobile version of Dash. The two robots can be programmed to communicatewith each other. The first thing you will notice about Dash is its giant white LED eye and the cheery "Hi!" greeting when you turn it on. Not only can the Dash move directionally, but it can turn its head and react to voices and claps. It also has one colored light on each side of its head and one colored light below its eye. As far as peripherals go, Dash has three embedded microphones for sensing sound, two infrared (IR) sensors for sensing distance,and a speaker to play sound. Dash can be programmed via an iPad or Androidtablet.
Sphero is the simplest robot of the group. It does one thing, but it does it well: roll. The entire ball lights upwith RGB LEDs which can be controlled independently from the motion. Sphero isalso surprisingly fast – it can reach a top speed of 4.5 miles per hour. Thereis also a neat clear version of Sphero aimed at education. The Sphero doesn'thave any external sensors per se, but it can detect impact and being picked up thanks to an internal gyroscope and accelerometer. When you first turn on Sphero, you have to do an orientation calibration routine so it can understand where you are in relation to the robot. Sphero can be programmed by an iOS(iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch) or Android device.
LEGO Mindstorm EV3 The most complex of the four robots is the LEGO Mindstorm EV3. This kit comes with a programm ablebrick, a handful of sensors, two motors, and 550+ LEGO Technic parts forcreating just about anything you can imagine. To build a LEGO robot, you first build a LEGO structure then attach the programmable brick and various sensors ormotors depending on what you want your robot to do. The sensors connect to the programmable brick via connector cables and the robot is programmed with a Macor Windows computer. Although this method can be very time-consuming, it alsoseems to be the most flexible. There are many books and websites available towalk you through different robot builds and corresponding sample programs if you're not quite sure where to start. For this evaluation, I built the standard TRACK3R robot from the Mindstorms manual using the infrared sensor for distancedetection.
mBot Another extensible robot is Makeblock’s mBot. Makeblock’s robots are built on top of an open source Arduino-based platform. The mBot is similar in spirit to the LEGO Mindstorm: you can combine a number of sensors with aluminum structure parts to come up with just about anything you can think of. Makeblock also offers many robotics kits with varying degrees of complexity, such as a 3D printer kit and a XY plotter kit (which can also be converted to a laser engraver). The mBot kit is specifically geared towards STEM education and comes with a number of sensors, such as an ultrasonic sensor, an infrared receiver, and a line follower as well as some on-board color lights. All robots on Makeblock’s platform can be programmed with a Windows or Mac computer using either their mBlock software or the Arduino software.