Our Favorite Material for Learning by Making

The best construction kit for learners just got better!

I have been teaching robotics to children and their teachers since 1987, not out of a desire to prepare kids for emerging careers or because it sounds futuristic, but because computing grants humans agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. An emphasis on physical computing, over robotics, allows for a multidisciplinary approach in which the new technological components are material with which users may construct knowledge and express themselves. We are fortunate to live at a time when adding interactivity and intelligence to everyday objects extends the breadth, depth, and range of projects possible. For children, the latest generation of physical computing construction kits adds colors to their crayon box.

“Just as pendulums, paints, clay, and so forth, can be “messed around with,” so can computers. Many people associate computers with a rigid style of work, but this need not be the case. Just as a pencil drawing reflects each artist’s individual intellectual style, so too does work on the computer.” (Papert & Franz, 1987)

Since the advent of LEGO TC Logo, the first robotics construction kit for children, Birdbrain Technologies’ Hummingbird Robotics Kit has become our favorite medium for physical computing in classrooms, workshops, and at the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Sylvia Martinez and I have found no better, easier way to introduce engineering and programming to teachers. Kids and teachers alike can make whimsical, serious, or useful creations with little or no instruction. To date, the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit is arguably the closest approximation of Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s prophetic vision for “robotics” and children.

In their 1971 educational computing manifesto, Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert wrote:

“In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1972)

The Hummingbird Bit Robotics kit improves upon the previous generation, Hummingbird Duo, by using the BBC micro:bit as its “brain,” rather than Arduino. This gives you access to all of the sensors, buttons, and display of the micro:bit, plus with the ability to drive motors, lights, and additional sensors via the Hummingbird Bit attached to a micro:bit. Your inventions are now tetherless, controlled wirelessly via Bluetooth, allowing projects to operate at a distance from the computer and even communicate with other Hummingbird Bit “creatures.”

What’s in the box?

The brain of the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit is the Hummingbird Bit Controller. There’s a slot for the BBC micro:bit, an onboard speaker, and clearly labeled spring-loaded or plug-n-play ports for the motors, lights, and sensors included with the sets. The Premium Kit comes complete with an assortment of single-color and RGB LEDs, a distance sensor, light sensor, sound sensor, potentiometer (knob), two precision servos, two 360 degree rotating servos, wheels, a battery box, and servo extension cables. All of the components come in sturdy cases with organizing compartments, and are stackable for portable storage. Small, medium, and large classroom bundles make the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kits even more affordable and accessible to entire classes of learners.

Hummingbird Bit Premium Kit

Buyer beware

Some schools tentatively embrace robotics, because it sounds vaguely futuristic, but have less interest in students using computationally rich materials for invention. Such a commitment to learning-by-making requires time for students to develop fluency, understanding of project-based learning, plus teachers skilled at programming, tinkering, and debugging. It is far cheaper and expedient to buy a “robot” that helps kids “learn to code.” There is no shortage of such toys on the market. Spend $100, play with the toy for an hour or two, and announce that your school has a Robotics Program. Whoopee!

Aside from offering an impoverished experience, these robot toys typically use limited programming languages designed to move the robot around. Often, the programming activities are closed puzzles to solve and in some cases, you program with neither blocks or text commands. These robots are manipulated by coloring paths with different colored pens. Then the robot interacts with these drawings. The problem with this system is that it is very difficult to debug and the use of colors or icons makes programming more abstract, not less. The cognitive benefit of programming is concretizing abstractions by communicating formal concepts to the computer, observing the result, and debugging.

Some of the low-cost robots claim to “work with Scratch.” The truth is that they either work with a cobbled together old version of Scratch or proprietary Scratch-ish software featuring none of the power or flexibility of actual Scratch. Aside from the low threshold and high ceiling of Scratch (or Snap!), its benefit as a language for physical computing is that what you build in the world may interact with the computer screen; program a video game and build a physical controller; map the movements of your machine on the screen; collect data from your physical experiment and graph the results on the computer; wave a magic wand and advance your interactive fairy tale, etc.

That said, the only barrier between The Hummingbird Bit Robotics kit being fully programmable in Scratch 3.0 is permission from the Scratch Team to allow the Hummingbird extensions into the Scratch ecosystem. Fingers crossed!

In the meantime, we use Snap!, the big brother of Scratch, with the Hummingbird Bit to great effect.

Even if your educational decisions are based on price, there is no need to make such compromises. The Hummingbird Bit Premium Kit  and even the Base Kit with more functionality and flexibility than the robot toys, costs less than are highly affordable for non-expendable construction materials. In quantity, that cost goes down. In any case, this is far more affordable than comparable offerings from LEGO or the other sets schools buy to enter robotics competitions.

Isn’t the micro:bit all we need?

One might ask why schools should invest in the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit instead of just using the $20 BBC micro:bit? The micro:bit is great for learning to program a microcontroller, but as soon as you wish to embed that technology into a more elaborate creation, you are going to need additional electronic elements, including motors, sensors, and lights. You will also need to know enough about electronics to properly power those components and prevent them from harming the micro:bit. While it certainly the case that you can attach a couple of servos and LEDs safely to a micro:bit, adding wheels, sensors, or additional servos can get much more complicated. Eventually, you will end up purchasing add-on boards just to get the micro:bit to safely spin motors for an invention you wish to move. The Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kits allow you to provide each group of students with a complete set of materials for bringing their ideas to life. If you like Microsoft MakeCode, you can program the Hummingbird Bit with the software. I prefer using Snap!

The Hummingbird kits contain everything you need to build super cool inventions, complete with motors, lights, and sensors out of recycled materials. The electronics just work when you plug components into the clearly labeled ports. There is no need to understand shields, resistors, or complex circuits.

Advantages of the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit over similar options 

  • Programmable in a variety of languages on multiple platforms – Use a variety of programming languages on lots of devices, including Macs, PCs, Chromebooks, iPads, and even low-cost Android tablets to program your Hummingbird creations. The block-based Birdblox software, a stripped down version of Snap! even
  • Everything you need for invention, tinkering, and engineering is in the kit
  • No need to learn electronics to construct and invent interactive machines
  • Kids and teachers can invent without having to understand resistance or transistors.
  • Ports are clearly labeled – Motors, lights, and sensors have clearly labeled places to connect to the brain board.
  • Spring-loaded connectors eliminate the need for breadboarding or soldering – Electrically protected connectors that allow students to easily add multiple motors, sensors, and LEDs without risk of harm due to incorrect connections.
  • Does everything the micro:bit does and more, with greater ease-of-use and flexibility due to additional software options
  • Works with found materials, arts, and crafts – You may connect LEGO or other building materials to your Hummingbird creations, but reclaimed junk and cardboard are great too.
  • No need to buy additional accessories
  • Supports interdisciplinary projects – Use robotics in history, language arts, or dramatic contexts, while employing powerful ideas from the STEM disciplines.
  • Democratizes robotics, programming, and engineering opportunities – The playful ways in which the Hummingbird Bit may be used to a seemingly infinite range of inventions welcomes all sorts of learners to engage in powerful learning experiences without reducing “robotics” to building a truck that kills another school’s truck.
  • The computer screen and real-world may interact – Your inventions may come to life on the computer screen and on the floor with interaction between both modalities.
  • The Birdbrain Technologies team is fantastic – They love educators and support their customers with fabulous service and a seemingly endless stream of cool project ideas may be found on the Web.

Tom Lauwers, the inventor of the Hummingbird Bit and CEO of the manufacturer, designed the first Hummingbird kits as part of his doctoral research at Carnegie Melon University. Tom was concerned with encouraging girls and other underserved students to embrace robotics and engineering but could not find construction kits suited for the task. So, he invented what his students needed. I’m grateful that he has continued to learn from his customers, embrace emerging technology like the micro:bit, and develop exciting materials that amplify the creative and intellectual potential of children.

Resources

References
Papert, S., & Franz, G. (1987). Computer as material: Messing about with time. Teachers College Record, 89(3).

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1972). Twenty things to do with a computer. Educational Technology, 12(4), 9-18.

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