I read two robotics magazines -- Servo and Robot -- written for electronics and robot enthusiasts. I'm amazed at the types of servos, controllers, gear boxes, and other bits and pieces people can buy to construct robots. I wish some of this "stuff" existed when I grew up. My brothers and I would have had a lot of fun.
In those days, we had Erector sets and chemistry sets, as well as raw materials such as scrap metal, wood, telephone wire, and nuts and bolts from the local hardware store. We also picked up the odd power lawnmower and washing machine from the local dump. No recycling back then.
During vacations and weekends, we always had a project to work on, and it involved more than snapping or bolting together ready-to-use components or parts. We learned to use hand tools, Dad's radial-arm and band saw, a small drill press, and my uncle's table saw. We built all sorts of contraptions, from rocket launchers to go-karts, and we had fun working on our own, usually without much parental supervision.
As I browsed through the latest magazines and thought about the various fighting-robot and FIRST robotic competitions, I wondered if today's middle- and high-school kids could build things without all the commercial products they -- or their parents -- can buy off the shelf? I have criticized the FIRST competitions because they have students spend more time on organization and fundraising than on building, and everyone must solve the same problem. Also, fighting-robot competitions make no sense to me. Why would I build something to try to destroy something someone else built? And why would I put my robot up for destruction? I don't get it.
Perhaps kids interested in engineering and science could apply their creative energies in ways that let them solve problems they think are important and build something that lasts, something that doesn't require a backup team of engineers, fundraisers, and a machine shop.
Suppose someone started a competition that gave kids a small DC motor, a 2-channel transmitter and servo receiver, two servo motors, and a battery pack. Cost for this hardware comes to about $50. Do you think high-school and middle-school kids could create interesting and useful projects? What else might they need?
Based on the response to the iGEN Student LED Challenge, which involved student teams and a teacher, it's clear that kids want to learn about new things, particularly things that move, communicate, or light up. Having a microcontroller display "Hello World" just won't make the grade. Youngsters have fertile imaginations, and when not hemmed in with lots of rules and regulations, they can create cool projects. So how about a simple mechatronics competition with a minimum amount of equipment? Would you or your company support it?