Are your kids watching too much YouTube and you're worried it's rotting their brains? You know they're addicted to their screen time so just cutting them off and ordering them outside won't work. What's a parent to do? How about introducing them to the Makeblock mBot? It's a friendly little robot they program on their smartphone, tablet or laptop in a game-like setting that also just happens to teach them the fundamentals of computer programming. They get their screen time, and you get some peace of mind.
In today's fast-evolving world of borderline science fiction technology -- handheld communicators were fantasy on the original Star Trek, now we can browse the internet on cell phones -- it's more important than ever to give our children the tools they'll need to compete. That means they can't just learn how to read, write, add, multiply and divide. They're going to need more than history and literature and art (although a well-rounded education is still vital!). To survive in tomorrow's hi-tech economy, our kids are going to need to be able to build and program...robots!
No, I'm really not kidding! Robots are going to take over the world. They're not going to knock down your door and eat your medicine, but they're going to play an increasingly large role in our daily lives. We're already starting to see automated cashiers, automated warehouses, and self-driving cars. Computer programs are starting to take over customer service, tax preparation, even medical prescriptions!
The people who can create and program the future can write their own ticket. The first step in getting them started is building and programming your Makeblock mBot!
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Robots: The total STEM package
STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math. It's the catchall term used to describe the various fields forming the core of our modern world. Pretty much everything from the food you eat to the clothes you wear to the city you live in is made possible by some aspect of STEM. Getting a head start in STEM is one way to get a head start in the coming tech-heavy economy.
That's what makes the Makeblock mBot so awesome. It combines every part of STEM in one easy to understand package that's both fun and educational.
What Is The Makeblock mBot?
The Makeblock mBot is a boxy, clunky-looking, yet somehow adorable little robot. I'm still trying to figure out how they managed to make a box cute. It has two large back wheels and an omnidirectional marble "wheel" in the front that gives it surprising maneuverability. It comes disassembled, but it's so easy to put together that even taking your time, you'll need, at most, 20 minutes. You can purchase the Makeblock mBot Robot Kit for between $70 and $120 depending on where you purchase it.
The software the mBot runs on, however, is free to download on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. The Makeblock mBot comes with either Bluetooth or WiFi capability depending on your need. Makeblock's recommendation is Bluetooth for home use and WiFi for use in schools (so the signals don't get mixed up). The software is simple to use and lets you program the Makeblock mBot to go pretty much wherever you want it to go.
The Makeblock mBot also a built-in obstacle avoidance feature (which helps you program it to play some pretty lively soccer games with other mBots). This is located in the "eyes" on the front of the mBot so don't cover them up! There's also a "follow the line" mode that allows you to create a map or a maze for you mBot to navigate and complete tasks. This is a big part of various robot competitions for kids so this is an excellent way to practice at home!
What's it for?
Amusing the heck out of any kids eight years and older, of course! The Makeblock mBot is a do it yourself kit that not only lets your budding engineer build their own robot but send it on adventures or do any silly random thing you can think of. The sense of accomplishment of that comes from seeing your creation carry out your program is hard to beat. In addition to building the self-esteem of your child, they'll be learning valuable programming and critical thinking skills. The ability to think a problem through cannot be undersold no matter what career path they follow.
What can it do?
Just about anything your kid can come up with. They can program it to dance or run around in circles or do a military parade. The Makeblock mBot can solve mazes with the right programming. It can navigate an obstacle course or play a prank on the family pet. It all comes down to how creative and clever your child is at setting up the block coding to do their bidding.
What the heck is block coding?
If you've seen any movie or TV show with a cool hipster computer hacker-type, you've seen computer code. It's a screen full of letters and numbers that look like total gibberish to most people. That's because, as far as most people are concerned, it is. You're literally looking at a foreign language. If the screen were full of Japanese writing, you'd be just as lost unless you understand Japanese. Block coding is a simplified way to learn that computer language.
Instead of having to type in the computer code for a particular action, the Makeblock mBot comes with a program that allows you to drag and drop a "block" that represents that action into the program editor. Once you have a group of blocks lined up the way you want them, you activate the program, and the actions are followed in the order you placed them. This way, you, as the programmer, learn how to get the result you want with the blocks you have available. It's very much like taking the words "is," "bathroom," "where," "the," and a question mark to form "Where is the bathroom?" You have to put them in the right order to get the desired result.
If you're still confused, think of it this way: When you press an icon on your smartphone or computer, your device is implementing some complex computer coding that you don't see. Someone was kind enough to make an icon, or a "block," if you will, to open up your email or favorite social media app. A block is simply a graphic representation of computer code. Once you learn how a program needs to be built, you can move on to learning the specific coding for each action. It's kind of like learning grammar before learning how to spell, and it works like gangbusters.
Is it a toy or a learning tool?
It's both! And that's what makes the Makeblock mBot so delightful for parents and educators! It's simple enough for kids to use at home and learn to program by experimenting. The manual control aspect means they can "drive" it themselves like a regular toy if they want to skip the programming part. It's also compatible with LEGOs so your kiddo can turn the mBot into whatever they can dream up. Maybe they'll turn it into a rampaging dinosaur. Or perhaps it can be a chariot for a princess (did I mention it comes in pink as well as blue?).
At the same time, the block program is perfect for the classroom. Groups of students can be assigned their own tablet or laptop and a mBot. Once they've been taught the basics of how the commands work and what they do, they can be given a problem to solve or an obstacle to overcome. Then they have to create the block program to run and see if it works. This teaches both programming and critical thinking skills, and it's incredibly entertaining. Who doesn't like playing with robots in school?!
There's a lot of different DIY robot kits on the market. Many are more expensive or more limited.
There's the UBTECH Astrobot which looks an awful lot like a certain treadmill robot from a certain film from the 1980s (cough Short Circuit cough). It's other two forms are a car or a two-legged robot, and its block programming is great for kids. It has 371 snap-together parts, 1 infrared sensor, 1 speaker, 2 LEDs, and 5 smooth motion robotic servo motors.
Then there's the LEGO Boost System. This is pretty cool because it can fully make use of all of your regular LEGOs. That gives the set a much wider variety of applications than any other DIY robot kit. You can build a robot, a cat, a working guitar, various vehicles, a dragon that shoots (plastic) lightning bolts and more. The Move Hub features Bluetooth connectivity, an activation button, internal tilt sensor, two encoded motors, and light.
It also has a color and distance sensor that detects motion, color, and distance. To operate it, you must have a mobile phone or tablet. It is compatible with iOS, Kindle, Android, and Windows 10 devices. The system is designed for younger kids, so the programming is more basic and limited.
On the other hand, there's the other Lego DIY robot set: LEGO Mindstorms. This is the hardcore stuff before you wander into adult robot territory. The Mindstorms line has available for purchase infrared sensors, color sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and all kinds of additional attachments. It also uses block programming and can switch over to regular programming when your child is ready to advance to the next level. But LEGO Mindstorms is meant for older kids.
Ten and over compared to eight and over for Makeblock mBot. Also, the mBot is the better choice for first-timers.
We should note that the Makeblock mBot also has a slew of extras you can buy to keep the fun going. One kit has a temperature sensor, a light sensor, a three-color LED, and more. Another has a sound sensor and a small LED screen to display information (or a face) on. And still, another comes with servos to add moving parts like arms to your boxy little buddy.
Getting the full set is an expensive proposition but, remember, these are accessories, not required items. You can always have your junior robot builder save up their allowance or do extra chores to save up enough money to buy one when they're ready.
BEEP BOOP Destroy All Humans!
OK, we're probably a few decades away from Skynet turning on the human race and wiping us all out. And the Makeblock mBot is just too darn cute to ever be the end of humanity. But while we're waiting for the rise of the robots, why not set you kiddo's creative juices flowing with a little box of fun that will keep them entertained for weeks on end? And while the mBot is being adorable, it will be teaching them what's already one of the most in-demand skills in today's economy. Not bad for an oversized LEGO brick with wheels.