I’ve been having a lot of fun at Modular Robotics lately. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind with a lot of changes, a lot of new collaborators, a lot of new ideas, and a lot of creative problem solving. It never occurred to me that we’d grow by acquiring other companies, but here we are: just a few weeks ago, we completed the transaction to merge with Dexter Industries and we’ve been busy integrating our new team members and making plans for the future. Dexter has been on my radar since about 2013. Back then, they were making a bunch of interesting high-end sensors and extensions for LEGO Mindstorms, and I thought the idea was compelling: build on a commercially successful construction kit to enable kids (and AFOL) to explore further than the stock pieces and configuration allowed. Dexter has grown and changed quite a bit since then, focusing over the last few years on mobile robots for education. They’re still building off of the work of other successful projects; the Gigglebot, below, is built around a micro:bit and the GoPiGo, further down, is built around a Raspberry Pi. Up until a couple of years ago, we didn’t think much about teaching kids to code. I feel strongly that the push to teach coding in elementary schools is misguided: that we should start with teaching computational thinking, away from a computer screen, and only get kids started coding when it starts to become something that they want or need to do in order to solve a problem or make something. We hear all the time about how it’s important to teach little kids to code, but most of the time I think we’re hearing it from people who don’t really code themselves and see it naively as a step on the path to a good twenty-first century job. Those of us who write code every day know that it’s just one of many tools needed to design something. It’s important to start from the beginning, with logic, computational thinking, and creativity, before moving to programming. I’m proud that Cubelets have been a big success at helping kids learn to think. With Cubelets, kids as young as four are learning about things like feedback, control, loops, recursion, inputs/outputs, sensors, and networking all before they start programming. Later, after kids learn the basics of programming, Cubelets are again a powerful tool: kids can code them to make complex distributed systems: concurrent models of cities, animals, and ecosystems. But the complexity of Cubelets makes them not the best tool for the step in the middle: learning and practicing the basics of programming. Since Cubelets are a parallel system, they can quickly get complicated for learning to code. It’s much easier to start small and code a simple robot than it is to code an interconnected mass of twenty! I first learned some programming in Logo. My dad tells the story of coming to first grade parents’ night at Coleytown Elementary School in 1983 or so and seeing me demonstrate directing my little green turtle icon around on an Apple II screen with lines of code. My dad likes to say that he saw the future that night. He went home and bought a Commodore 64, learned how to use it, and later, as a professional photographer, became an early adopter of digital imaging, Photoshop and image databases. Anyway. Something about using code to create geometric patterns and illustrations was the bait that drew me in. A lot of people don’t know that the first Logo turtles were physical robots, not the familiar on-screen triangles. Back in 1960 it wasn’t practical to have a physical robot for every kid, so we made do with on-screen simulations. In 2019, it’s eminently practical, and the real-world behavior, tangibility, physicality, and connection to natural systems make robots an excellent tool for teaching kids to code. At first, we thought we’d design a coding robot from scratch. Modular Robotics is a spinoff from an academic research lab at Carnegie Mellon University, and the desire to invent new things is part of our culture. But after a few discussions with John Cole, Dexter’s founder and CEO, it was apparent that there was a better path right in front of us. On July 1, 2019, Modular Robotics bought Dexter Industries, and not only have we expanded the set of learn-to-code tools in our product line, we’ve got a great new team of experts to work with moving forward. John is a pretty amazing human being. He started Dexter Industries in his kitchen, after working in alternative energy and a variety of other fields too. He has an insatiable curiosity, combined with the capability to realize his crazy ideas, and that draws everyone toward wanting to work with him. Over the last ten years he’s spent time in Afghanistan, India, Iraq, and many other places, and has some unique stories to tell. I’m honored and thrilled to have him on the Modular Robotics team as a close collaborator, along with the impressive collection of characters who make up the rest of the Dexter team. People seem to recoil a bit at the word “synergy”. I think it gets thrown around too much in the business community and has lost some of its meaning. But in the context of mergers and acquisitions, it has a very specific meaning. Putting our two companies together results in a lot of synergies; areas in which the best of one company can combine with the best of the other, creating a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts: a whole that’s more like the product of its parts. By multiplying Modular Robotics’ operations, reach, design, education experience, and network with Dexter’s innovation, engineering, university programs, and coding robots, we’re way more effective than when both of us were out there trying to do everything on our own. If you still hate the word “synergy,” maybe try syzygy. It’s a much cooler word. Or zymurgy, which I fondly recall from being a little kid who read the dictionary, often backward. Ok, sorry, I’m getting distracted. We’re making one awesome change immediately. Starting today, all of the Dexter curricula, lesson plans, and activities will be available free of charge, under a Creative Commons license, for educators to download, remix, and re-use, however they desire. It’s a treasure trove of awesome content and I’m psyched to get it into more teachers’ hands. The materials that the Dexter team have designed and built over the years are a direct fit with our mission, and making them available at no charge feels like a great way to quickly scale up and help many more kids become better thinkers. Other changes will be slower. We’ve already got our design, education, and engineering teams collaborating on a couple of new Cubelets and some educational material to be launched early next year. We’re starting in on a couple of top secret projects as well. For now, the Gigglebot, GoPiGo, BrickPi, GrovePi, and the rest of the new products will stay branded as Dexter Industries products. When you place an order, it’ll ship from Modular Robotics in Boulder, Colorado, and when you email customer support, you’ll be reaching our new, combined team. I’m excited to share some fun new things in the coming months, but for now, we’re charging ahead and trying to break as few things as we can in the meantime. Zooming back out for a minute, I’m tremendously proud that our team was able to put this merger together, especially within the current context of quite a few IoT and consumer robotics companies (Anki, Jibo, Reach…) shutting down. Casual observers might make an assumption that the consumer robotics market isn’t as promising as previously thought, but I’m certain that’s incorrect and that all of those companies were simply spending way more money than they were making. Hardware is hard, no doubt, but as we get closer to shipping the millionth Cubelet, it feels like we’ve built a strong foundation helping kids become better thinkers. This acquisition allows us to immediately scale up and impact a greater number of kids and a more diverse set of learners. I’m incredibly excited for what’s next.
While having Cubelets for a whole class is the dream, a single group of Cubelets can be just as effective of a teaching tool. Because the Curiosity Set and Discovery Set are small, they are sometimes overlooked when teachers plan for their classrooms. But the size of the Curiosity and Discovery Sets can actually be an asset. Not only do they give more flexibility to smaller budgets (you can get five Curiosity Sets or nine Discovery Sets for less than one Mini Makers Pack), their sleek design and creative internal packaging are actually extremely helpful in keeping track of these valuable computer science tools. So how do the Curiosity and Discovery Sets serve you in the classroom? Continue reading
Welcome back to school — we missed you! As you prepare for the first few weeks of school, you might be ready for a little reminder about how Cubelets work. You may also have a new colleague who was never introduced to Cubelets at all. Don’t worry, we have resources for you to use or pass along – no need to reinvent the wheel. I recommend taking a few minutes to explore the Hub. Continue reading
Depending on which combination of Cubelets you own, you may have different questions about how to store and manage your Cubelets. Our Education Packs, for instance, arrive in plastic tubs that each contain multiple groups’ worth of Cubelets. Some schools ordered many Cubelets TWELVEs (replaced by the Curiosity Set in 2019), which arrive in one cardboard box per student group, but the cardboard box requires Cubelets to be stacked on top of each other, so it’s hard to quickly scan to see if the Cubelets have all been returned to their proper places. So let’s talk about how you might manage the storage of your Cubelets.
Cubelets Containers: Plastic “Education Tubs”First and foremost, many schools and teachers come back asking for our Cubelets Containers (the same plastic tubs that all Education Packs ship in). To make quick-scan accountability easier, they’ll print out a Packing Reference Guide and tape it to the inside cover of each Cubelets Container: Continue reading
Cubelets are useful in a variety of learning environments from open-play stations to whole-group guided release. But this balance between unstructured play (important!) and guided instruction (also important!) is a pendulum whose best practices are still not firmly agreed-upon by education researchers, so many teachers like to create their own middle ground. This often involves a workshop model of sorts, which we’ve talked about in previous #CubeletsChat posts. Today, I want to go more in-depth about using the Activity Cards we created, if Workshop Model describes your classroom. Each Activity Card is double-sided. On the front, we always have an image or icon to help students quickly identify what type of task they are being asked to do. We also have a title for the card and a super-brief description to make sure students have everything they need to understand the challenge. On the back, we have three different types of information. One is a complexity rating using both stars and our labeling. For Cubelets we label our levels as: Novice, Apprentice, Artisan, and Master. We also have set-up clues and helpful hints. If students are struggling to complete their activity from the front side alone, encourage them to read through our clues on the back to help them get over their hurdles. Our Cubelets Activity Cards include several different types of challenges that push students into unique types of thinking. Continue reading
While many people think about back-to-school as taking place in September, most educators have already been hard at work by then, preparing lessons, taking inventory of supplies, and putting the finishing touches on their classroom designs. Adding a new STEM tool, like Cubelets, to an already jam-packed year can seem like a tall order. So, we sat down with Educational Designer Emily Eissenberg to get her insider perspective on this crucial period, and learn all of her best tips for integrating little robots into the classroom year-round.
Tell us a little bit about the classrooms you used to teach in. What grades have you worked with? Any subjects you specialized in?I taught fourth-grade (every subject) and then became the district K-6 science content specialist, so science is my gig. I’m a nerd for all things education, though, so I’ve designed curriculum for all subjects and coached teachers in every content area!
What was your favorite part of getting ready for a new school year? Were there any tools you found particularly helpful during this process?I loved gearing up for the “classroom culture” aspect of a new school year. I really stand by the motto, “Go slow to go fast,” so I specifically designed my first few weeks of school to be focused on routines and protocols that I wanted to use consistently throughout the year, but anchored them in get-to-know-you content. My favorite protocols are from Making Thinking Visible [by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison] and Make Just One Change [by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana], and our classroom routines flexed with each year’s schedule, classroom layout, and executive functioning needs. Continue reading
The Cubelets App has two main functions: Remote Control and Personality Swap. We’ve already introduced you to the Personality Swaps, but have you begun to use Remote Control in your classroom? There’s a hidden feature I want to highlight for you because it’s not the first application people think of when they see a title like Remote Control: gathering data about our robot constructions. (Before you continue, it’s a good idea to make sure you understand how data travels through Cubelets by either reading this blog post or taking the Cubelets 102 (free) online workshop.) As you already know, you can easily gather information about how data is traveling through a Cubelets robot construction using the Bar Graph Cubelet. The Bar Graph is also a screen-free way to gather data about your Cubelets constructions. It simplifies the numbers into a 1-10 scale, as opposed to numbers between 1-255, so it makes data flow conversations available for students who are still emergent mathematicians. However, there is one thing Remote Control can do that Bar Graph Cubelets cannot: collect information about every Cubelet in a robot construction at the same time. By screenshotting the data in Remote Control, students can very quickly gather static data to analyze later. As students build more complex creations, especially by adding multiple SENSE Cubelets, it’s more important that they check their assumptions about how the data is flowing through their robot constructions. In general, the five main states of a two-SENSE robot are:
- two sensors at 255,
- two sensors at 0,
- two sensors at ~127 (about halfway),
- one sensor at 255 while the other sensor is at 0,
- and vice versa.
By now, you’ve probably heard all about Computational Thinking. You’ve already defined it and shown how it relates to your content. But of course, Computational Thinking applies to many subjects and tools, including Cubelets. Here at Modular Robotics, we define computational thinking as being a problem-solving process that helps break down complex problems into smaller parts, so you can develop a model to solve the problem, evaluate the results, and recreate the solution over and over! (If you’d like to learn more about our definition, check out our page devoted entirely to Computational Thinking.) Computational Thinking is commonly divided into four subskills:
- Pattern Recognition
- Algorithmic Solutions
Have your students already built it all? Is it time to make your Drive Cubelets move in both directions? Ever wanted your Flashlight to blink in Morse code? Or your Bar Graph to show you binary counting? It might be time to Personality Swap™ your Cubelets. Personality Swaps are a scaffolded introduction to coding. When we are ready to take our students from using default Cubelets to creating their custom codes, Personality Swaps will be the next step for them. Personality Swaps are also a great way to introduce the concept of software versus hardware. They give students ideas about what can be changed within a Cubelet’s software and how those changes might improve their robot constructions. NOTE: To get started with Personality Swap you will need a Bluetooth Hat or Bluetooth Cubelet, as well as the new Cubelets app. Continue reading
Cubelets are the Inception of modeling tools. As you go deeper into your Cubelets experiences, you learn layer upon layer of new skills, taking your models from simple ideas to more abstract ones. At first, students model concepts like animal adaptations, poem structures, push and pull forces, or energy transformation. Then, as students gain a deeper understanding of Cubelets, they begin to draw models of how the data flows within and between Cubelets. This, in turn, opens doors for students to use Cubelets as a tool for modeling more abstract and complex behaviors like computer networks, the internet, and even Turing computers! This is why we’ve written an entire Introduction to Computer Science mini-unit: to help you introduce concepts that take Cubelets from ‘fun building blocks’ to ‘modeling tool.’ At their youngest, or when Cubelets are most novel, learners will connect this tool to their background knowledge. For this reason, one of our recommended first challenges for Cubelets users is to build a Cubelets lighthouse. We mentioned this in our Tactile Coding blog post. Then, students progress to designing robots that incorporate various animal adaptations such as nocturnal versus diurnal or object avoiding versus object seeking. As robots become more complicated, however, Cubelets learners are bound to ask, “Why is this happening?” And if they don’t, we, as teachers, should! Continue reading