As kids begin heading back to school, some of the luckier ones will be returning to classrooms equipped with the new Mindstorms EV3 robotics kits. The updated education kits, which began shipping earlier this month, are an excellent means for teaching a variety of lessons to students through practical, hands-on learning.
The education version of EV3 is very similar to its retail counterpart, with a few minor differences. The edu kit has a handful of different elements and different sensors, but the biggest difference is that the retail version will ship with desktop graphical programming software, while the education version will not.
This is a point worth considering because, while the elements have changed somewhat and sensors have been updated or replaced, they still fit together as Technics elements always have. The real changes to Mindstorms are in the software and the brick that runs it. I touched on the major updates back when the details of EV3 were announced, but now I’ve had the opportunity for some hands-on experimentation with the nearly finished product.
While some might shoot off the handle, seeing a robotics kit without an included software package as a major deficiency, it’s really not. The EV3, like the NXT, is programmable at the brick interface. However, with EV3, students can program up to 12 steps, using a graphical interface that is similar to the desktop software. What’s more, the EV3 is still open source, meaning it can be programmed with a large variety of languages.
Programming at the brick is very easy and you can do a lot with it. However, if an educator chooses, she can purchase the EV3 software, which is incredibly deep, robust, and intuitive. For a student or educator with little to no robotics training, the EV3 software provides a host of quick-step tutorials and just enough hand-holding to get you up to speed fast. For those with more experience, you can jump ahead to more advanced tasks and functionality.
The software includes videos and step-by-step instructions that make for an outstanding training program, especially for those new to Mindstorms. By seeing what is expected in the videos, educators can get a quick-start instruction before jumping in. Plus, with the basic kit, the software provides blueprints for building and programming four different robots. There are also plans for another half-dozen bots that can be built with the expansion set.
There are a lot of great features, including improved takes on old favorites. For example, the image editor will allow users to place an image on the brick’s high resolution display. Sounds are also easily uploaded for playback and the My Blocks system allows users to collect sets of commands in macro-like blocks.
Data logging has been enhanced and improved, including real time reporting and that from autonomous performance. Students can use the EV3 to perform actions while collecting data at the same time with graph programming. Not sure what graph programming is or how to use it? The software has a tutorial tied to each major EV3 feature, showing how to build, program and adapt an experiment so you understand exactly what a feature like graph programming is.
Additionally, there’s a content editor that allows a teacher to create a multimedia assessment with flexible integration of notes, videos, sound files, and more — making post-lab work a breeze. And all of this is available now, before the community begins to build and flourish around this versatile education tool. In the months and years to come, the Lego community will be creating projects, robots, and curriculum that will only enhance the value of an EV3 kit.
But let’s assume you are a Mindstorms pro, already familiar with assembling and programming a robot. For you, there are deeper features like live and remote data logging, oscilloscope mode, and if you really want to dig deeper, there’s even an engineering projects kit that has 15 projects and 30 hours of classroom instruction built in – not including what you can dream up on your own.
Plus, with a National Instruments partnership and great LabView integration, the software is more in line with what kids will be expected to be using at college and future jobs. Mindstorms again uses building blocks, which can be easily customized, to write a program or data log an experiment. After becoming familiar with the blocks and their variable settings, programming becomes incredibly simple. For those familiar with NXT programming, the EV3 platform will be very familiar, yet improved.
My only gripe is that Lego’s non-language approach to everything results in longer learning curves. I would have ramped up far more quickly if the videos had narration describing or augmenting what was being shown. Still, it’s a minor complaint. The bottom line is, after a short time, EV3 felt as familiar as an old pair of jeans. Yet, after many hours of using the kit, I felt like I was only scratching the surface of its capabilities. The software is obviously capable of much more. Exactly how much more, we’ll find out as today’s students begin to work on the challenges of tomorrow.