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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

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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The Ed Tech and Makerspace movements ask teachers to learn alongside our students more than ever before. This results in many classrooms being facilitated through some version of informal conferencing, where all the students (either on their own or in groups) are working on a task while the teacher floats between groups assessing understanding, helping students overcome struggles, and providing guidance for meaningful extensions of the day’s learning objectives.

But our classrooms are still full of diverse learners and it is incredibly difficult to support all of our learners at their level when we are learning alongside them. Luckily, we educators have at least one big advantage: We’re adults.

We’ve lived through life, amassed a variety of experiences, and so our brains have developed beyond the brains of our students. This makes our think-alouds extremely valuable learning tools. Still, at times I have found myself in the middle of an inquiry lesson where I was stumped about how to differentiate the content for my learners. I walked away knowing my questions had been too vague and, while anchored in the right mindset, had done little to push my learners through their zones of proximal development.

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One of the things I love about my role at Modular Robotics is collaborating with educators all around the world. And you know what?  We all run our classrooms a little differently! This variance makes it extra tricky for me to write content that meets everyone’s needs, so that’s what this blog post is all about. Let’s review some of the most common classroom structures where I find Cubelets:

CC5- class chart

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Indeed you can!  Do you know what a Turing Machine is? It’s a type of a computer, or, well, it’s a model of a computer. A simplified computer, with a memory tape and a read/write head that moves back and forth along the tape. It’s a funny little type of a computer, but it’s interesting in that with a Turing Machine, you can do any kind of digital computation that we can think of. Maybe not in a super optimized fashion, but… LOOK! Here’s a Turing Machine made with Cubelets and some LEGO bricks:

This construction was built by Genaro J. Martínez and students and collaborators at ALIROB (Artificial Life Robotics Lab) in Mexico. I think it’s brilliant. There’s a web site with a few more videos and all of the code has been published there too. You’ll see a ton of neat little programming features in these robots:  Rotate Cubelets, for example, can only be controlled by specifying a speed, not a position.  Check out how they use a distance Cubelet as a “stop” to recalibrate the little swinging arm after each swing.

Most of the Cubelets we make end up in elementary or middle school classrooms.   So we spend a lot of time working on making Cubelets accessible, educational, and intriguing: focusing on the low-threshold aspects more than the high-ceiling aspects.  It’s nice to be reminded that Cubelets are actually a universal computational material, a medium, capable of supporting some pretty advanced thought experiments.

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We call it tactile coding, but you may have heard it called “physical computing”, and it’s becoming a movement.

As computer science becomes a pillar of K-12 learning standards across the country, many of the early adopters are realizing the concepts underlying computer science often live outside the computer. When we look at the standards and practices embedded into the K12 CS standards, as well as NGSS, helping students demonstrate the underlying skills and processes behind computer science are actually better addressed away from the screen.

There’s also something else that’s important to consider, especially for our elementary teachers. When we think about how the brain develops, some of the more abstract concepts that support computer science are beyond our youngest students’ developmental levels. Sure, we can train them to repeat some movements on a screen and call it coding, but when it comes to understanding how and why computers really work, we need to look for more concrete examples of fundamental concepts.

Let’s anchor ourselves in a Piagetian developmental approach to computer science. While Piaget tied his stages to general age ranges, children all develop at different paces. Plus, it’s acknowledged that exposing children to increasingly complex ideas aids in their development. Please consider references to ages or grade-levels to be generalized, as they may not fit your experiences or students exactly.

Pre-K and Kindergarten

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When your students are ready to begin coding with their Cubelets, it’s time to consider what new classroom structures and routines will ensure students maximize their time investigating and learning. By planning ahead, you can avoid the time sinks of troubleshooting and learning a new app on the fly. We have two different Cubelets you might be using, and they both have different paths to classroom management success.

Before you plan to program your Cubelets with students, please try programming one yourself. Some school internet filters block the cloud services we use. If that is a problem for you, simply send this request to your IT department and once they’ve greenlighted our servers, try again! Still have questions? Email our Customer Support Team at support@modrobotics.com (They’re amazing!).

Using the Bluetooth Hat

Using the Classic Bluetooth Cubelet

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Cubelets are a highly engaging tool—and I mean highly engaging!  Teachers around the world ask for tips on managing a classroom full of students who are completely engrossed and inspired by playing with Cubelets. What a great problem to have!

The first piece of advice to you is: embrace the chaos. Cubelets are a tool that inspires rapid iteration. It is normal and good for students to quickly design and revise their constructions – even breaking off into unplanned tangents while they do. To manage this kind of classroom, settle into it and get your hands dirty.  Walk around from group to group and ask them questions.

  • What are you building?
  • Tell me about this design.
  • What is challenging you right now?
  • What else could this robot construction be used for?
  • Why did you choose to put this Cubelet here?

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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a “charitable cultural organization with a mission to transform the way people see the world through film”, hosts one of the largest publicly-attended festivals in the world, attracting nearly half a million visitors worldwide. During the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, TIFF hosts digiPlaySpace, a children’s exhibition showcasing digital interactive installations created by international artists and developers with new works introduced each year.

Cubelets at Eureka! exhibit at the National Children's Museum (Jonathan Pow/jp@jonathanpow.com, image provided courtesy of TIFF)
Cubelets at Eureka! exhibit at the National Children’s Museum (Jonathan Pow/jp@jonathanpow.com, image provided courtesy of TIFF)

Cubelets were first introduced at TIFF in 2013 and later became part of the touring exhibition. “digiPlaySpace has proven to be wildly popular with visitors around the world, and Cubelets have been an integral part of that popularity,” says Suzan Sabir, the senior project manager who oversees the digiPlaySpace traveling exhibit program at TIFF. “I believe that part of this appeal is that visitors are able to create a simple robot easily and quickly – instant gratification – and then they can move on to more complex robots with additional experience.”

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Travel roughly thirty-one miles west of Auckland, and you will come to New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, a scenic destination in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf with nine thousand permanent residents. Librarian Julia Mount spoke to us about how she has been utilizing Cubelets with young patrons at the Waiheke Island Community Library:

“A couple of years ago, a colleague and I started a digital club/Makerspace that runs on Sunday mornings. Theoretically, the Makerspace is for children between the ages of 5-13 and their families, but often passing parents will involve their pre-school age children in the activities. The Makerspace has since given lots of fun and learning for me as well as those who attend. Because Waiheke Island is a holiday destination, our Makerspace regulars are supplemented with holiday makers during the summer break, expanding the chances for locals to make new friends as well as let families from other locations know what Auckland Council Libraries as a whole has to offer.

“Cubelets are an open play part of the Makerspace. A library team member or child who already knows about Cubelets will demonstrate to newbies how to make a basic robot with just three cubes – Distance, Drive and Battery. We then challenge the newbies to make seven different robots with just the three cubes. While some enjoy the challenge, others just start experimenting and inventing.”

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We love hearing about all the ways that Cubelets are being used to build better thinkers. Whether it’s a tweet showing off robots built by a first-grade class, seeing Blockly in action during Coding Club, or cheering on the robot races in a makerspaces, we treasure it all. But every once in awhile, we come across a story so inspiring that we just have to share it with everyone. This is Hayley’s Cubelets story.

Hayley Brady small

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like most sixteen-year-olds, Hayley Brady’s interests cover the map. An avid painter, she is also involved in various activities at her school, most notably as the vice president of the “nerd club.”

“[It’s] basically a place for people who are interested in science, movies, comic books, TV shows, and video games to come and discuss and occasionally debate about their interests.”

The Dublin, Ireland native has the same big dreams as most 16-year-olds, too, wanting to study veterinary medicine. She already volunteers with a local animal rescue group, helping trap and neuter feral cats, or fostering animals in need.

But Hayley isn’t just focused on her future: she has already made a huge contribution to her local school, and qualified for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition Final in January of 2018.

How? Hayley recognized the potential of Cubelets robot blocks as a tactile and interactive way to reach students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Her project, “The Development of An Interactive and Tactile Learning Programme for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Modular Robotics.” was deemed “inspiring” by the BTYSTE judges, and was seen by over 50,000 people at the exhibition.

“We purchased the Cubelets for use in the Special Ed department using funding our government provided for “hand held” technology,” says Hayley’s teacher, Lynda Jordan, of Pobalscoil Iosolde in Dublin. “The lessons involved initially [were] inquiry based learning. The students were asked to identify the functions of the Cubelets and allowed to experiment with the possibilities.”

Hayley, however, saw untapped potential in the little blocks.

“There had been no research made that I could find on how Cubelets could be used in special needs classes. I immediately jumped on the chance to use the Cubelets to make a class specifically for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as it is important to me, and I have a first person perspective of the disorder.”

With help from Ms. Jordan, and drawing from her own experience as someone diagnosed with ASD, Hayley put together a series of lessons designed to work with all aspects of ASD, including communication, creativity, confidence, avoiding distractions and independent learning.

“When I made my first lesson plan I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Hayley. “One day while we (a special education teacher and I) were doing the classes one of the students accidentally hit another in the head with a Cubelet. In a regular class the student who was hit would have been upset, they would have possibly had a meltdown and not been able to return to the class for the rest of the day. Instead what happened was they (after initially throwing a cubelet across the room) took some time out and were able to come back to the class without too much disruption and continued to work on their assigned task, which simply never would have happened in a normal class.

“The students I worked with did not tend to perform well in their usual classes. They would often test poorly, become distracted or lose interest. They showed poor self-esteem and would rarely communicate with others. In these classes, they were co-operative and confident; they were enthusiastic and ready to learn. They communicated better, they were more creative, and they were able to work independently as well as co-dependently.”

Hayley says that her results are just motivation to do more. She plans on creating more lesson plans, and entering the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition again in 2019.

Ms. Jordan is excited to see what comes next for Hayley.

“The students who experienced the Cubelets suggested, fairly insistently, that we include a Cubelets lesson as part of the school’s permanent programme. They said they were going to start a petition! It’s wonderful to see such passion for learning.”

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