Neil's News


28 October 2016

My wife and I have been running robotics sessions for local kids and their families. Teams of five children each build a Meccano robot. We've reached over a hundred children so far. Here's a quick overview:

Historically many children created mechanical devices first, then learned electronics, and eventually programming as a method of controlling these devices. Hardware creativity used to be an important gateway to computer science. But today's generation is growing up in a world with ever decreasing options for hardware creativity. Erector, Marklin Metall, Steel Tec, TRIX, Sructo, and most other construction systems are out of business. Even Radio Shack has closed. Lego Mindstorms is hardware creative, but is absurdly expensive. There are plenty of fantastic programmable toys (Ozobot, Dot & Dash, even Code-a-Pillar), but most of them are ready to run out of the box. We wanted to introduce today's children to something most have never seen before: a Meccano set.

The format for the robotics sessions is pretty simple and easy to run. Materials list for each group of 5 children:

  • Meccanoid G15 robot kit. These are currently available for around $100 each.
  • 3 x 3mm hex keys (the kit comes with two, each child needs one). They are only 9 cents each, so buy a spare.
  • 4 x C batteries. Disposables last about 3 sessions, consider investing in rechargeables.
  • Print out of the 5-person instruction manual in colour on legal paper at 100% scale. Staple into six separate sections.
  • Print out of the command card to be used after assembly is complete.

Assign one child each to the body, left arm, right arm, left leg, and right leg. Whichever child finishes first gets to build the head. The body should be assigned to the most experienced child. If two children want to work together, they should be assigned to the two arms.

Prior to starting, there are some notes to stress:

  • Don't over-tighten the bolts. The threads will strip easily and you may need power tools to disassemble the robot. I've had to do this. Seriously, this is important.
  • There are seven types of bolts. Use the 1:1 diagrams in the instructions to match the correct bolt.
  • There are two types of nut. Use the small flat ones except for the four places in the arms where the instructions call to use lock nuts.

A large consideration is parental involvement. We found that many children have never used a screwdriver before and have no idea how to hold two parts, a nut, a bolt and a screwdriver all at the same time. A lot of adult assistance is needed early on. But children learn quickly, and most become independent after an hour or so.

Timelines vary depending on the children and the level of assistance provided. For a group of five 10 year olds it takes about three hours to construct the robot. Then there's about 45 minutes of play time with the robot, including voice commands, learned intelligent movement, ragdoll avatar, and motion capture (the last two require a phone with bluetooth). Finally, it takes 15 minutes to fully disassemble and clean up.

If you want to run a robotics session with Meccanoid at your school or club, let me know and I'll send some tips (or if you are in the SF Bay area you can borrow some of Google's robots). Next week I'll post with some of the more advanced things one can do with a Meccanoid kit.

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Legal yada yada: My views do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my goldfish.