Like a kid in a candy shop. That's the way many engineers felt when LEGO® Dacta's ROBOLABTM teaching tool for K-12 use was unveiled in 1998 (see DN 9.7.98, p. 58). Since then ROBOLAB, which combines software, robotics, and LEGOs, has been translated into 12 languages. Upwards of half a million students a year are using the product, according to LEGO Dacta. The commercially available version, MINDSTORMSTM, even has adult user groups (to find out more and purchase kits, visit http://mindstorms.lego.com).
Use of ROBOLAB has even spread to the collegiate level. At Penn State, Richard Benson and Anita Todd teach a freshman seminar with the LEGOs to give mechanical engineering students a basic understanding of the design process and develop team and communication skills. As part of the course, the students design new science and math kits and field test them with grade 4-8 pupils.
Engineers at National Instruments built the robots shown. They employ motors, sensors,software and controls to perfomr advanced functions. The ROBO arm can pick up objects that it detects.
At the pre-college level, ROBOLAB competitions and other events are enhancing its effectiveness. "The great thing is we are assisting inspiration and bringing life and movement to LEGO creations," says Product Manager Kris Fuller of National Instruments (NI; Austin, TX), whose LabVIEWTM software is used in ROBOLAB programming. The company also sees such programs as one way of integrating volunteer engineers on its staff into community service to improve education.
The competitions include RoboBLAST (short for Building Leaders And Scientists Today), held by NI on a Saturday each year. Here designs key on software and hardware functionality using the sensor, communications, and mechanical ROBOLAB components. The company also works with the Austin-based Girlstart (www.girlstart.com), in a program aimed at retaining the interest of middle school girls in math and science. In a girls-only competition, aided by female mentors from NI and the University of Texas (Austin), skills such as sleuthing, based on Nancy Drew stories, are integrated into the competition. And each spring National Instruments holds its ROBOLAB Mania event at which teachers and students gather to display their projects, learn what others are doing, and find out about new tools. "It's a celebration of achievement and out-of-the-box thinking by students," adds Julianne Bash, NI community relations manager. She notes one 5th-grade girls team last year designed a dog with a temperature sensor on its tail. When it was too hot, it would go outside its house. When it got cold, it would go back in. Nationwide, ROBOLAB events include US FIRST's (www.usfirst.org) LEGO League competition with finals held each year at Disney World.
In the classroom, "Some teachers push the boundaries and use ROBOLAB in English as well as math and science," says Fuller. "They use a robot to extend a story in creating, say a carriage, and then extend its use into another story situation. Others rewrite fairy tales into the future and feature a robot character." Teachers are also incorporating additional pieces to ROBOLAB kits, such as string and wood, allowing kids to design systems including elevators and an alarm clock for a deaf person (it worked based on the light sensor).
Up to date. The latest ROBOLAB iteration, version 2.5, has recently been released. ROBOLAB concept creator Chris Rogers, an associate professor in mechanical engineering at Tufts University's (Medford, MA) Center for Engineering Education Outreach, says, "We develop prototype ideas, test them in schools, and present them to LEGO. Together we decide what will get into production." ROBOLAB 2.5 includes Extended Help, Camera Support, Piano Player, new microcontroller (the RCX LEGO brick) firmware, and Control-Lab Support, and it is open source for those who want to "hack" it, according to Rogers.
Feature highlights include:
Extended Help, which gives a description and example of every icon in the Inventor programming level. It is accessed via roll-over help menus.
Camera Support is the largest new section and supports LEGO and Macintosh cameras. Rogers notes, "At the easiest level, kids can simply see what the robot sees. At the intermediate level, the RCX can respond to what the camera sees and users can turn the camera into a smart sensor. For instance, they can determine the number of dots on thrown dice. At the most complex level, one can do full image processing, including greyscale morphology and image cross-correlation using IMAQ software from National Instruments."
Piano Player is Rogers' favorite. "It allows users to write music on a scroll, changing note articulation and duration, as well as transposing, etc. Your robot can then sing as it drives," he adds.
Finally, being open source "allows people to see how it all works and develop their own subroutines," says Rogers. "It also has auto-wiring in the Inventor levels (drag the icons close together and the wires automatically form) and supports the new USB tower."
Description of the designs:Suspension Transit System:
An original design by Chris Rake, a National Instruments hardware engineer, the Suspension Transit System (STS) is designed to balance suspended beneath an elevated track using two motors to drive forward or backward. Touch sensors determine the end of the track, and a light sensor measures the time between the dimples in the track to determine robot speed and distance traveled.
A number of NI ROBOLAB volunteers have used the LEGO Dacta Amusement Park Set #979725. The variety of pieces in the kit allows volunteers and students to design from instructions a tour bus, ghost train, merry-go-round, and even more when they let their creativity go. This demo is particularly useful in introducing students to ROBOLAB. With simple changes to the ROBOLAB software, the merry-go-round can change direction and speed, which allows students to see a direct connection between the software and the function of the hardware.
Constructed by Zake Chasmawala, a FieldPoint R&D project manager at National Instruments, the ROBOarm is one of the most complex (to build and program) robots found in Dave Baum's book "Definitive Guide to LEGO Mindstorms." Even though the programs given in the book were written in Not Quite C, he decided to program from scratch using LabVIEW-based RoboLab. The ROBOarm has three motors. One motor spins the entire arm assembly around, the second lifts the arm, and the third opens and closes the grabber jaws. One touch sensor determines the position (example: home position) and a light sensor detects objects to be picked up. The RCX programmable brick is mounted on the arm and looks very impressive when complete. Several programming exercises can be done with this robot, beginning with simple closing and opening the grabber jaws. Another exercise enables the arm to detect objects on a palette, pick them up and then deliver them to another palette.