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Robotics/Electronics Class - How Would You Do It? 58

MainerDood asks: "I have been teaching programming and networking at the high school and collegiate levels for several years, and now I am branching out into electronics and robotics for my high school students. I am keen on Linux and Open Source solutions where feasible, and would like to avoid using pre-packaged robotics/electronic 'kits' (ie: Lego Mindstorm). I have a minimal budget, like to tinker and have access to tons of old PCs... I would like to use them in these projects and buy the 'parts' where needed. I am envisioning an order of breadboards, diodes, resistors, etc. but not sure from where I should order, what a good basic startup setup should contain and resources I should refer too. I have found a bunch of links online and various resources, but I am curious to know how you would go about this... seasoned veterans and electronics/robotics enthusiasts - I am all ears!"
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Robotics/Electronics Class - How Would You Do It?

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  • Bad Idea? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Mshift2x ( 686015 )
    As much fun as this might be, this is up there with 400 level college courses, students really need a good electronics backround to comprehend most of the stuff you should be teaching them. There is something to be said for giving students a well rounded education in high school (literature, math, composition, history) and leaving this sort of thing for college.
    • Re:Bad Idea? (Score:5, Informative)

      by stefanlasiewski ( 63134 ) * <slashdot@stefanc[ ]om ['o.c' in gap]> on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:03PM (#12284689) Homepage Journal
      Most high school students are perfectly capable of learning how electronics work and how to build robots. The courses won't necessarly prevent a well-rounded education.

      Building a robot is a great way to stimulate interest in math, science & mechanics, which applies to a wide variety of careers-- from high-level software architects to an auto mechanic.

      In addition, if you limit this sort of education to the 400-level college courses, you exclude the majority of students who will never go to college, enroll in a EE program, or make it the 400-level college courses.
    • Re:Bad Idea? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by nocomment ( 239368 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:09PM (#12284776) Homepage Journal
      I see your point, but disagree with you. My High School electronics teacher was teaching us robotics. He essentially was working on his own projects but teaching us what to do why and how and having us do the dirty work. I learned enough in my first year to know I wanted to be an EE. I of course decided to major in alcohol and eventually dropped out to work in IT (hmmm correlation there?).

      I don't remember enough of what we did to be of any use to the discussion though. I graduated in '93. I DO remember that we had 2 386 motherboards ( I remember thinking "I will NEVER need more power than that"), and some prepackaged gear sets. We could program in several thousand instructions for the Robot to follow. Sadly, it was a 2 year long project and I graduated before I could see the thing in action, but it can and has been done before.
    • Re:Bad Idea? (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Meest ( 714734 )
      http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/03/ 30/1426214&from=rss/ [slashdot.org]

      Considering High School Students that "wouldn't comprehend most of the stuff"

      • This was the first thing I thought of when I read "Bad Idea?". Read about them in Wired. Though the article ends on a down note, these were high school kids, competing at a college level. What they came up with was inspired.
      • An excellent example of the reason you're familiar with the phrase "exception to the rule."
  • The submitter says he has a bunch of links, but this is for the rest of you :)

    American Science & Surplus [sciplus.com] has a ton of cheap electronic components for sale. No breadboards, but they do sell LEDs, some resistors, motors, etc. They even have a whole "Robot Parts" selection, with items such as Windshield Wiper motors, etc. They also have a great (and entertaining) paper catalog, and their inventory changes very often. Lasers, high quality optics, weather balloons-- all sorts of fun, geeky stuff.

    I haven't built any robots myself, but I have been ordering random bits and pieces for various projects for more then 5 years.
  • I strongly disagree with the parent post. Learning about electronics and robotics early allows students to become interested before having to decide what they want to take in University/College and it inspires them to finish the necessary high school courses needed to enter Engineering. I would say though that unless the poster is a EE himself and an expert in the parts that he's using it may be more effective to go with the $100 packaged boards first otherwise you run into problems when students decide to
  • Lego Mindstorm kits are a good way to go, since they require very little to set up, and the graphical programming language is easy to use; there are plenty more advances programming interfaces(nqc, pbforth, legos, and lejos) for the next level student.

    Another good option is to enter some of the various robotic competitions ( http://www.rec.ri.cmu.edu/education/Robotics%20Co mpetitions.shtml/ [cmu.edu]).
  • Physical Computing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cshirky ( 9913 ) * on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:05PM (#12284713) Homepage
    Take a look at Physical Computing [isbn.nu]. It's sub-titled "Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers" and features instructions and projects for basic work wiht sensors and simple chips like the PIC and BX-24. (Full disclosure: The authors are colleagues of mine at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.)
  • by BigT ( 70780 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:05PM (#12284716)
    You may want to look into theFIRST robotics [usfirst.org] competition. It is a tele-robotics competion for high school students held annually. This would give you something to teach towards. There may be FIRST-specific curriculums out there already, also.

    Other than that, I wouldn't try to be too ambitous. Teach basic DC/AC circuits, maybe the basics of transistors, and program some PICs or similar in BASIC.
    • I've already gotten my Vex Robotics [vexrobotics.com] starter kit from Radio Shack, and it's pretty impressive. This is a commercialized version of Kaman's FIRST competition kits. In fact, FIRST is now using the Vex kits.

      What makes the Vex kits nice is the real microcontrollers and impressive transmitter. Very nice packaging of all of the robotic stuff. Unlike Lego Mindstorms, these use real screws and nuts and can be used as a foundation for real robotic projects.

      While the starter kit is $300 (it gives you everything to m
    • I am a member of a FIRST Team. IT involves a lot of work and money, but if your are willing to do it, go at it. The competition Game is released each year in Mid-Jan. Then there is a 6 week build period where you build the robot and program its autonomous mode and functions using C. In March are regional compeitions, and in April is the Championship event (which is this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in Atlanta, GA)The only draw back to the program is the $15,000+ cost per year to go to competitions, build
  • A hint that might help, as I don't know everything...

    Google for "floppy drive robots" or similar ideas.

    Base idea: build a robot using mostly or only the parts from a 3 1/2" floppy drive... If you have computers to spare, then be liberal and allow other parts and see what they come up with...

  • by xenocide2 ( 231786 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:29PM (#12285042) Homepage
    Several of my professors have been teaching robotics classes to students for years. Before I explain their opinions, I should inform you that they are Computer Science professors, and their slant is toward programming robots.

    Basically, their theory is that building robots is difficult work, and most of the students wound up spending more time cutting, welding and soldiering than programming. The Lego mindstorms kit (with a firmware hack so we can use Not Quite C) proved very useful for programming the lego robots to do various things. There's still plenty of room to learn about various mechanical and electrical systems with mindstorms, but you don't have to worry about dorking around with soldiering, which is a pretty risky business with the hot iron, nasty fumes and toxic chemicals. I've seen more than a few mindstorms hacks onto their electrical systems to add stuff. The one problem is that they're probably pretty expensive, even with a qualified academic discount.
  • Parts (Score:2, Informative)

    by rir ( 632769 )

    Sounds like a good course... I wish I had something like that when i was in highschool :). Anyways, for parts, http://digikey.com/ [digikey.com] is probably the best. You might also want to check out http://jameco.com/ [jameco.com]. If you're teaching robotics, you'll probably want some simple MCUs to teach basic microcontroller concepts with. I would suggest a simple PIC micro from http://microchip.com/ [microchip.com] or better yet a BASIC stamp from http://www.parallax.com/ [parallax.com]
  • by MerlynEmrys67 ( 583469 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:47PM (#12285215)
    So - robotics/electronics is about two things...
    1) Embedded programming models
    2) Funky I/O devices

    So which one do you want to focus on - from your post, I am guessing it is the later. So what you want is a brain dead easy programming model - then build the I/O devices (ie. Sensors, motor controls, all the fun things to manipulate the physical world) to fit into the programming model.

    The alternative is to get a canned hardware model (ie. Mindstorm) and then present interesting project in having the hardware manipulate the real world.

    Leave it to VERY seasoned profesionals to manipulate both of these environments at the same time, and even then - there are hardware people and there are software people... and they tend not to mix

  • Ebay (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Usquebaugh ( 230216 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @03:57PM (#12285336)
    Coming from many years in programming I've recently been learning about hardware. Being of a lazy disposition I needed to quickly and cheaply build up a large stock of components. Nothing I hate more than not having a part on hand.

    I picked up a breadboard locally and that was the last item I bought retail. Everything else came off ebay at ridiculous prices. The problem for me was usually I ended up with too many items.

    The best thing about the cost is that I'm not afraid to break things. That burning smell doesn't mean I've blown $10 more like 10c.

    For robotics you can go with the latest pic/stamp + prgrammer. But think simple, Z80 + EEPROM + SRAM gives you the same sort of thing at a much reduced price. For instance I picked up 100+ Z80 chips for less than $10.

    Decide which controller you're going to use, I'd suggest Z80/6502 etc for cost reasons, but the low end pics are very reasonable as well. Once you have that decided, there are numerous emulators etc available for Linux for each controller. Cheap serial burner can be built for pennies, make that the first class. Kids hate theory.

    Build the course around the controller and only delve into theory briefly. Show how to build a drive controller, light/ir/sound detector etc etc. Make one class cover a topic. Give weblinks so the interested kids can follow up in there own time.

  • Zach's Cool Stuff (Score:4, Informative)

    by linuxwrangler ( 582055 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @04:06PM (#12285453)
    Check out Zach's Cool Stuff [buildcoolstuff.com]. You might even be able to contact him for ideas. He is doing very similar stuff. Rather than building from a kit he chooses raw materials so people get hands on experience with fabrication.

  • Begin by showing what has happened to the size of MCU's, eg,
    by showing your students the subject presentation
    (it's like a PowerPoint show with its own audio)

    Systems of interest include:

    PICaxe-based educational robot (from UK?)

    If programming in Assembler, try CoreChart:

    (from Australia)
  • Your first stop... (Score:3, Informative)

    by WasteOfAmmo ( 526018 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @04:14PM (#12285536) Journal
    Two great magazines to get subscriptions to.... even for the school library:

    http://www.servomagazine.com/ [servomagazine.com] - mainly robotics

    and their sister (parent?) magazine:

    http://www.nutsvolts.com/ [nutsvolts.com] - mainly electronics but covers robotic stuff quite often.

    These magazines also have Lego Mindstorms articles in them quite often.

    Server has advertising for several companies carrying various kits. In my opinion the kits would be the way to go...even if you can only purchase a few and run you class in groups. As one poster mentioned, the problem with building from the ground up is that you spend most of your time building the hardware and very little of your time programming and running.

    Once you have the class going with kits then add some simple "build from scratch" projects like BEAM robotics. Even with these various PIC or ATOM kits will come in handy.

    Disclaimer: I am not associated with the Servo or Nuts&Volts but I am a long time satified customer (Servo: since its first issue two years ago or so; Nuts&Volts: several years since when another electronics magazine died and switched the remainder of my subscription to N&V).


  • Take a look at the Handyboard line of projects. My college actually uses one of them as the basis for a class called car in a box. The one we use is a little price - about $100 for the whole kit, but that includes the PC board, components, servos for wheels, and the M68HC11 processor. Its a decent kit, and is a good intro to embedded systems as well: http://www.handyboard.com/

  • MicroChip's MPLAB (IDE w/ ass'r, simulator, etc.)

    (there's a link to it on their site's front page)

    Programmer's Editor for PICace (it's got a tech ref built-in):


    RealTerm (a SourceForge project)
  • A perfect solution is probably scumming away in the basements and attics of a lot of people: the Commodore 64.

    I actually brought my VIC-20 to college in the early 90s for electronics courses. While the rest of the class was using PCs for hardware projects, I did them all on the VIC. Top reason : the BASIC is so funky and primitive that you can poke memory and run ML from it. Reason #2, the video output works on CGA monitors...

    One of the projects back then was with an 8 bit DAC for generating waveforms. Wh

  • Design, implement and then taken down Dr. Charles Forbin's Colossus. [imdb.com]
  • YAAARC JanBot (Score:3, Informative)

    by Doug Dante ( 22218 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @05:04PM (#12286073)
    For about $70.00, a student can assemble a YAAARC [yaaarc.org] JanBot, which is a small mobile robot with touch sensors and simple vision sensors (for line following), from raw components (breadboard, wires, PIC, motors, and sensors) without any power tools (soldering irons). (OK, you may end up using a glue gun for one or two parts).
    We did this as a group, and high school students actively participated.
    Also, one of our members is developing a mobile robotics kit using the AVR Butterfly, which has a similar components cost, but has an LCD and LED screen. (See our web site).
  • Soldering irons, solder, breadboards, servo motors, different lengths and gauges of wire, cable, transistors, operational amplifiers, timer chips, ARM processors, wheels, access to a machine shop, car/boat batteries, capacitors, inductors, resistors, steel or solid plastics, and so on.

    Robots are uninteresting until you reach a few levels of complexity higher than what could be done in a high school.
  • Rather than try to have them make robots that move around and/or have any sort of autonomy, challenge their concepts of what a "robot" is and what it does.

    In the strictest sense, a material handling system in a warehouse is a robot. Ditto for many assembly lines (or at least portions thereof), automatic sprinkler systems, traffic lights with vehicle sensors, and so on.

    Urge them to come up with creative but practical "robots," not R2D2 or C3P0 clones.

    My dos centavos.
  • They run on sunlight. If you expect to do anything for your students besides instill unrealistic economic expectations in them, don't build multi-purpose robots. Unless the energy situation improves, their generation will never see such things in actual use.

    Build a tracking system for solar panels. It's close enough to a robot, but it might actually come in handy. Use the opportunity to compare the amount of power used to the amount generated. I'm assuming these are students with a basic understanding
  • by Radioactive Zorm ( 803479 ) on Tuesday April 19, 2005 @06:39PM (#12286930)
    I had a robotics class in high school last year and it was rather fun. We used http://handyboard.com/ [handyboard.com] Handyboards for the brains of most of the robots we made. They aren't like mindstorms in that a bit of work is still required to use different servers and motors with it. The handyboards are programmed with IC which is Interactive C. IC is somewhat open source and has a linux version so we used it. The only downside is that they are rather pricy at $200 a unit. Some other robots we made were simple touch sensor robots using breadboards and servos(Servo motors are nice you should get lots of them as they can be used for just about everything!). This project came from a book called 'Mobile Robotics'. For another project we got an old floppy and cdrom drive and had to make a robot to win a race with them. Everything had to come from the floppy and cdrom drive all the wire/motors/switchs we only got tools to work with. This project was the most fun and likely the easiest for the teacher to manage as he didn't need to provide parts. You could do variations or even make the project more complex. One thing that helped a lot is that we started out working on simple projects and at a slow pace so that everyone in the class could participate regardless of having had an electronics course before. We often built robots in stages where we would make a robot with a touch sensor first and then go back and add light sensors and so on.
  • I can't stress enough how much fun can be had with microcontrollers!

    Microcontrollers are an excellent bridge between code and hardware - you can code in C but your I/O is actually CMOS digital I/O which can then be plugged up to whatever digital devices or auxiliary chips you want.

    The best subject of my undergraduate degree involved writing a pre-emptive task scheduler simultaneously running LCD interfacing code, kermit file transfer protocol, an LED chaser program selecting patterns based on input pins

    • I can't stress enough how much fun can be had with microcontrollers!

      Microcontrollers are an excellent bridge between code and hardware - you can code in C but your I/O is actually CMOS digital I/O which can then be plugged up to whatever digital devices or auxiliary chips you want.

      Seconded! Forget the combination of diodes, resistors and old PCs and get some Atmel AVR prototyping boards and set up a C programming environment for them on a Linux PC. Then get a bunch of cheap RC servos - these are very ve

  • It all depends on where you want to focus. There's a lot of detail around assembling electronics that has nothing to do with robotic path planning, sensor fusion, motion control, etc. You might want to consider robot simulators if you want to teach more of the software and algorithms. However, sometimes you need a hefty math/CS background before you can really understand the algorithm.

    I think there are several great kits on the market for various levels of experience. Try starting with a cheap kit wit
  • Motorola HC12 (sub $30)
    Any generic RC car (sub $30)
    A few bucks on diodes/breadboards/etc, and you can build a decent line follower, maze racer, GPS guided bot

    Be forewarned - if you're doing this, I don't think there's any kind of high level compiler for the HC12, so you'll be writing in assembly (but for simple robots, I don't think it'll matter)
    • Sure there is a high level compiler: http://www.ericengler.com/EmbeddedGNU.aspx

      We use the HC12 in my graduate level mechatronics class. It's awesome.
  • Who said you could touch my PCs?

    sorry, couldn't resist
  • Two words... Robot Wars [battlebots.com]!!!

The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first. -- Blaise Pascal