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Our 9 year olds built a walking robot

  2nd March 2019

Inspiring children in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths doesn’t have to be costly, complicated or time-consuming. That’s what I really like about the concept of monthly STEM project boxes from KiwiCo. They come in well-packaged little boxes with all the instructions, parts, and other materials needed to complete a mini project. We bought a Tinker Crate from KiwiCo to try it out. After laying out all of the contents for a photo (below), we handed control over to a pair of 9 year olds. Here’s how it went.

Each crate comes packed with all the resources and instructions as well as a neat magazine full of educational content and extension ideas.

They couldn’t wait to get started. Kids love crafty activities at the best of times, but there’s something very appealing about the way KiwiCo produces its products. The materials are lightweight but of high quality… the kind of comparison to be drawn, perhaps, between a carbon fibre aeroplane and a cheap plastic toy. Okay, perhaps not quite that stark, but you get the idea. I was especially impressed by the little intricate foam cogs. Although they aren’t actually used as cogs in this box, they could be.

Despite being at the younger end of the age range for this box, our two budding engineers were able to access almost the entire instruction sheet independently. That’s because it is presented with simple step-by-step instructions supported by small pictures. There’s some technical vocabulary in there (like driveshaft and cranks) but in the right balance which meant that the children could learn new things without being deterred by unnecessary complexity. After about 15 minutes of teamwork and “being extra careful not to cover the driveshafts with tape”, the children had constructed the robot’s body. Incidentally, the pieces of tape are included in the pack.

Then it was time for a quick ‘stop and test’ as advised by the instruction sheet. I really liked this aspect because it encourages them to take a pause and to review what they’ve done. Children so often rush on (like in Lego) and end up making mistakes that need to be painstakingly undone piece by piece. Encouraging some testing helps them to manage their inhibitions whilst also instilling an innate scientific attribute… the need to regularly test. Also excellent are the tips to try if the cranks aren’t turning as they should. It’s like saying, okay we have a problem but we aren’t going to just run to an adult for help… first we’ll try to fix the problem ourselves (like a real engineer). However, our robot was working as expected so no remediation was needed. Linking the limbs was a little tricky and I think the children appreciated having each other to hold parts while they secured the pieces. It could’ve been achieved individually but it would definitely have been trickier. This part evoked some interesting questions, like why is there a long strip cut out from the leg piece as opposed to just a hole. When the whole arm was fully on it became clear why… to allow for vertical movement when the crankshafts were turning. Children are surrounded by these things every day but they rarely see them because they are hidden under a car bonnet. This is like open-heart surgery with a simple, but real, robotic machine.

After another short while we had a miniature robot walking along the table. We discussed why it was walking off to one side and how we could slightly modify it to make it go in a straight line. The motion of the walking was very robotic in nature and it was really neat to watch and listen to this thing move, remembering that it had been a pile of cogs and stuff a little while ago. Of course, it wouldn’t be a ‘Tinker’ Crate if the children couldn’t tinker with it. The instruction sheet has ideas for that too. For example, it explains how to rewire the motor to make the robot walk in reverse… which got the kids talking about how electric motors actually work. There are additional cards and other materials to modify the robot, with ideas on the instruction sheet for what could be done. We especially liked the idea of adding a balloon head (balloon not included in the box).

The kit also includes the Tinker Zine magazine with interesting facts and information related to the project, including additional extension and robot design ideas. Overall this was a very interesting, educational, fun and accessible project for this age group. The children gave it a big thumbs up (and then went off to design their own robots with the Tinker Zine magazine in hand). The boxes come in at about £20 (including postage and packaging from the USA) although savings can be made if purchasing for longer than individual monthly periods. Individual monthly subscriptions can be cancelled easily on the KiwiCo website at any time without any fees or hassle. It's really good value and a great way to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Highly recommended.

To order a crate from KiwiCo just click the banner below.

Posted in categories: Parenting, Play and Learning