As I returned from the MakerFaire in San Mateo, California a few weeks ago, I was amazed at how this movement had grown to attract 150,000 people to one place for a weekend of “the greatest show and tell on earth. ” With all this enthusiasm, one can be forgiven for thinking that this is a new movement when, in fact, it has roots running back quite a few years. A quick search on Google Trends shows nothing before 2007, but this is simply not true.
After writing earlier books on Logo for the MSX computers in the 1980’s, the Brazilian educational leader, Norma Godoy, decided , in 1992, to raise the bar on student programming by incorporating robotics into her currculum. Rather than just connect Logo to simple floor “turtles” that would move along based on Logo commands, she thought that the world of robotics was completely open, and that students should be allowed to build and program anything they wanted. Now before you say “Lego Mindstorms,” you need to know that product didn’t become available until 1998. And even if it had been available in Brazil, the high cost of Lego bricks meant that, once a project was completed, it had to be taken apart so others could use the bricks in their own designs.
Rather than work with scarce and expensive materials, Norma decided to build her program around recycled materials – plastic soda bottles, cardboard, and other easily found items which were then assembled into projects containing motors and lights so they could be programmed by the student’s computer. This required a hardware interface to control these motors and lights. The interface she inspired engineers, (one at ORT and one at ARS Consult both in Brazil) to create, was connected to the parallel port (remember those?) of the computer with signals then sent to various outputs.
Since cheap LEDs were not available at the time, small bulbs from Christmas lights were used. The most expensive parts were the stepper motors taken from dead hard drives, or purchased for a few dollars.
Armed with this arsenal of tools, the key element was the creativity of the students who built amazing things. For example, one student built a model of a garage door opener that worked by flashing the car lights into a photosensor that then told the Logo program to open the door. The garage itself was made from a cardboard box, and a jar lid was used at the pivot for the door to open.
One can only imagine what students would do today with inexpensive 3D printers being used to make custom gears and other parts that are hard to make from recycled materials!
At one time, many thousands of students were using these materials throughout Brazil. and Norma started presenting her work at international conferences, such as the 1997 CUE conference in California. One of the teachers Norma taught led a team of students into the prize winning round of the First Robotics competition a few years ago.
Now that companies are entering the educational robotics arena with kits that take advantage of recyced matrials, it is important to reflect on this rich history today. It is interesting to see the attention these new comanies get at educational conferences from teachers, some of whom were in school themselves when this robotics movement was started.
When we look at these products, it gives us a chance to reflect on how student robotics is far from a new idea!
In the spirit of full disclusre, Norma Godoy has been known as Norma Thornburg since 2000 and she and I are actively engaged in everything from 3D printing in the classroom http://amzn.to/1pyeaqk and soft circuits.