Girls, Geeks, Good times

I’ve been neglecting our blog! How can it be?

Well, I’ve been writing so very much here at Modular Robotics. Grants, presentations, conference proposals, lesson plans, and more. Many, many words, and even more time spent word-crafting leaves me feeling less than articulate when it comes to our blog. So, for this post, I’m going to let some pictures do most of the talking.

Modular Robotics was invited to Denver’s Girl Geek Dinner this month. What fun!  But more than fun, I love the opportunity to show off Cubelets and talk about the ways in which they’ve empowered girls to build a bridge from productive play to deeper comprehension.

Of course, with many girls, geeks, and gadget-lovers there, we also got to see some rad robot-building.

A budding maker and tech-innovator built some small moving robots first, and then gave herself the task of making a dog.

Emma's Dog

Emma’s Dog

Kelly was really interested in driving robots, and using the Inverse Cubelet.

Kelly’s smart-driver
IMG_3171Helen made fast friends with us at our table, playing and making lots of robots
So we were thrilled when she won the raffle and went home with a KT06 of her own!

IMG_3160Thanks for having us Girl Geek – we loved talking about how Cubelets are a robot construction kit for everyone. We loved having smart ladies of all ages build amazing robots with us even more!

Engineer, Grant, Project, Product

We’re announcing something awesome on November 7. I promised the team that I wouldn’t announce it early, so consider this a meta-announcement or a second-order announcement. No further announcing follows. Well — we’ve been so focused on details and finishing touches recently that the origins of our new thing have faded a little bit. The story of how it came to be is worth telling.

Back in 2009-2010, some of our startup funding came via SBIR grants from the National Science Foundation. These grants are free money, but they come with some unanticipated benefits too. About three years ago, I got email from the American Society of Engineering Education announcing their new post-doc scholar program. As a NSF SBIR recipient, the ASEE would pay for almost all of a postdoctoral scholar’s salary and health insurance if we hired someone who had recently finished (or was about to finish) their PhD in a technical field.


I immediately thought of Jon Hiller. When I was a post-doc at the Cornell Computational Synthesis lab (now called the Cornell Creative Machines Lab), Jon was a PhD student. Even in a world-class lab filled with the smartest people you’ve met, Jon stood out. He was working on discrete 3D printing, figuring out how to deposit tiny beads of material in dense grids to create forms with variable material properties. He built apparatus, wrote code, ran 3D simulations, and finished some super cool research. I wondered if he was getting ready to defend.

I called Jon. He was about to defend his dissertation and was ready to accept a job at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. It’s hard to compete with a cush government job but modbot had a trump card: Jon’s a rock climber and we’re in Boulder, CO. Proposals were written and he moved out here a month later to start.

Under normal circumstances, there’d be no way that a little, underfunded startup like Modular Robotics in 2010 could embark on the design of a second, totally unique robot project. But when Jon came out to join us, much of the work on commercializing Cubelets was complete. Since Jon was basically “free” to Modular Robotics, we decided that we should make the most of this bonus: we’d put him to work on a brand new something. Here we are, a couple of years later.

Considering Total Landed Cost

A requirement for ball bearings hit Supply Chain’s desk recently. Tens of thousands of them…of the 3/8″, nickel-plated, carbon steel variety.  There are literally hundreds of steel ball suppliers in the world, located in any region you like.  So where should we go to source this type of component?

It turns out that the best unit price in the world is in China at roughly half a cent per ball, certified lead- and contaminant-free.  Done and done.  Problem solved!  On to the next challenge.

But the deal didn’t feel right and I couldn’t quite place it.  Weeks went by, and then one morning it hit me.  Tens of thousands of steel balls are heavy, requiring an enormous amount of packaging material and fuel and people and time to transport them here.   After accounting for the logistics cost, the balls were closer to three cents each.  There must be a better way.

A little more searching turned up a couple large American distributors that bring over tens of millions of balls at a time, completely filling a shipping container and transporting them by sea and by rail more efficiently than we ever could.  As an added bonus, we caught one of the distributors during a free shipping promotion and ended the exercise with a landed cost at just over a penny, and it was a better solution.

In supporting our robot factory here in Boulder, there will always be components that we source overseas.  But it feels good to make a modest effort to source domestically whenever possible, and add to our growing list of US-based suppliers.

It Just Keeps Raining!

Thanks everyone for your calls and emails.  We’ve got some amazing flooding going on right now in Boulder but we’re all OK.  A few modbot people are out of their homes and have flooded basements but modbot HQ is dry with very minimal damage.  We expect to be shipping Cubelets out the door again on Monday.

Everyone knew that this was coming sooner or later.  Our last 100-year flood was in 1894, and Boulder is basically built in the flood plain.  To be clear, 100-year floods don’t occur every hundred years, it’s just a funny way of labeling a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring each year.  Regardless, Boulder’s in a low spot at the mouth of many canyons that drain the Continental Divide, it’s a pretty likely spot for serious flooding.  The weird part of this, though, is that flooding doesn’t normally happen in the Fall, it happens in the Spring, when all of the snow melts and fattens all of the rivers and creeks.

It’s still raining.  I’ve been in and around Boulder for almost 20 years and I’ve never seen it rain continuously like this for days and days.  It generally sprinkles in the afternoon for 15 to 20 minutes during the Summer, but a grey day of rain is a once-a-year novelty.  People here look forward to it, we get all Seattle and drink coffee and watch movies during the day.  But it’s been raining here for a week.


I catch a little flack around Modular Robotics sometimes because I can get get pretty excited about charts.  Some people can look at huge spreadsheets of numbers and make sense of them, but I generally cannot.  I usually think of data as an input, and a chart as the output.  Well, anyway, take a look at the rainfall chart above!

I’m stuck in Nederland, the little mountain town West of Boulder where I live; all of the roads in and out are closed.  We’re at 8,236 feet above sea level, so all’s fine here, all of our rain just washed down to Boulder.  It feels a little odd not being able to leave, but we have ample stores of coffee and chocolate and also a big vegetable garden, so we’ll be just fine.  It just started raining again.

If you’re interested in reading about the meteorology behind the current flooding, Bob Henson wrote a great piece on the UCAR/NCAR site.

Foo Camp 2013 & Local Manufacturing

I’ve been trying not to travel too much this Summer. There’s always a lot to do at Modbot, and in general I’ve tried to spend a little more time riding bikes in the forest and sharing dinners with friends instead of waiting in airports and hotels. I jumped at one interesting invitation, though, and went to Foo Camp in August. It’s been a few weeks and I think I’ve finally calmed down enough to reflect on it.

O’Reilly Media has been organizing and hosting Foo Camp each year since 2002 at its lovely little office/farm complex in Sebastopol, California. It’s a three day unconference: there’s no agenda and the attendees figure out what to do as they go along. O’Reilly invites about two hundred people and provides space, food, and drinks at the Foo Bar. The general idea is that putting a bunch of smart people together will probably result in interesting discussions and collaborations and O’Reilly probably hopes that some of these will result in new books or conferences.


Everyone camps! I pitched my little tent in the orchard.

There was a funny pervasive insecurity among new attendees; people wondered why they were there. During the second day, I started to figure things out. This year, attendees seemed to be working predominantly in three areas: synthetic biology, government hacking, and hardware. I fit pretty clearly into hardware and felt a little more comfortable, but the people making glow-in-the-dark plants kept me guessing.

Foo Camp was intense. Wake up in an orchard, expand your mind for 18 hours, pass out and repeat. It turns out that I can only handle about 12 intense, stimulating conversations in a row before I start to shut down so I made liberal use of the little forested paths in the area to spend a few minutes alone clearing my head. I could ramble here for quite some time about the events of the weekend, but I’ll try to give this a focus and just mention the Local Manufacturing session.

Sessions are set up on the first evening. We arrived, ate, and then milled around a series of huge whiteboards to try and decide what to do with the weekend. A grid of seven locations and 20 time slots provided for a total of 140 sessions, and the group filled them up in just a few minutes. I put up a session called “Local Manufacturing: Tech, Tools and Strategies for Making Stuff” for Sunday morning and hoped someone would show up.


The Local Manufacturing session. Dorky group shot for posterity.

Someone showed up! There’s Z Holly, founder of TEDx. And Mike from Otherfab, who makes the rad little PCB mill spun out of Otherlab. And Adam, one of the Makerbot founders. Nick, who makes hardware design tools, Angie who’s working with girls and code, Heather, who’s thinking about hardware at O’Reilly, Alex from the Media Lab whose little cardboard robots made 200 people laugh at the same time. Modbot hero Chris Anderson showed up!

I can’t really say that we accomplished anything aside from getting ourselves excited about USA manufacturing. We all told our manufacturing stories, I showed some pieces of FARKUS, our robot kit for factory automation, we talked about how valuable it is for designing (engineering) and making (manufacturing) to be colocated, and BAM!, time was up and we needed to head to a session in the Lemur tent for Luddites Working in Technology.

Thanks Tim and Sara and everyone.  I had a very nice time.

We don’t use Molex

Molex is a big, 75-year-old company that makes electronics connectors and other little fiddly bits that you’ll find in iPhones, network gear, and consumer electronics. Today, Molex announced that they were going to be acquired by Koch Industries. If you don’t know or care who the creepy Koch brothers are, then super, we’re done here. But if you do, I thought I’d mention that Modular Robotics uses no Molex connectors in any of our products, and after today’s news we’ve written that rule into our design guidelines for all future products.

Free the Toy Safety Standards!

We do a lot of testing to make sure Cubelets are safe for kids. A few swallowed magnets or an exploding Cubelet would be the end of us, just like it might be the end of a young user. I don’t mean to be grim, but this stuff is serious. It was one thing when we had a few prototype Cubelets that we were showing off in 2010, it’s another thing now: there are thousands and thousands of Cubelets out into the world being played with, left in car trunks, and accidentally dropped in toilets. Our reach has gotten a lot broader recently and we alternate between total confidence and the worry that even one accidental mishap could have disastrous ramifications. So we test. We drop a lot of Cubelets onto Type IV linoleum tile, for example.

We design a lot of tests on our own, both for safety and reliability, but we also test according to national standards. For the USA, we test against the ASTM, CPSIA, and FCC standards. In Europe, we use the EN71s, the EN62115 electrical test, and the EN55014 EMC test.

The other day I found Stephane in the parking lot exploding some batteries.  BLAM!  Note safety goggles and IR thermometer.

The other day I found Stephane in the parking lot exploding some batteries (note safety goggles and IR thermometer).

Some of these tests require that we send a few boxes of Cubelets off to a special lab to get certified. Some of the tests can be done ourselves. Either way, we need to know the standards so that we make sure our designs comply long before we actually send something in for its official test. Know what irks me? That these tests are not posted online for free access. The ASTM test is $72. Each of the EU tests is $300!

Sometimes it’s super-expensive to send Cubelets out to be tested. For some recent testing toward the CE mark, we got quotes ranging from $8,000 to $27,000. I’m OK with both the cost (it takes a tremendous amount of time to test products thoroughly) and the requirements that certified, external labs do the testing. But the standards? They should be freely available to inventors, tinkerers, and grandparents so that they too can have the broadest possible impact.

If I were in charge, I’d change the mission of the toy safety committies to: “Make toys safer.” Putting the recipes for how to do this behind a ridiculous paywall doesn’t help to achieve that mission at all.

What teachers want

Recently, I worked with a really cool and diverse group of teachers and librarians at Colorado RAFT Teacher Symposium. When I was approached to do this and heard it was a three hour workshop, I was unconditionally thrilled. A whole morning with creative teachers who are invested in hands-on education (why else would they be involved with RAFT?) and Cubelets? Pick me.

Others expressed doubts – what will you do with them for three hours? Won’t you get tired? Won’t they get bored?

I’ve been doing fast-and-snappy teacher professional development workshops since April and had some practice laps in, so I felt ready. For me, the key is paying attention to what teachers want, what they need, and determining where we can fit in.

After my first time offering teachers a chance to play with Cubelets, I remember being psyched with how little time it took adults to stoop down on their hands and knees in order to build driving, racing robots. I have a background in training instructors, so I wasn’t nervous to train a room of teachers; but I was pleased to witness that the level of active curiosity I see with kids and Cubelets bubbles up in adults too.


Offering more teacher professional development workshops wasn’t only good practice for me, it meant I learned more specifics about what teachers want. I heard teachers commenting that educators need to talk about STEAM, not just STEM. (The ‘A’ is for Arts. And after all, engineers design and make. And that does lead right back to the arts.) I listened well when teachers said they needed clever ways to teach cause and effect. I paid attention when teachers mentioned how popular robotics was in STEM right now, and how hard it is to find an options that will “start kids off” before engaging with robotics kits that require programming.

Most memorably, on my third try at teacher professional development, I heard some teachers who had not been in my workshop gabbing in the hall. They didn’t know I was behind them and said, “The last thing I want as a teacher is someone who hasn’t had to do it in the classroom trying to tell me how something will go with my students as a way of hard selling me.”

YUP! Iloathe the “hard sell” approach. I’d hate it even more if someone tried to tell me what would and wouldn’t work in my classrooms without having any experience with any students, much less my students.

For this reason that I do my best to test each and every lesson plan idea I have on real students. I do this not because I want to have a more convincing sell to teachers, but rather, because I want our lesson plans to impart real, use-in-your-classes value when teachers, camps, and schools do buy Cubelets.

Bonus: this frees me up to do what works anyways – let the Cubelets do the talking! I jabber for just a few minutes and then focus  on listening to good educator ideas and facilitating teachers to play and learn. In short, I’m back to seeing how fast I can get teachers playing, letting their inner-child bring out their creativity and mixing it with their expertise about what their students, classrooms, and schools need.


I often find that  people (of all ages) gain deeper comprehension of “what do they do” once they have their hands on Cubelets, than if I stand, demo, and talk about them. It’s not that questions don’t come up. Of course they do! But answering them is far easier and more enjoyable when people can try things out live. Teachers especially want to see things in action.

For this three hour session I saw teachers on their hands and knees playing with their robots. I saw art teachers making robots, and then hastily and creatively constructing environments for their robots. I saw teams of educators making robots that react to other robots and dubbing it, “the robot dance party. “ I had teachers joke that they were using the “force” (Distance Cubelet) to control driving robots and comment on how kids could see this as magic, but then investigate what was causing that “magic.”

More substantially I heard teachers ask (and answered):

“I want something for teens and tweens to do that will inspire them to use technology for more than texting and Youtube.”

We’re really interested in students gaining intuitions about systems, logic, and computational thinking in tangible, immediate ways that give them feedback so that they can more confidently take on wanting to engineer, design, or write code in abstract ways.

“I want my art students to think about design like this.”

We love seeing students (and teachers!) design by pulling things apart and re-configuring them so fast they almost don’t have time to articulate their plan!

“Can I ask you more about emergent behavior? When I hear “behavior” I think of the students’ behaviors in class but as I’m making this robot, I think you mean something different.”

This was one of my favorite questions to answer!  ”Because each Cubelet has exactly one function people often think the way to track ‘how many’ they can make has to do just with the counting (or combinatorics) of each Cube, function, or the faces on the Cubelets. But sometimes as you’re adding functions and the Cubelets are sending and receiving information from more than one other Cubelet, behaviors emerge that you didn’t plan or design. It’s what makes people refer to Cubelets robots as animals or people-like even though they are the least android-looking robots I’ve ever seen.”

“These robots are different from other robots, aren’t they? There’s no brain pieces – they are all sharing data.”

Yes! Cubelets robots are a distributed system. That sounds technical. Another way to say it is that every component is parallel and “talks” directly to one another. Imagine if your foot was connected directly to your ears, with no brain mediating sensory information or reactions.

“What’s the youngest you’ve seen students ‘get it’ with these?”

I’ve seen a child who wasn’t yet 3 years old build sense-act robots successfully and ask me enough questions to use ALL of the senses and actions!

“What’s the oldest you’ve seen students still stay motivated and engaged with Cubelets?”

We know that the shape and colors of Cubelets gives them the gross-motor, young child, Pre-K look. Pre-schoolers can “get it” with minimal support and the right set-up. But as older students get their hands on Cubelets, they too get it, and add layers of sophistication, posing their own questions and challenges, and then setting themselves up to construct the right investigation to answer themselves. Quite simply, I’ve been amazed with what students do with Cubelets from ages not-yet-three up to 18!

“Do you think this could be used for Special Ed science?”

Yes! Since I’ve seen kids from Pre-K all the way up to 12th grade work with Cubelets in developmentally appropriate ways, I could easily find the point on that continuum that your Special Ed student(s) matched up with and make adjustments that would make a Cubelets Lesson plan work!

But mostly what I heard was “Come look at what I made!”

Not that different from what happens when I pack up Cubelets and take them into schools and camps full of kidos! Lots of excitement and discovery – not surprising. After all, all the best educators I know work with students because they found ways to learn enjoyably and wanted to pass it on. Of course these same people know how to locate their inner-excited-student!

How are Cubelets Made?

Watch how the three big machines in our Surface Mount Technology (SMT) line create circuit boards for Cubelets in our Boulder, Colorado factory. We’ve made a lot of changes to our production line recently and each machine automates a task that we used to do by hand. Now we get vastly quicker and better results and can make thousands more Cubelets per week than before.


Educators know how to party

Don’t let educators and instructors fool you by their use of words like “pedagogy” and “paradigm.” We know how to have a good time.

I’ve known this for a long time in my career whether I’ve been a camp director, after school educator and curriculum writer, working in a pre-school setting or with college students. When the day is done, the lesson plans prepared, and the papers are graded, friends in the “biz” are not only great party-mates but creative in their pursuit of fun. With this in mind, we decided to host some of our closest friends and allies in education here for a dinner party with equal parts fun, learning, good food, and good times.

Since it was our first foray into hosting a community of people who are excited not just about Cubelets, but also about a better way for students to learn, we kept it to a fairly small group hoping they would all get to know each other and be part of a continuing conversation. (Never fear – we’ll do this again, and next time it could be your turn!)

IMG_1973 (1)

We’re lucky to know so many quality Modular Robotics enthusiasts that we could draw together educators representing a lot of variety – Pre-K to high school, from arts and electronics to engineering and robotics, and from public school teacher to retired software engineer/new after school program leader to our friends at SparkFun. Smart, imaginative, and every single one fired up by the idea of how to share ideas and raise hands-on education above the level of playtime.

This kind of talk sounds lofty and high-horsed. I know I have particular ideas about what people should learn and how that can be achieved. I also know I’m not alone. What was special about this gathering was not that it was a crowd of followers, but rather a community of people who each have particular ideas, but care more about sharing those ideas in powerful ways than beating down other perspectives.

Food and fun help bring these kinds of groups together in a positive way, of course, so as hosts we did our part to treat our guests to entertaining education and yummies.
IMG_1966I’ve been working with a number of science programs that have schooled me in the language of claims and evidence so let me tell this next part of the story in that STEM-speak.

Claim: Even if our dinner menu had been less stellar, the company we gathered would still have collaborated on creative ideas that blew me away.

Evidence: In the “Cubelets Dinner Party Challenge” part of the evening they created chicken and cow robots! Starting with a simple robot (no more than 5-6 Cubelets) they tinkered and came up with robots representing farm animals. Never in my wildest imagination would I have predicted that!



Did I tell you educators knew how to have fun?

We are privileged to be parts of the kinds of learning communities that deeply consider the role of building and making, coding vs. computational thinking, student-lead and discovery-based learning, and how to support authentic and lasting learning. I’ve shared these moments with our education friends in classes with their students as we excitedly watched what students created and discovered. I’ve had these moments meeting with our allies over coffee and beer. I’ve had this moment at events and conferences too, but I don’t want these moments just to be warm memories that sustain me at my desk. So, it seemed only fitting that we would take the next step and not just be members of that community, but hosts that help build and sustain it.

What emerged was grander even than that – a genuine desire, from everyone at the table, to be part of a movement changing what students learn, and how they learn it. My kind of party.