TOOLBOX MAKE LOOKS AT KITS
For the past two years I’ve taught a computer
club at my local primary school. I get six or
eight kids aged 8–10 for two hours at a time,
once a week for three or four weeks. They vary
in previous experience from “play computer
games all the time” to “Mum doesn’t believe
in computers.” This year I believe I had a big
success — I got the kids programming and
The first year, I’d tried the Lego Mindstorms
NXT kit, but it wasn’t a straightforward win. On
the positive side, the graphical programming
environment worked well. The kids were able to
grasp loops and conditions and so on, without
having to struggle with parentheses or indents.
Against that, though, we ran into several
significant problems. The hardware isn’t high
enough quality — tracking a line across a sheet
of paper sounds like a great project but the
light sensor wasn’t able to reliably do the job.
Kids need strong positive feedback when they
get it right, otherwise they rapidly lose interest.
They like the idea of a robot, but they’re not so
excited by the reality of it.
I had much more success with Scratch,
a graphical programming environment out of
MIT. The kids got quick successes from moving
drawings and bouncing them off the sides.
They learned the same concepts I was teaching with the Mindstorms kit, but Scratch had
more things they could relate to. They were
constantly calling each other over to say “look
at what I did!”
One girl, whose parents firmly don’t want
a computer at home, built an animated summary of the first chapter of her favorite book.
(Golden rule of teaching kids: give them the
tools and let them build what they want —
they’ll fight to keep the laptop if they’re doing
174 Make: Volume 15
Ashley and her shed-built robot. I conclude:
Use Scratch to get a lot of kids comfortable
with programming, then use Mindstorms to go
deep for those who are interested.
something around their interests.)
I think there’s a lesson here: doing something in hardware isn’t automatically cool,
particularly for kids. Adults think that because
it’s physical, real, and a robot , kids will
automatically be excited. But for kids who
are learning, and who don’t appreciate the
significance of the challenge, it’s just hard
It’s not all bad news for robots, though.
I had one 10-year-old girl, Ashley, who loved
it and wanted more. I gave her an old original
Mindstorms kit, and she’s been building
robots ever since. Her parents say she’s
vanished into the shed where the computer
is and they haven’t seen her after school for
a week. I conclude: Use Scratch to get a lot
of kids comfortable with programming, then
use Mindstorms to go deep for those who
are interested. —Nat Torkington