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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

Using Cubelets Blockly, you can code every single Cubelet within your robot construction. But what does this mean? And how does it compare with coding in other contexts?

User Interface

Cubelets Blockly functions very similarly to other visual programming languages like Blockly or Scratch by using a drag and drop functionality of function blocks that hook together like puzzle pieces. Cubelets Blockly has a few of its own blocks, however, that you won’t find anywhere else. That’s because Cubelets are such a unique robot-building experience.  Check out Episode 9.1 of our Create with Cubelets series to learn more!

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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.

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Teacher appreciation week starts on Monday, and we want to make sure you know just how much we appreciate all the hard work you do.

So to celebrate you, we’re giving away prizes all week, and one grand prize winner will receive a Cubelets Curiosity Set!

All you need to do to get in on the action is tweet a story or photo of how you use (or would like to use) Cubelets with the hashtag #CubeletsChat and tag @ModRobotics.

Each new story will be considered one entry, and even if you win one of the daily giveaways, you’re still entered to win the grand prize! The random drawings will happen at 4pm MT, daily, from May 6 – 10, 2019, with the grand prize winner chosen on Friday, May 10 2019.

Read more for full contest details.

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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:

  • Decomposition
  • Pattern Recognition
  • Abstraction
  • Algorithmic Solutions

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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.

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Classroom management is well-served by practiced routines. I’ve already written down some of my best tips in an earlier  #CubeletsChat post, but even more questions about supporting well-managed Cubelets classrooms have poured in.

We could spend an entire college course talking about student routines. They improve classroom management, increase student respect for peers and classroom materials, and there’s the importance of students practicing responsibility. But you know all of that, so we’re going to cut to the chase.

When you are deciding which routines make sense for your Cubelets classroom, remember the greatest asset we have in our classrooms is our students. Students can accomplish an astonishing amount of work in very little time (partially because there’s just so many of them!). With a short conversation, a lot of practice, and regular reinforcement, students of all ages can responsibly gather materials, report questions or problems to you, and return materials to their proper home.

To establish routines, keep three steps in mind:

  1. Know what routines need to be established. These can be created by the teacher or the students, but routines should be intentional.
  2. Plan time to practice new routines. When it comes to practicing routines, accept nothing less than perfect and make sure students can get it right more than once in a row!
  3. Be ready to reinforce routines. You know it, I know it, we all know there are bad-routine days: field trips, upcoming school breaks, full moons. Routines that are clearly defined are easier to practice.

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Our Cubelets Lesson Plans all use a common format. This format is our version of an Inquiry Framework. We intentionally modified this framework from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to represent how student mindsets change throughout the learning process.

At the beginning of a lesson or unit, students are filled with wonder and excitement. Ideally, they’re asking tons of questions and intuitively predicting the solutions based on their background experiences.

Then, students engage in the core learning experience. This is the investigation or engineering design challenge that will gently lead students to answers (and often many more questions!).

Finally, students try to explain their new learning in their own words. They reference background knowledge from prior to the lesson as well as new information they gathered during the investigation or design process. Students share their explanations with each other and use their classmates as sounding boards to tweak and refine their understanding. Sometimes they even go back to investigate or redesign again!

The very last step is less of a student mindset and more of an educator mindset. Taking the time to accurately gather formative data throughout a unit helps teachers more quickly identify students’ synthetic models and adjust student groups to better address common questions.

This Inquiry Framework is most valuable because it can easily be translated into inquiry investigations or into guided release of responsibility lessons. It can stretch to the length of an entire unit or squeeze everything into one individual lesson. Its flexibility is what makes it so useful. Every teacher, in every subject, can see themselves in our framework and also identify places to grow professionally.

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“I feel that robots in schools are an incredible equalizer,” says Craig Dunlap, a Blended Learning Teacher at Yealey Elementary in Boone County School District in Florence, Kentucky. “No one really knows what they are doing, so it’s OK not to be an expert.”

Mr. Dunlap runs Yealey’s makerspace program and assists other teachers with integrating technology in their classrooms, whether that’s Chromebooks, iPads, or, of course, robots. He continues, “I love one-on-one time with students over robots. We learn a new skill and form a bond at the same time.”

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It took some time, however to realize his makerspace vision.

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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!

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We recently shipped out Cubelets kit number 100,000. It’s an arbitrary number, but I think cause for celebration. Something about another digit, an order of magnitude, reinforces that a hundred thousand is a pretty big number.

The notion that we’ve made 100,000 boxed Cubelets kits is a little baffling when I think back through our history. I started on the design of Cubelets as part of my PhD research (we called them roBlocks back then) at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006. Something about the little robot blocks caused imaginations to go into overdrive; one after another, people visiting our lab kept asking if I could make just a few more Cubelets; for their science center or children’s museum. After a visitor from Japan offered to pay a ridiculous amount of money for my (only) prototype set of Cubelets, we decided to try to figure out how to make more of them in a way that didn’t rely on me staying up all night soldering circuit boards.

Here’s one of my favorite videos from the Cubelets Museum.  These were the first working prototypes of the design for mass production.  I had just returned from a trip to visit our injection mold supplier in China, and brought back these black prototypes.  I shot this video quickly on my desk, my friend Evan recorded the music, and I did a quick iMovie edit and posted the video.  Yesterday, our COO Jon Moyes and I were talking about the feeling of wonder, and he mentioned how vividly he remembered seeing this video in 2011 and deciding that he wanted to work for Modular Robotics.

Even back then we were thinking about the future.  I remember a conversation with Brad Feld, one of our Directors, where we discussed orders of magnitude for product lines.  Back then, we posited that we’d make around 1000 Cubelets kits, then we’d parlay what we learned from that into the next product that we’d make 10,000 of (remember MOSS?).  And that eventually, we’d figure out robot blocks and design a product that sold 100,000 kits.  Here we are, eight years later, with 100,000 Cubelets kits out the door and increasing volumes each year.  We didn’t see that coming.

From some perspectives, 100,000 is not a huge number.  When I was a little kid, it was a big deal for a car to reach 100,000 miles.  I remember when our big green Dodge van, Betsy, hit 100,000 miles.  The van only had five digits on the odometer; reaching 100,000 caused it to reset to zero.  But now some cars are making it to a million miles!

For us, though, 100,000 Cubelets kits (that’s around 720,000 Cubelets, by the way) feels big, and feels like a reason to celebrate.  After all, the mission of Modular Robotics is to make the world a better place with thousands and thousands of tiny robots.  Explicit in that is broad impact through scale.  We see every day how Cubelets can help kids form thoughtful and accurate models of how the world works, and it feels like we’re on our way to helping create a critical mass of kids who can think about complex systems, networks, and emergence in ways that my generation clearly can’t.

Here’s our most recent Cubelets video.  Some things have changed, but it’s surprising how much has not.

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