08 July 2015

Violet: making an introductory Arduino-based "robot" with my 6yr old (3 of 3)

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on building a "robot" of sorts with my 6yr old daughter.
- Part 1: some thoughts on the overall project, parenting lessons learned, etc.
- Part 2: the technical stuff
- Part 3 (this post): the after party

We built the robot back in March/April, so it's been a few months and there have been some nice "after party" effects for both Felicity and I. From her end, I'd like to think we have a nice mission accomplished thing going on. It was awesome to actually finish the project, have it mounted, and enjoy the sense of completion. I'd also like to think that for now, the techie bug has bitten, as she's still interested in this sort of thing. The MN Maker Faire couldn't have been timed more perfectly, and I took both my girls there for a day of fun at the end of May. I'd say that the Egg Bot was their definite favorite, and is officially on my back burner to replicate/build as a future project.

At the heels of our robot project, I was on a late night Kickstarter binge and ran across the mBot, which I purchased with approximately no hesitation. What appealed to me about the mBot was the ability to program graphically. Kids can drag and drop "puzzle pieces" on the screen, tweak some key values, and get working code. This is great, as when it comes to these projects, coding is probably the most foreign/technical/frustrating aspect. At their age (at last in my opinion), it should be about what the code is doing... not playing hide-and-seek with a missing semicolon or curly brace :)

I'll have more soon... but the mBot arrived and to my delight, she really took to the coding. We just opened 'er up last Friday, but she had it put together by herself in about 1.5hrs, and was dragging around those code pieces shortly after! So far we've experimented with taping a dry erase marker on it and trying to draw stuff on a piece of 3M Dry Erase Surface taped to the floor. Endless fun!


From my end, this has inspired me to seek out future opportunities to teach kids about electronics and making things. Having girls, witnessing the male-dominance of my engineering class, and hearing bits and pieces from other females about not feeling like science-y realms are as open to them (e.g. via the backstory of GoldieBlox, another Kickstarter project I backed), I've had a goal to make science and technology seem "normal" and fun to my girls.

Aside: Just to clarify that last bit... I don't want to steer my kids into science/tech. The best way I can put it is that when they look at various subjects available for them to study, I just want a level playing field. I'd rather their choice be steered by interest and passion, and not by preconceived notions of which subjects pair up best with which gender. 

While I support the goal of educating kids about tech (for example, I absolutely loved seeing my former Engineering Senior Design advisor's talk on TED about "squishy circuits"), I admit to feeling awkward/insecure about teaching outside of my family circle. I feel really comfortable with my daughters, but have a fear that trying to replicate this in front of strangers' kids will lead to blank stares, yawns, and/or "boos"!

Also helping with my teaching motivations is the notion that others genuinely seem to enjoy seeing the end result. I definitely thought it was a cool project, but after enough people seemed to also like it, I'm starting to think it was objectively cool. 3M (where I work) hosted their first (of hopefully many!) Maker Faire's internally for anyone to bring in work or personal projects to show off. I took in Felicity's robot and another project I'll write up in the near future. To my surprise, it showed up on 3M's twitter feed and Facebook page!



I will admit, seeing such a warm reception from colleagues was a real treat. Our CTO even strolled through and heard my spiel! I wish my daughter could have been there to see everyone stop by to see it and hear me talk about working with her on it.

So, we'll see where this all ends up. For now, I've got a 6yr old who needs some of dad's attention to get rolling with the mBot, and some overdue home improvements calling my name. A co-worker and I are going to brainstorm around the idea of a workshop for kids like an intro to electronics, Arduino, or similar. We seem to be at an incredible intersection of fairly low cost electronified widgets of all sorts -- it's just a monstrous playground for those who know how to use the tools. I'm excited about the prospect of getting kids started young and seeing what they come up with down the road.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this inspires others. For the record, I don't take any credit for "engineering" this endeavor. I just happened to have a daughter who inquired about robots to her nerd father, and I sort of ran with it... I'm glad I did!

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