Fall 2019 / Chris Ruminski

When our family was brand new to homeschooling and new to Fayetteville, the local homeschool co-op advertised a week-long camp to learn robotics over the summer. We decided to give it a try, so each day my twelve-year-old daughter met with a group of about sixteen teenagers to learn how to program Lego Mindstorm® robotics kits. During the week she and a partner built a Lego robot, and even more important, programmed it with conditional based visual programs. They competed in challenges, races, and games—all using their robots.  

It was at the camp that we met the Todd family, and they have been a role model for our family ever since. Now, I must tell you that what I did not learn until about half way through that week of camp was that it was Michael Todd, the teenage son, who was teaching the course. Michael has an amazing story that might change the way you look at teaching technology, coding, and computer science. While Michael’s mom was there at the camp to provide parental support or handle potential problems, the robotics camp project was Michael’s.

While my daughter and other teens were learning from Michael, Mrs. Todd shared with me that Michael had learned to program the robots himself and wanted to share what he learned with others. He bought the kits and then decided to teach a summer camp to pay for them and earn some summer cash! He taught the campers how to follow the directions, build the robots, and how to program the bots to perform different tasks. Each team learned to try, test, debug, and test again until they got the results they wanted. The testing was a core part of the programming process. It was a lot of fun!

When Michael earned a full ride scholarship to the robotics department at NC State (in large part due to his skill with programming), he taught our family that learning to play with a Lego robotics kit is actually a lot more than fun and games. In fact, many brick and mortar schools use these same robots in their classes. The visual languages vary from system to system, but the same basic structure applies to all programming. The Todd family’s testimony to learning through play proves your children can learn coding too—even if you don’t know how to teach it to them.

This is not an advertisement for Lego robotics kits by any means; there are dozens of kits and robots available, and more are coming out every month. The most important things your children are going to learn about working with these technologies are how to think and how to test. Those are your goals! Here are some suggestions for getting started.

I suggest choosing a kit based on your family’s interests, budget, skill, and time. If you are interested in simplicity and ease of use, look online for “STEM robotics” kits. These basic kits are usually for beginners.

Unless you are already familiar with programming, I would also suggest looking for a visual programming language instead of a command line programming language. It really stinks to have a whole program fail because you forgot a semi-colon somewhere!  

A fun robot to consider is the Ozobot. It does different actions and is programmed mostly by the color of marker line it is following. For something a little deeper, consider the Makeblock mBot. This robotics kit is easy to put together and has an MBlock programming language that is easy to pick up. There are clear instructions and lots of people have posted tutorials online for this bot.

Buying a robot is not your only option. There is also software you can use, and it has its own benefits. A few choices to consider are: 

https://robocode.sourceforge.io/, https://www.codingame.com/start and https://codecombat.com/.

Each of these primarily focuses on learning existing coding language, and each usually asks programmers to write out command line programming. (This might be most appealing to older students.)

Another option would be to look specifically for games that will teach coding. One I have personally enjoyed is Gladiabots. In this game, you are challenged with setting up “If / Then” statements in a visual language that your digital robots carry out depending on what they see. For example, one command might tell your robot to head to the closest ball. The next statement might tell the robot to run away as soon as a bot from the other team takes a shot at it. The robots follow your directions to try and deliver more balls to goals, destroy the other team’s robots, and more. There is a good tutorial system in this game and lots of discussion boards for hints.

In the end, whether you choose a robotics kit, software, or online gaming, don’t forget that the real goal in all of these activities is to build logical thinking skills. Back when I was young, the joke used to be, “The easiest way to stop the light from blinking on the VCR is to put black tape over it.” Technology has come a long way! Today, most people use smartphones with more computing power than we used to put men on the moon! We have all learned to interface with technology to some extent, and our children are going to do even greater things. So go ahead and let them build, test, fail, learn, modify and try again, and they will be more than ready for any challenge that is coming!

Chris Ruminski is an NCHE board member holding the IT seat and a teacher by training and practice. He taught elementary school (third and fifth grade) in public schools for seven years. He tutored kindergartners to adult GRE students privately at the same time. After moving to Fayetteville, NC, Chris, his wife, Dawn, and their only daughter agreed it was time to homeschool. It has been three years now, and they have never regretted it. For the last two years Chris has taught a Learning with Games class for the HOME homeschool co-op. He is writing a book sharing these games and how to use them for education.