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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

Ask Brandy Ray for her favorite Cubelets moment, and she’ll tell you about watching three- and four-year-olds using Cubelets to explore robotics.

It was so fun to watch their understanding unfold! We did so many Cubelets challenges in the classroom. We even used Cubelets as a way to teach math and science concepts such as sorting and human senses. Before long, my students were able to understand that each Cube is programmed to be a sense, think, or act Cube, and that each of these Cubes influenced the behavior of whatever they’d created. After creating a Fraidy Bot, one of my three-year-old students shared, “It senses your hand. I can drive it to you!”

Now a fifth-grade teacher at Mackintosh Academy in Boulder, Colorado, Ms. Ray has used Cubelets in a variety of classroom settings across a wide age range. She utilizes Cubelets to teach concepts such as computational thinking, cause and effect, and the different components of a robot. Cubelets robot blocks allow for “hands-on inquiries,” a method she finds valuable for instilling these lessons.

Ms. Ray has seen first-hand the kind of impact Cubelets have had on her students. Cubelets have taught her students techniques for how to problem-solve, an important lifelong skill. She has watched older students experiment to find out how a particular THINK block works, and has challenged younger students to try to build a robot using only three Cubelets blocks.

She finds that Cubelets are a useful way for her to teach math concepts like sorting, as well as for modeling science concepts. Ms. Ray observed her students learning the principles of cause and effect using Cubelets. They also explored how each robot block is programmed to perform a specific function, and that each one will influence the whole robot construction in different ways.

For her fellow educators, Ms. Ray acknowledges that working with materials and concepts that they may not be familiar with can be intimidating. Nonetheless, she encourages teachers to take the risk and try out Cubelets in their classrooms. She has found that, even right out of the box, Cubelets can be used to investigate a variety of content areas.

But more than that, Ms. Ray says, “It’s so fun to watch a student figure out how Cubelets work. Surprise and excitement light up their face!”

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Robot fun has made it into summer camps!  With 40 locations in the US, Steve & Kate’s Camp leaders were excited to add Cubelets to their activities in 2017.  With the addition of Cubelets, they found that robotics has been a popular offering in their camps.

Michaela Clinton, Camp Director in Denver, worked at camps for 15 years before joining Steve & Kate’s. She was “drawn to the educational philosophy of letting kids express themselves in ways they may have never been able to before.”

At Steve & Kate’s, students design their own summer camp experience. They are given the choice of several different kinds of activities, including sports, cooking, music studio, and robotics. Campers are allowed to pursue whatever interests them at any given moment during the day. As Cubelets encourage discovery through play, they are a natural fit for the open exploration style of learning that is a hallmark of the Steve & Kate’s camp experience.

“We use Cubelets in our Coding and Robotics studio as the robotics component,” Ms. Clinton says. “We have open play time for most of the day, so campers utilize plastic mats on the floor to run their robots in all kinds of shapes and sizes.”

The camp also runs special weeks where the students are challenged to build robots according to a theme. One of the themes, “Spin This,” challenges students to build a robot construction that spins an object or spins itself. The most popular theme, however, is Battle Bots. Campers love adding lots of Drive, Speaker, and Flashlight blocks to their robot creations prior to setting their constructions against one another in battle!

What have leaders at Steve and Kate’s discovered?  Teamwork is one of the most important concepts that campers learn while exploring with Cubelets. Campers also learn about mechanics (or mechanisms), connections, logical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Collaboration is key with Cubelets, and campers become comfortable with sharing their robot blocks along with their ideas in an innovative setting.

What is Ms. Clinton’s favorite part about watching her campers work with Cubelets?

“When they discover that a change can make things work the way they wanted or in a way they never expected,” she answers. “When they make a new discovery they simply have to show the entire room what they have done. When they’re trying to problem solve and they concentrate really hard, the occasional tongue sticks out.”

Cubelets have had a profound effect on Ms. Clinton’s campers. She says that Cubelets have “opened up the wide world of mechanical potential. It lets them take their creativity into reality and see it unfold before their eyes.”

After a summer spent working with Cubelets and observing how children interact with them, Ms. Clinton has this advice for educators working in camps and similar settings:

“Play with them for several hours first. Set a few goals for what you want to create, then try to see it through. This will help you go through the experience that campers go through. Be ready with some coping skills for kids! Don’t feel like you have to fix their issue right away. Help them understand the limitations and capabilities of each cube and let them find out on their own what will happen. This opens up more possibilities.”

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Michael Jaber has seen first-hand the profound effect Cubelets robot blocks have on students. Students who tended to sit back now step up and lead; those who were shy are now willing participants. Those who previously had no interest in STEM have joined the STEAM Team at Jefferson Elementary School in Sheboygan, WI.

Mr. Jaber is the Coordinator of Instructional Technology. Every Thursday afternoon, he spends time in classrooms showing students new technology gadgets. As one of the featured gadgets, Cubelets have piqued the interest of all the students. Cubelets are used to explore robotics using a constructivist approach, and Mr. Jaber has seen teacher Diane Moon successfully use them in the Next Generation Science Standards fifth-grade curriculum.

When Jefferson Elementary first received Cubelets, they used them in a technology center rotation to allow students to explore and determine what the function of each robot block was This lead to purposeful conversations and the students worked together to create the specific robot construction that they had in mind.

“This was not teacher directed but rather student led,” Mrs. Moon said, “and I just looked on and learned as they learned.”

Cubelets are also used in Mrs. Moon’s classes to foster critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. For example, teams would build a robot construction and then be challenged to make improvements to it. This led to discussions and methods of problem solving that were advanced for her? fifth-grade students.

Cubelets often shine when things don’t go according to plan. One of Mrs. Moon’s favorite moments involved a top-heavy robot that kept falling over. The girls who designed the robot knew they had to fix the issue, but they didn’t want to lose any of its features, like lights and movement. Through a series of self-motivated trial and error iterations, the girls solved the weight distribution problem and kept their desired features, practicing their design-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Mrs. Moon found that Cubelets are not limited to technology-based lessons. Cubelets are cross-curricular, and can be used to emphasize lessons in all learning content areas. In one of their language art lessons, for example, they create stories with robot characters. In another, students use Cubelets to act out some of the stories read in class and record them with narration.

Mr. Jaber believes that his role is to support the  staff and students of the Sheboygan Area School District  and let them take the lead on their learning. He believes, Cubelets “encourage the use of higher-level thinking skills, creativity, and teamwork.”

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Jamie Roth uses Cubelets not as an add-on to her curriculum, but as an enhancement to her current lessons.

Teachers are frequently asked to add more into our already packed curriculum,” she says, “and time is always a factor. So, it’s extremely helpful when you find an authentic, engaging, hands-on tool to enhance curriculum and to spark that excitement in our students.”

Ms. Roth teaches second grade at Fireside Elementary in Louisville, Colorado. She has been using Cubelets with her students for two years. When she introduces Cubelets to her students, she utilizes the free lesson plans for grades 1-3 and has had great success with them. She has found the best way to start is to begin with the “Robots and Sensing” lesson. After that, she guides her students through the other three lessons, which give them a deeper understanding of Cubelets and robotic behavior.

“Because of Cubelets, my students communicate and collaborate well with their teammates,” she says. “They are excellent listeners and love sharing their ideas!”

Ms. Roth has found uses for the robot blocks in several different learning content areas. She has integrated Cubelets into her Forces & Motion science unit by having her students document  in their science journals what causes their robots to move, as well as why and how they are moving as they do.

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For a language arts application, she has her students write opinions, procedures, and narratives that involve Cubelets. Students write about topics such as “How to Make My Robot.” Throughout it all, her students are practicing their 21st-century skills – collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and problem-solving – without even realizing it!

Prior to implementing Cubelets in a classroom setting, Ms. Roth used them in a Makerspace. The Innovative Learning Lab had a weekly rotation, and students worked in groups of four while sharing a Cubelets kit. Ms. Roth would issue challenges that students would solve as a group with their Cubelets. At the end of the activity, they would sit in a circle and share their robots with the rest of the class. Students would then fill out a reflection worksheet that evaluated how they and their group members worked together, and what could be improved for next time.

Ms. Roth loves how excited her students get when using Cubelets – she says that they have told her that it’s like they’re not even at school! Her students are always amazed by how many different robots can be made with just three Cubelets blocks, and how each robot construction behaves differently based on its configuration.

Nevertheless, in the beginning Ms. Roth was overwhelmed by the thought of teaching with Cubelets.

I’d never used them before, I was hesitant to learn, and I continued to put them off,” she says. “Then, I realized I don’t have to know everything. My students will help me!”

That is exactly what happened. Ms. Roth learned alongside her students, and, two years later, they are still discovering and teaching her new things.

“Cubelets have really taught my students how to work in teams better than anything else I’ve ever tried in the past fourteen years.”

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Barbara Grindle knows the endless possibilities that Cubelets robot blocks offer to students of all ages. A third-grade teacher at Marshdale Elementary in Evergreen, Colorado, Ms. Grindle serves as her school’s Gifted and Talented Building Liaison, as well as the STEAM Class Coordinator.

She likes to use Cubelets in her Friday Afternoon Clubs as an exploration exercise. She challenges her students to experiment and determine what each robot block does, as well as figure out how they work together. In her after-school STEAM class, Mrs. Grindle uses Cubelets and the Cubelets Blockly app to explore coding.

For Ms. Grindle’s students, Cubelets have fostered a variety of engaging lessons that develop 21st-century skills. She advises her fellow educators to think about what they can teach using technology, as opposed to what they can teach about technology.

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She has witnessed Cubelets helping students, including those with special needs, open up in ways she never thought possible:

When I met my new third graders last August, I had a student with severe special needs… I would only get a shy smile from her occasionally. She felt overwhelmed in our regular classroom and would not make eye contact or interact with the students when she was in our room.

My teammate and her daughters had a wonderful time playing with Cubelets at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. She told me to check them out. My first thought was not for my after-school STEAM class, but for this student. Here would be a way for her to equally participate with classmates.

I wrote a grant through Donor’s Choose for Cubelets. In the meantime, I saw her and two girls belly laughing while coloring! That was a quite a breakthrough! But none of our activities required enough interaction, or were too difficult for her, and we didn’t seem to make much more progress. She still would not talk to us even though she could now say a few simple sentences.

Then the Cubelets arrived. A boy and girl explored the Cubelets with her for several days. Then she started talking to them in complete sentences to help her accomplish what she was trying to get the Cubelets to do! The adults cried and the class cheered when we learned what had taken place.

I now get big smiles, sometimes hugs, and an occasional word from her. During our Morning Meeting she will now whisper the information she wants to share to the person sitting next to her. In our current economics unit, one of our students chose her for a business partner and they are making products to sell on our third grade Market Day. This is a newfound engagement with the whole world!

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Cubelets have helped build bridges between her students in other ways, as well.  

Recently, a new 5th-grade student enrolled in my STEAM class. She does not speak any English and I do not speak any Spanish. Knowing the power of the collaboration possible with the Cubelets, I had her try to figure out how to use them. I had purchased extra battery cubes so more than one child at a time could work with them. After two classes using the Cubelets and getting comfortable with us, she was ready to take on other more complicated activities like building in Minecraft EDU. It was the excitement and success of working with others with the Cubelets that helped her transition and take risks.

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Ms. Grindle admits that she has not even begun to scratch the surface of what is possible with Cubelets.

The impact of the Cubelets constantly exceeds my expectations. I want a way to level the playing field for students to collaborate. I want to extend the concept of coding on a very concrete level by offering a range of coding devices. This one is unique. I want to expose my students to a variety of technology in order to help them become flexible thinkers, problem solvers, innovators, and collaborators. I want to engage struggling students and have them know that learning can be fun and exciting. The Cubelets have helped with all of these.

Last night, I sent the Cubelets home with a staff member and her family. She complained, jokingly, that her husband would not put them down. Then she showed me a movie on her phone of how the Cubelets were being controlled by their wall dimmer switch! And he sent me a challenge to do having separate robots interact!

I have not begun to scratch the surface of what is possible yet. So I know the impact will end up being much bigger than I can imagine!

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Now, it’s easier than ever to take STEM education to the next level. Students love Cubelets — and it doesn’t take much to start teaching with tiny robots. But for many students, as they reach more advanced lessons, they need a bigger challenge.

The new Wonder Ed Expansion pack comes with a mix of Cubelets® robot blocks not commonly found in our smaller kits that will allow you to enhance your Cubelets lessons and provide your students with a more advanced hands-on experience.

This expansion pack is the perfect way to explore computational thinking and uncover a deeper understanding of how Cubelets operate.  The Cubelets included in this pack are key to understanding concepts such as variables, logic, and conditionals that are essential to coding and using the Cubelets Blockly Application.

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One of the lesson plans you can complete with the addition of this expansion pack is the Data Flow lesson plan, designed for grades 4-6 and 7-12. This lesson introduces students to the Threshold, Maximum, and Minimum Cubelets. It also teaches them about coding, value, and data transfer as they relate to robotics.

Lessons such as Sensing and Magnitude, Building Different Robots, and Cause and Effect utilize the Knob Cubelet. The Bar Graph can be found in lessons related to  the engineering design process: Engineering Problem-Solving, Criteria and Constraints, and Amusement Park Ride among them. The Blocker can be used in larger, more complex robot constructions to allow you to control two separate senses at one time. Plus, the Temperature block is an extra SENSE Cubelet your students can work into their robot creations, creating a construction that reacts to changes in temperature.

Check out the Getting Started Guide and our free lesson plans for a better understanding of how this expansion pack can augment your curriculum.

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One of the Modular Robotics projects I’m most proud of is the MOSS Huck Tank. It’s a MOSS kit designed with Huck Gee, one of my favorite artists. It’s gorgeous, and you can drive it around with your phone and shoot Nerf darts remotely!

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Only 186 Huck Tanks will ever be made. Most of those went to fulfill the MOSS Kickstarter campaign, and severely tested the limits of the modbot Production and Operations team. We’re good at building MOSS, but we set up an entire pad printing production line to do the graphics. Pad printing is basically printing using a rubber stamp-ish tool. Anyway, there are ninety-four different “hits” from the pad printer in a single Huck Tank, and when we got into it, we realized that we had vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to manufacture these beauties. Fast forward to today, and we’ve built and printed a final run of 55 MOSS Huck Tanks, using the last of the little shogun heads and shields in existence.

Art collector? Robot enthusiast? Nerf assassin? Grab one of the last Huck Tanks while you can. Here’s a teaser video from three years ago showing a couple of different prototypes (sans shogun head), and the raw power of the Nerf cannon.

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I was super happy to hear this morning that my friends have officially announced their new company: Misty Robotics. Robots as friends or as part of our families? I think it’s going to be an interesting ride watching them figure this idea out.

I first met Ian Bernstein around 2009 or 10. We had just started Modular Robotics in Boulder, and Ian and his co-founder Adam dropped by our shop with half a prototype robot ball that had a bunch of wires sticking out of it. They were in Techstars at the time and wanted to talk about starting a hardware company. They’d eventually become Sphero.

Since then, Sphero has become a huge success in the toy market, and between sprints, Ian and I have been able to do some bucket list skiing together: Alaska hili-skiing one year, Chamonix backcountry, Retallack… People often seem sort of amused to meet us on these trips and find that we have toy robot companies a couple of blocks apart in Boulder, but we’ve never felt like competitors.

Now, Ian’s continuing to make his vision into reality by spinning off a new company, Misty, and closing a financing.  I’m excited for them.  While companies do indeed battle for space on store shelves, Ian and I are much more interested in the long view; when there will be an entire ecosystem of robot stuff all over our homes and offices. Thousands of tiny robot cubes doing some things, and “personable robots that benefit everyone’s lives” doing others.

That’s why I’m so excited to meet the robots that roll out of Misty.

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There are a lot of different ways to build with Cubelets.  Little kids, around 4 or 5, mostly like stacking them into tall towers and large constructions with flashing lights.  Older kids usually build with more focus, snapping together mobile robots that avoid walls or beep when they’re being chased.  Some people like remote-controlling their Cubelets robots with phones and tablets, and some people like integrating LEGO into their constructions.  Super enthusiasts with a lot of patience have been able to reprogram Cubelets in C, unlocking unlimited functionality at the price of a steep learning curve.

Now, using brand-new Cubelets Blockly, anyone can learn to program Cubelets and take robot blocks to a completely different level.  Blockly is a puzzle-piece programming language.  You drag programming pieces around on the screen in an easy interface, but still with all of the power and expandability that text-based typing languages provide.  Rad.  Purists and alpha geeks may still wish to write C programs using Cubelets Flash, but most of us at modbot are tending to use Blockly since it’s so fast for prototyping and quickly exploring ideas.

I just opened up Blockly on my Mac and wrote a simple program: the Paper Towel Dispenser.  An old standby.  You know, wave your hand in front of the sensor and the motor turns on for a few seconds?  It’s a super-simple version, but it worked on the first try!  The program looks like this:

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The program is written for a Distance Cubelet, so it monitors its distance sensor and then, when it detects a hand passing over it, sets its block_value to 200 for a couple of seconds.  I decided to write my program for the Distance Cubelet so that I could line up as many Drive Cubelets as I want to be a little conveyor belt and not have to program any of them.  I’m also dispensing a little aluminum ruler instead of paper towels, but that’s just a technicality.

It’d be easy to rewrite this program for a Drive Cubelet, and then I could stick on any type of Sensor Cubelet (not just Distance) and try to trigger the Drive.

Programming a whole pile of little robots instead of just one is an excellent way to see how there are often multiple ways to solve problems, and how small changes can have huge ripple effects in a complex system.

As I sit here enamored with my unimpressive ruler mover, Sam, our new Robotics Intern, is building a six-legged, catapult-equipped Cubelet/LEGO robot.  And he just finished documenting a Cubelets paper football goalpost robot with three levels of gameplay  which is pretty amazing.

pf finished bot

Programming and interacting with a whole bunch of tiny robots is different from working with just one.  Even though Cubelets Blockly is designed for kids, it contains some pretty advanced functionality.  With a multi-robot system like Cubelets, blocks need to send messages around to other blocks and things are happening in parallel.  We wrote a set of tutorials that highlights the key differences and walks you through building a few robots.

You’ll need a Bluetooth Cubelet and a few other Cubelets to play.  Today, Blockly runs on Macs and PCs, and we’re going to be launching iOS, Android and Chromebook versions later this year.

Happy hacking; let us know if you build something cool!

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Know an amazing undergrad? Please point them in our direction. We have a new paid internship opportunity available for the Fall semester, and it’s a pretty good gig.

We’re working hard on some new tools that support advanced Cubelets play: programming tools that will let you change the behavior of one, or more, or all of the Cubelets in a robot construction. The possibilities are, in fact, mathematically endless, and we’re looking for an Undergraduate Research Assistant to build a ton of robots and help us improve and iterate on the system.

Why is the intern required to be a currently enrolled undergraduate student? Because through some of our research work, the National Science Foundation has agreed to pay for some of the intern’s compensation. Thanks NSF!

Computer science students are obviously welcome, as are students in art, architecture, history, or anything at all. No programming experience is necessary, but if the idea of programming is scary, then this internship might not be a great fit. Creativity and energy are the two most important attributes we’ll look at when screening applicants.

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