Robo Wunderkind: The Best Way to Teach Programming to Children
It's not perfect, but this robotics and programming learning tool teaches the fundamentals with an innovative graphical state machine. If you can wait a bit, back their new Kickstarter for the improved model.
Learning how to program has come a long way since I was a child. At age 7, I was learning BASIC on the Amstrad. The most fun I could have was changing the color of the screen. Nowadays, kids are spoilt for choice. The Robo Wunderkind kits introduce programming using a unique graphical interface and customizable robotics toy. It’s easy to use, simple to build, and masterfully engaging for kids of 6 years and up.
Available now as a Starter or Education kit, Robo Wunderkind is also currently Kickstarting their next-generation model, with shipping due next year. If this review piques your interest, head on over to back their newest Kickstarter.
What’s in the Box?
There are two kits available: Starter and Educational, retailing at $179 and $249 respectively.
Inside the Starter Kit, you’ll find:
- The main body of the robot, with Bluetooth connection.
- Two motor modules, wheels, and connecting plates.
- Small back wheel stabilizer.
- Push-button module.
- RGB LED module.
- Four LEGO-compatible blanking plates.
- Micro-USB charging cable.
The Educational Kit takes things a step further, adding:
- One servo module and flexible connector cable.
- One connector block.
- Distance sensor module.
The included blanking plates allow you to both protect exposed connectors and customize your robot endlessly. Bricks, minifigs, or technical LEGO pieces can be attached in a variety of ways.
Getting Started with Robo Wunderkind
The only included printed instructions is a booklet listing all the different modules. Have a look through that so you know what each one is. They’re all color-coded.
You’ll need to download either the RoboLive or RoboCode app to get started. Each app includes a handful of robot designs.
Activate the main body module, pair it using the app, and you’re set. Once you’ve chosen a design, you’re shown an exploded view of the robot. As you click each module into place, a green check will appear to indicate it was successfully detected. My 5-year-old had no problem clicking the various bits together, mostly in the right place. The only tricky part is orienting the main body correctly; if you start with it facing the wrong direction, the panel with the on/off switch might prevent you from clicking things on.
From there, tap on “I’m done”, and you’ll be taken to either the remote control dashboard or the graphical coding view, depending on which app you chose.
The first app is RoboLive, which simply offers a remote control feature of all connected modules. This is probably the easiest place to start children and gives them immediate feedback of what a particular module can do. There are five or six included robot designs with a pre-built dashboard, though you’re also free to begin a new project from scratch. Control components can be dragged and dropped onto the dashboard, and some have parameters you can adjust.
I found RoboLive to be ultimately unfulfilling, though it was the easiest option for my son to pick up and play. Once the basic understanding of what each module does is out of the way, I’d suggest moving onto RoboCode.
This is where the real programming fun comes into play. After building your robot, you’re presented with a graphical state machine. First, just hit play to see what happens. You’ll be able to follow along as each step is highlighting in green as the robot progresses through the state machine. If a particular transition condition has been triggered, that’s also highlighted.
Of course, if you like a challenge, you can always start your machine programming entirely from scratch.
A single state can hold a number of actions to be performed simultaneously, and each state is connected to another via a simple one-way arrow (ie, move onto the next state when this one has finished). Conditions (shown in red) can also be attached to states, so a single state can have multiple outward paths depending on which condition is met. It shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes to grasp the basics, and soon you’ll be modifying the programs. Be careful in delete mode though: everything you tap on will disappear immediately–there is no confirmation dialog!
This Isn’t “Scratch”
Though I really love the graphical state machines of RoboCode, it’s worth noting that if your child is already learning a little programming at school, it’s likely that they’re using Scratch. The two concepts are profoundly different. Scratch is a modular graphical programming system where children drag around code blocks and fill in the blanks. It’s a lot closer to actual coding than the RoboCode system.
That said, I think both are incredibly useful to study. In fact, if you study for a Computer Science degree, you’ll likely study state machines at some point. They’re far more useful for examining how control flows around a system, and relate more directly to robotics than Scratch does.
You can, of course, achieve the same end results with either method, but I feel that the RoboCode state machine idea is a useful tool to complement the other.
Soon though, you won’t have to choose. The Robo Wunderkind team is working on a RoboBlockly app for next year; which is their implementation of Scratch for robotics. You can have the best of both worlds!
Download the Teaching Curriculum
I must admit, I felt a bit lost initially, with no printed tutorial to be found in the box other than a very brief leaflet explaining which piece does what. Opening up the RoboCode interface for the first time is quite daunting, and the included help system is simply a long list of buttons. As a programmer, it was simple enough for me to understand, but I wasn’t sure of the best way to teach it to my son.
Then I discovered the extensive curriculum, freely available to download and suitable for all ages. It consists of teaching guidelines, full lesson plans, worksheets, and answers for both RoboLive and RoboCode. Keep your laptop handy so you don’t have to print everything and follow through it with your child. It explains everything in bite-sized chunks.
Next Generation Robo Wunderkind Kickstarter
We’ve reviewed the current generation of RoboWunderkind kit, and while it’s a fantastic package, it’s not without its flaws. Thankfully, RoboWunderkind has taken a lot of the feedback on-board for their next-gen model, which it’s Kickstarting now.
As well as small improvements across all the current hardware modules, it’s introducing a set of new ones:
- LED matrix display
- Motion sensor
- Light sensor
- Line-following sensor
These open a huge range of new input opportunities for your programs.
RoboUniverse is the new app, which brings together the disparate RoboCode and RoboLive, and introduces a new RoboBlockly, a Scratch-like programming interface. In addition, there’s a new Arduino and Python API under development, for the older kids.
Buy the Robo Wunderkind Kit, or Wait?
The truth is that today’s schools simply aren’t doing to prepare our children for the technological world they’re entering into (amongst other things they’re not teaching, like financial responsibility, but I digress). It’s up to us, as parents, to fill in those gaps. The Robo Wunderkind Education Kit is a great way to do that.
The state machine representation of RoboCode combined with the easy-to-build and customizable robot is a winning combination, the only downside being that it may confuse older children if they already study Scratch at school. Hopefully, the RoboBlockly Scratch app will be available soon to remedy that.
Thanks to Robo Wunderkind, we have a complete Education Kit to give away to one lucky reader. Enter below for your chance to win!
Enter the Competition!Robo Wunderkind Educational Robotics Kit Giveaway
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