With more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) job openings on the horizon, there’s been a lot of interest in getting kids interested in robotics and coding. Of course, you’re not going to teach a five-year-old C++ (or hey, who’s to say these days?), but there are ways to simplify the concepts to help the young ones of the world get their feet wet. The latest is from Makeblock, whose new series of Neuron blocks make STEM education fun by helping kids turn everyday household items into robot accomplices.
Neuron consists of a whole line of color-coded building blocks outfitted with electronic parts that can be combined to create simple gadgets. The blocks contain parts that you’ll find in most electronics if you open them up — things like batteries, sensors, motors, and even Bluetooth and Wi-Fi nodes. The blocks are all color-coded by function — yellow modules are for power, green is for communications, orange is for sensors, and blue is for output (things like speakers). At launch, Makeblock has 30 of these blocks available to mix and match.
But, Makeblock only provides the electronics — it’s up to kids to build the rest. When I had a chat with them about Neuron, the Makeblock team showed me a few ideas they had cooked up, using stuff that would otherwise find its way into the recycling bin. My favorite was a watering pump made from a plastic bottle and a cardboard box — when rigged up with motors and input blocks, the team could water their plants using the app. But, kids can always reach for their Lego blocks, too — it’d be easy enough to strap a few blocks onto a Lego car, and if they build one big enough, they can even attach some motors to the wheels that will turn it into a remote control car. Another example is this feeder, which dispenses food when the camera catches sight of a pet.
But, all that fun stuff just sits there if you don’t tell it what to do. Makeblock has also created a companion app that gives kids the tools to program and control the gadgets they build. As long as the device running the app is close enough to the Neuron blocks, it’ll detect them and put up an image of that block on screen.
Here’s where the programming starts. Kids can connect those blocks in the apps to create chains, then input simple commands to make things happen. These can be really simple — pushing left on the app turns the motors attached to the wheels — but can also be more complex, like telling that watering pump to take action if the temperature sensor reads that the temperature has gone over a certain number. Once kids have built a whole string of commands that work, they can share them with the Makeblock community, where others’ plans can be viewed and downloaded.
The blocks can be controlled over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, depending on which communications blocks you get, but there’s more to control than just pushing buttons on the app. The microphone sensor enables kids to program voice commands, too — the team did a simple demo of turning lights on and off.
From the demos I saw, the Makeblock team still has some refinements to make, especially where connectivity from app to blocks is concerned — par for the course when dealing with crowdfunded projects. But, the idea has definitely resonated with people — the Kickstarter campaign launched on March 8 seeking $100,000, which was collected in under 12 hours. They’re sitting on over $180,000 with well over a month to go, so if nothing else, the team will definitely have the resources to make those improvements before they launch.
The Neuron blocks are available in a variety of starter kits, starting at a $49 contribution. The team plans to start shipping in June of this year.