May 302012

It’s changed for me a lot over the years.

For a while there, it was a huge amount, something worth saving several birthdays and Christmases for.  Then it was my credit card limit.  And then a bankroll for a weekend in Vegas.

I’ve been really lucky that the scale has changed a bit for me, and now in Vegas, $200 becomes interesting when buying a 4 or 10.

But the happiest $200 has made me, has probably been this past week, when we got our LEGO WeDo set.  As I mentioned earlier, he had guilted me into teaching him to program.  I’ve been researching ways that were more 1st grader friendly, because there are a lot of concepts that go into the NXT kit that he doesn’t yet have.  And I found the WeDo set.

It’s designed for classroom multi-set interactions, but I think it’s going to do us just fine.  We have enough spare parts to simulate the other kits, though we might have to shell out a few more bucks for another motor and controller.  So far though, with just the include parts, we’ve had a lot of fun.

Within 10 minutes, Sal had built the first kit, was explaining to me about crown gears and pulleys and how to change directions of rotation.  Then we started programming the motor and two minutes in, Sal was tickled by his infinite loop.  A few more minutes in and we had some kooky birds dancing and chirping with an excited kid hopping around in his seat.  We explored some of their “getting started” tutorials on the various components of the kit – an intro to the worm gear was one Sal was really interested by. Then we built the monkey beating on a drum.  And talked about its design and wondered how we could adjust it to make the arms alternate instead of beat simultaneously.  A minute later, the monkey was beating the drum twice as much. If it ended there, I wouldn’t have felt ripped off.

Since then though, we’ve had a couple of Sal’s friends over on separate sessions to build other example projects in the kit.  The spinning top became voice activated.  And taught us hands on about the power of gearing up for speed.  The lion’s roar, when replaced with a kissing sound, got giggles all around.  When the lion’s body “exploded” (due to turning his legs too far with the motor) there was a nice little experiment process to fine tune the motor settings.  And the alligator, with his pulleys, taught us how the hardware effects behavior just as much as the software – his jaw’s design wasn’t going to explode with a few extra turns of the motor.

All these little design features are great and the fundamentals that I want Sal to have in his toolbox for when we move onto the NXT kit.  Each project takes about an hour to build, play with, program, re-program, and discuss.  So it’s not too long where either kid gets bored and there’s always pretty immediate feedback.  If it ended here, I would feel like I was ahead.

But the kicker for me was that the Scratch environment integrates with the WeDo USB hub.  It’s good to know those MIT folks keep in touch with each other. So, once we outgrow the WeDo programming language (it doesn’t have conditionals!) we’ll just step naturally into the Scratch environment.  There’s this video I saw where the kids were using the tilt controller (hidden inside a LEGO submarine) to control…a LEGO submarine in the Scratch environment in a side scroller game.  As you tilt the real LEGO submarine the sprite on the screen (photo of the LEGO sub) rises to avoid the octopus.  But watch out for that shark – so you need to tilt the real LEGO sub down…

I haven’t shown Sal that video.  I want him to come up with that connection – that we can use the sensors in the LEGO kit to control the characters in the Scratch environment – on his own.  I’ll lead him right up to the edge, but I want him to feel the excitement and thrill of making that mental leap for himself.

And hopefully, he’ll be so swept up in all the possibilities, that he won’t see me wiping away my $200 teardrop.

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