Robotics for Beginners

Robotics for BeginnersYour kid is into robots. He doesn’t just enjoy playing with cool toy robots but also wants to study and create his own robot. You are thinking “That is great! He will have fun and learn some cool tech skills along the way”. But he knows nothing about robotics. Where to start? As a parent, how to help him get started? How to boost his interest and avoid some common mistakes? Unfortunately, there isn’t that much information and guidance out there about robotics for beginners or how to help kids get started with robotics. Luckily, you come to the right place.

Basic aspects of robotics

Before we jump into the topic of creating a robot, let’s look at the basic aspects of a robot. There are many types of robots with different applications and forms. When it comes to their construction, they actually all share three basic similarities.

  • Mechanical aspect. Robots all have some kind of mechanical construction, such as a frame, a form or a shape in order to achieve certain tasks.
  • Electronic aspect. Robots have electronic components to power and control the machinery. The electrical aspect of robots is used for movement (through motors), sensing (where electrical signals are used to measure things like heat, sound, position, and energy status) and operation (robots need some level of electrical energy supplied to their motors and sensors in order to activate and perform basic operations).
  • Programming aspect. Robots all have some kind of computer programming code. It is like the brain of a robot and is the core essence of a robot. The program determines how a robot decides when or how to do something. A robot could have excellent mechanical and electrical construction, but without a well structured program it won’t perform well. There are three different types of robotic programs: remote control, artificial intelligence and hybrid. A robot with remote control programming has a preexisting set of commands that it will only perform when it receives a signal from a human being with a remote control. It is perhaps more appropriate to view devices controlled primarily by human commands as falling in the discipline of automation rather than robotics. Robots that use artificial intelligence interact with their environment on their own without a control source, and can determine reactions to objects and problems they encounter using their preexisting programming. Hybrid is a form of programming that incorporates both AI and RC functions.

Guide on robotics for beginners

Approaches to learn robotics for kids

The approaches to learn robotics (or lots of subjects) can be categorized as bottom-up, top-down or hybrid. The bottom-up approach is to learn the fundamentals of varied aspects first. Then put what you learned together and apply them into the real world of robot creating. This approach is solid, slow at the start but will accelerate later on. It requires persistence and may take a lot of time to taste the fruit of your labor. The top-down approach is to jump into simple robot creating from the beginning, and catch up on the fundamental knowledge along the way. This approach can work well to build confidence and maintain motivation by establishing a sense of accomplishment quickly. The downside of this approach is it usually demands lots of hand holding and may result in more mimicking than real creation. The hybrid approach incorporates both the bottom-up and top-down, which is the approach we recommended for kids to get started with robotics.

Action items and tips to get started with hybrid approach

  • Start hands-on robot creating by joining a robotics camp or after school program. Kids need to learn in a fun and meaningful way. They love to experiment, and interact with other kids/adults. A quality robotics camp or after school program provides an ideal setting for kids to start robotics. Fortunately, more and more robotics programs appear everywhere across the country, with programs for kids ages 5-17. Many of the programs offer robotics for beginners. Check out our State-based Robotics Camps and After School Programs.
  • Explore three basic aspects of a robot: mechanics, electronics and programming. You definitely learn some of those knowledge in a robotics camp. In order to facilitate creating robots based on real understanding, getting extra exposure is important. Electronics and programming are less straight forward and require extra learning effort.
    • Read books. Getting the right book, both age and skill levels appropriate, is invaluable. We recommend these robotics books for kids covering robotics for beginners and aspects of building and programming robots. Subscribe to a robotics magazine, such as Robot Magazine.
    • Learn about electronics with electronics experimentation kits. Electronics experimentation kits will engage young kids and help them learn fundamentals of electronics. Snap Circuits are some of the best electronic kits out there. Even my 5 year old enjoys working with it.
    • Learning coding. Young kids can start playing coding games to get the basics of programming. There are kids-friendly programming languages and platforms, such as Scratch and Alice. One of the most exciting way to learn coding is to actually code a programmable robot.
  • Start off small and gradually. This is important. Resist the urge to let a kid’s mind run wild and aim too high for the first project.
  • Use robot kits rather than build from scratch. When talking about robotics for beginners, we have to talk about robot kits. They are great help for beginners, especially when a kid’s mechanics, electronics experience are lacking. To select the right robot kits for the skill levels is important to start robotics for beginners.
  • Get and stay with a well-tested platform, like LEGO Mindstorms. LEGO Mindstorms is the flagship of robotics for beginners. It was originally developed at MIT. The third incarnation of LEGO robotics, LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3, is launched worldwide in September, 2013. With its step-by-step instructions and intuitive programming interface, a kid can progressively learn about the various areas of robotics and build several kinds of robots. A beginner can start with simple constructions and proceed to higher orders of complexity. VEX Robotics Kit is also a very popular platform of robotics for beginners. VEX IQ Robotics Construction Set is for kids age 8-15.
  • Enter a contest or competition. A kid can join a team to enter a robotics competition. Working with peers and creating a robot to do tasks is one of the best motivation for a beginner. Check out our robotics resources for some nationwide competitions. Many local robotics clubs have annual contests too.
  • Encourage kids to ask lots of questions. Talk to peers, teachers and parents to share experience and learn from others. A kid can even join a robotics forum.
  • Keep creating robots and don’t give up. There are ups and downs with doing anything even a fun thing like creating robots. Don’t need us to emphasize how important it is of not giving up, especially when it comes to robotics for beginners.