Although it may seem like computer programming or coding for kids and teenagers has just become popular in recent years, it has been on educators’ radar for six decades. The confidence and head start they gain is invaluable. An even more accessible and inviting way to get kids engaged with science and technology is through learning how to build a robot. This activity is not as difficult as one might imagine and less intimidating to kids than you might think.
We sat down with Sphero team members Rabia Aslam, a Firmware Engineer, and Bryce Gaston, an Electrical Engineer, to learn more about their experiences. Below, we share everything we learned and fill you in on what you need to know to get started working with kids to build robots as part of a STEAM activity, including what tools, materials, and supplies you need, which steps to follow, and why programming is the next area where kids can engage after building their robots.
What Do You Need to Know to Build a Robot?
Helping kids get started on a robot project should begin with setting goals for the project. Determining the cost and time involved should follow that goal-setting. Teaching both teamwork and engineering design can be goals for a robot project. More specific goals include:
- Learning an embedded programming language
- Learning how to make a robot chassis based on provided specifications
- Learning how to choose electrical components based on mechanical constraints and then wire everything up
- Learning how the firmware, electrical system, and mechanics integrate
The cost that you can personally spend for a home project with your kids or that your school has in its budget for projects will determine how complex the robot can be. So will the time available to you as a parent, or as an educator under your school’s schedule.
Still, there’s a project and a set of goals for everyone. For example, a robot with less complexity, which is cheaper and takes less time to build, may be best for beginner or younger students or a single student working on the whole project independently. On the other hand, a higher complexity robot project, which costs more and takes more time, would work well for an older or more advanced student or a team of students working together, like in a robotics club.
Another aspect of building a robot that you should figure out before starting your project is the objectives or capabilities for the robot you want to build. Will it move on its own? How will your kids communicate with the robot or control it? Will the robot be able to avoid obstacles? These are just a few points to consider.
What Tools and Materials Do You Need to Build a Robot?
Once you, as a parent or teacher, have answered these questions about the nature of the robot project, such as its capabilities, the educational goals for your kids, and the resources available, you can start getting materials together.
There are several pieces of hardware to consider as components when building a robot:
- Servos — sensors or guides for movement
- The robot’s brain or “microcontroller” — this could be a Raspberry Pi affordable, compact development processor board, which is the size of a credit card — or a similar device
- Sphero RVR — effectively the “chassis” for the robot — the framework and wheels; or a similar manufacturer’s chassis
- Tensorflow or a similar open-source offering for programming, managing data flow, and creating machine learning capability for the robot (to perform tasks like finding objects in a room)
- Input/output devices — can include sensors
How To Make a Robot With Home Materials
There are also low-tech components you can use, which can make it more fun for kids. You can build the bodies of the robots with popsicle sticks and cardboard glued together. More experienced builders might work with soldering irons and laser cutters. Or you can create the bodies with cutting-edge technology and materials like 3D printing, plexiglass, or aluminum.
You do not need any sophisticated tools for building a robot, just a set of screwdrivers, a laptop running your favorite operating system, and a development processor board (as mentioned above; other processor choices include TI, ST, Nordic, and BeagleBone).
Of course, building a robot can get as elaborate as you wish. For more complex projects, the materials will vary. It’s possible to include a robotic arm, use Lego bricks for the body (with Lego Boost and Mindstorms among the products available to integrate motors and microprocessors into the bodies), or even get an Ikea-style kit from RobotShop or elsewhere that can customize a robot for different tasks.
How Do You Build a Robot?
You can start building your robot with these three steps: set a process, work together with others, and remember the importance of prototyping. Here is a step-by-step guide for actually building the robot:
1. Set a Process to Build a Robot
When building the robot, you aren’t just thinking about and working on the physical construction. It’s also about the process that you use and how you work with your team, whether in a professional, industrial setting or with students for educational purposes.
2. Get Teams to Work Simultaneously
Sphero robots are a good example of how to get concurrent teamwork. We build parts for robots but also build complete robots, kits, and educational modules. Sphero has distinct teams for firmware, electrical, and mechanical elements. First, engineers analyze what physical bodies work for a robot’s capabilities. Then, the teams work together to choose components. The key here is that the separate teams all work on their tasks simultaneously, so all the parts can be ready to assemble when they’re done. For example, firmware teams can write code before they even have the electronics.
Also, after assembling all the teams’ efforts, they must again work together to debug the finished product.
3. Build Prototypes to Troubleshoot
For student projects, as for the professional robotics industry, building a prototype robot makes everything a team or an individual student imagines come alive. They can determine if the design is working to fulfill the goals of what they want the robot to do. Then, testing that prototype provides feedback on what is working, what isn’t, or what they can improve. The first prototype shouldn’t be the last one, either.
A good process for building a robot should consider various approaches to the problem or goal the robot is meant to solve or achieve.
Programming Your Robot for Kids
Building a robot can also be a way to make it fun for kids to try computer programming. Robot programmers use complex languages like C and technologically advanced debuggers such as Keil and Ozone at a more professional level. But kids as young as four years old may be able to learn simple robotic coding, which takes inputs, makes choices of actions, issues outputs, and chooses reactions to feedback. Even cooking in a microwave is a simple act of programming — choosing a cooking setting and setting a time — then running that program by pushing start.
Sphero offers robot coding kits and STEM kits for kids at home or in school that make it possible for them to easily code instructions for a robot.
With this knowledge of how to set goals for a robot project, how to conceive what your robot will do, what tools and materials you will choose to use for construction, what your work process should be for a robot project, and lastly, how the programming element can be a way for kids to get acquainted with coding skills, you now have guidelines and resources to begin a robot project with your kids or students. You’ll find that building programmable robots is a fun and engaging way for kids and teens to become STEM-literate. In addition, familiarity with science and technology and understanding these and other STEM subjects is a valuable asset for future success.
Sphero team members Rabia Aslam, a Firmware Engineer, and Bryce Gaston, an Electrical Engineer, contributed their expertise and insight to this article.