The Lego NXT Mindstorms 2.0 gets quite a lot of coverage in the geek world. It’s a very versatile programmable robotics system that you can design to do anything from sorting colors to 3D printing. It’s been covered before here at GeekDad, including the recent review of the Lego Education Homeschool version by Kathy’s son, GeekTeen John. But maybe your kids aren’t old enough yet for the complexities of Lego Mindstorms. Maybe you want to get them involved in robotics or computer programming from an even earlier age. Or maybe, like me, you’re trying to teach the kind of logical thought processes required for programming as part of your homeschooling lessons.
What is WeDo?
Put out by Lego Education, the WeDo Robotics Construction Set is a set of pieces and mechanical parts that can be used to design robots. It has over 150 elements in the set including gears, cams, axles, a motor, motion and tilt sensors, USB hub and many other pieces. The pieces and parts all come in a sturdy, plastic tub that snaps securely shut. The WeDo is designed to teach simpler concepts to slightly younger kids than the Mindstorms does, and it uses many recognizable Lego pieces. The Lego WeDo system also has available software to program the robots, an activity pack to guide learning and an excellent guide for teachers to facilitate teaching.
By hooking the robots up to your computer via the included USB hub, the WeDo Software allows you to program the robots, controlling its actions, sounds and responses. All the programming is drag-and-drop; just line up programming blocks to tell the robot what to do. If you’ve seen the drag-and-drop programming language Scratch, it is similar to that, except it is even more basic. One of the most valuable parts of WeDo, though, is the Activity Pack. It steps you through building 12 different Lego WeDo models, each one teaching a specific building concept. The Activity Pack also has lessons that teach what each part individually does. With those, you can have an in-depth study of the motor, the gears, the cams or some of the other parts. And don’t worry if you know nothing about robotics or programming. WeDo teaches you along with the children, and everything is described step-by-step.
The software was quick and easy to install. Once installed, the program starts very quickly, and puts you at a blank screen for program design. There is a little tab to click to get to the Activity Pack, or you can just dive in and drag program elements on to your workspace. Link them up in a line to “write” a program. Some of the program options include:turn motor, wait, play a sound, wait for keyboard input, random, countdown, repeat and many others.
If you leave a program sitting in the workspace when you quit the program, it will still be there the next time you run the program. The software also allows you to save programs, and to load previously saved ones. Saving them isn’t done in the usual manner, though. It took me a little while to figure it out. You have to hold the cursor over the program name and the cursor will turn into a T shape. Then type the desired file name. But if the cursor floats off of the area, the file name will be whatever text you got in there before it floated away. Then if you try to fix it, it will save another file with the new name. This is quirky, but you get the hang of it eventually.
Teacher’s Guide and Activity Pack
The Teacher’s Guide is an invaluable part of the set, as it gives you guidance and more information on everything, and has worksheet masters to copy for some of the building activities. It also gives you questions to ask the kids as you go through the lessons, and describes what concepts are being taught with each activity. It’s easy to follow along in the Teacher’s Guide as the kids are running through the activities. It also contains sections on curriculum, software help, Getting Started (a section detailing activities on individual mechanical parts), Teacher Notes for Activities (the 12 model activities) and various resources.
The 12 activities in the Activity Pack part of the software are theme-based covering cross-curricular topics. They cover topics such as computer science, technology, engineering, mathematics and language. The Teacher Notes for Activities section of the Teacher’s Guide helps you through teaching and building these 12 robots using the 4C Learning Process: Connect, Construct, Contemplate and Continue. Connect encourages the kids to get into the activity and see the problem to solve or goal to reach. The Activity Pack part of the software plays a little Lego minifig movie at this point, which my kids always love watching. Construct is where the kids build the robot for that activity. The Activity Pack steps the kids through the building of each model, giving instructions, Lego-style, for making the 12 different configurations. (Build instructions are also in .pdf form on the CD.) Construct is also where kids can arrange the recommended program and see what happens when it is run. Contemplate is where kids can use a worksheet to help experiment with different robot and program configurations, and to play with and learn about the parts of the robot and the program. What happens if you change this? What will this do? What if we move this here? The hands-on tangible nature of it really drives the lessons home. Continue encourages kids to keep experimenting on their own, trying things different from what was on the worksheets and in the Teacher’s Guide. Some of the lessons also contain an Extension, which often involves joining another group of kids and working together. This is hard to do in the homeschool setting, unless you’re part of a co-op, but it still gives additional inspiration.
This section of the Teacher’s Guide also gives you helpful hints, guidance and answers to FAQs for each project. It is meant for the parent or teacher to use to guide the student. Also, all 12 of the activity projects are cross-referenced with the Getting Started projects for added information. I really like the presence of the worksheets and suggested activities, because they get the kids to experiment further. It gave us ideas of other things to try, and the kids really got into changing the program around and trying new construction configurations. Once they get the hang of it even more, I look forward to them designing their your own Lego robots and writing their own programs from scratch. Once you have gone through the entire Lego Education WeDo Homeschool curriculum, you have learned the tools needed to design anything you desire, using the gears, cams, axles, motor, sensors and Lego bricks.
The WeDo may sound like it’s confusing to use, but once you familiarize yourself with the printed materials and the program operation, its actually very straight forward. You’ll be an expert after running through the first activity.
The First Lesson
You can either start with the Getting Started section, learning about each feature individually such as gears, motors or speed, or you can jump right into the 12 more involved projects. I was torn between those two options. Learning about each feature first would have been a more systematic way to learn, but it wouldn’t have been as fun. Kids like to see results, so we started right into the projects. We’ll go back and do the individual components later, to make sure we know as much as possible about each.
We started the first activity, Dancing Birds. The activity portion of the program played the minifig movie, featuring Mia and Max. We watched it. We basked in the cuteness. Then we watched it again. Each of these movies has some sound, but no talking, so that it works for any language. You have to watch closely to see what Mia and Max are doing. The movie and accompanying text describe the problem to solve. It then gives you some text on the screen telling you the process you’ll go through to solve the problem. Next up are the building instructions. You page through them, adding a few pieces at a time to your creation, finally finishing the completed robot. For the first lesson, my daughter dove right in and started building with no guidance from me, and my son was her assistant. The next time we did a WeDo lesson, my son was the builder and my daughter was the assistant.
The kids loved the little movies. They really loved the construction portion. We went through all the 4Cs, and then spent some time experimenting with programmable sounds and movements on our own. My daughter said it was “fun” and liked all of it. She also said, “I like listening to the music.” My son also liked listening to the music and building.
One thing I love about the WeDo is that the kids can do so much of it on their own, but they are learning real procedural lessons along with mechanics. It’s teaching high level concepts but in a way they can understand and that speaks to them. Despite the age difference, my kids are both learning just as much, and are having a great time doing it. Our weekly WeDo homeschool lessons are one of the highlights of their week.
My 9-year-old daughter says it’s a lot of fun. When pressed about which part is the most fun, her response is, “All of it!” My 6-year-old son can’t wait to do the WeDo each week. His favorite parts? “Building it and writing on the paper to make estimates.” My son also likes to invent special names for the unusual pieces, such as the pear piece, the fan, the both gear and the spiral sphere.
Of the first few projects, my kids definitely enjoyed the drum-playing monkey the best. Tiny Dixie cups were perfect to use as drums. Each of us tried different cam combinations to create different beats for this project. If we’d been part of a group of WeDo students, we could have made a drumming circle!
WeDo is great for anyone with kids. You don’t need to be a homeschooler (but homeschooling does give you an excuse). The activities walk you through all of the steps, guiding the building, learning and teaching. The program and materials are perfect for reaching out and teaching to this early elementary age group, on their level. It won’t go over their heads.
I don’t like to do too many homeschooling activities that require a lot of preparation time. That’s another thing I love about the WeDo. Once you have the software installed and know how to access the activities, there is literally no setup time. Just start the program, give the bin of pieces to the kids and go. Before you first use the program with the kids, though, it is very helpful to take a half hour on your own after you install it to familiarize yourself with where everything is in the program, activity section and teacher’s guide. You’ll then be able to make the most of the materials.
One recommendation I have is that if you have younger kids who just want to play with the WeDo pieces and not do the lessons, keep a bin of other Lego bricks nearby, so they can build their own creations and feel a part of the group. This way none of the specialized WeDo pieces get lost, some of which are very small.
I highly recommend the Lego Education WeDo Robotics Construction Set and Lego Education WeDo Software and Activity Pack. It is such high quality, both in content and manufacture. Sold separately, the Robotics Set retails for $129.95 and the Software and Activity Pack retails for $54.95. They are only available through Lego Education and are not in stores. Or, you can buy the two as a packaged set for $179.95. I think the set is an excellent price considering how much learning and guidance is packed in. If I didn’t already have this review copy of WeDo, I would definitely purchase it myself. Whether you’re looking at the WeDo for school, homeschool or just to do at home with the kids on weekends, you can easily use this package for a school year’s worth of learning and fun.
WeDo is intended for children age 7 and up, but enthusiastic children slightly under age 7 also do very well.
Note: I received a copy of the WeDo set, software and activity pack for review.