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Ask Slashdot: Entry-Level Robotics Kits For Young Teenagers?

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the old-teenagers-much-grumpier dept.

Education 153

An anonymous reader writes "So, it's that wonderful time of year again. Instead of buying the latest, greatest whiz-bang, overpriced fad toy of the year, I thought I might try my hand at corrupting my nieces (ages 12 and 14) in a nerdier direction with some sort of introductory robotics kit. They have no programming experience, and part of my idea is that it would be encouraging for them to see interactions of their code that they write with the real-world by being able to control some actuators and read sensors. The first thing that comes to mind is Lego Mindstorms, but I find them a bit on the pricey side of things. My budget falls between $40 and $100, and the ideal kit would focus more on the software side than on soldering together circuits. I'd be looking for a kit that provides an easy to learn API and development tools that will work with a standard Windows PC. I don't mind spending a few afternoons helping them out with the basics, but I'd like for them to be able to be able to explore on their own after grasping the initial concepts. Has anybody gotten their younger relations into programming through robotics, and what kits might you recommend?"

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OWI robotic arm (5, Informative)

rwa2 (4391) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417460)

About a year ago I was looking for something similar to the Radio Shack Armitron I had as a kid. I ended up getting an OWI robotic arm [] for my kids, which is pretty cheap at $35 on Amazon, also has a USB control board for an extra $15 or so. You assemble it yourself, but it's fairly easy as plastic models go, even relative to Legos, and the build quality is pretty high for the price.

There's even code [] . to get the USB control stuff working under *nix . I had to make a few minor tweaks to get it to compile on my Linux box, and it's a bit basic, but it worked! Would be fairly trivial to build a web interface to it along with a webcam. The only downside is that it still draws power from D-cells, but that's easy enough to live with.

Has no feedback (2)

Richard_J_N (631241) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418942)

This isn't really a good system for computer control, because it has no feedback - it uses simple DC motors without potentiometers or servos. So there is no way for the computer to know the arm position.

Re:OWI robotic arm (1)

Kilbanio (1492725) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419092)

I second the recommendation of the OWI Robotic Arm Edge. I have used it with hundreds of students every summer most between the age of 7 and 13. It works great. If you do build it you should help them read the directions. They tend to miss little things. To save yourself from frustration later on find the baggie with only one metal pin or axle. Remove that axle and the four small tapping screws and place them in a ziplock baggie. Give the ziplock with the parts back to the builder when they have successfully reached the stage where they are building the gripper. That axle is about a mm shorter than all the others and is easy to use in one of four gearboxes that raise and rotate the arm.

Re:OWI robotic arm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38419146)

thanks for this-- I have one already in my bedroom in an amazon box awaiting the end of the week.. good tip.

My son is 13... (1)

Trip6 (1184883) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417472)

...and has shown NO interest in this. I too anxiously await recommendations from /.ers!

Re:My son is 13... (4, Insightful)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417724)

Buy them something THEY want or would appreciate. The goal should be to please them, not your own inner child.

What next - "Gee, *I* would like a new chainsaw, so I think I'll buy one for my wife/girlfriend/significant other" ...

possibly too subtle (2)

heinousjay (683506) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417750)

You couldn't be more off base. Everyone secretly thinks just like I do, unless someone is paying them to think a different way.

Re:My son is 13... (0)

AliasMarlowe (1042386) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417930)

What next - "Gee, *I* would like a new chainsaw, so I think I'll buy one for my wife/girlfriend/significant other" ...

By your logic, my wife has been dropping hints for years that she'd like some power tools. At least, she keeps buying power tools for me for birthday, Christmas, Fathers' day, etc.

Re:My son is 13... (2)

obarel (670863) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417984)

I didn't get the impression that he was saying "everybody's buying other people stuff that they secretly want".
He only said "don't buy other people stuff they have no interest in, just because you do".

How do I know the write is a "he"? Educated guess.

Re:My son is 13... (2)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418380)

How do I know you have signatures turned off? Educated guess :-)

Re:My son is 13... (1)

obarel (670863) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418856)

No, I have no excuse this time, just blindness and stupidity...

Never mind, better luck next time guessing the obvious ;-)

Re:My son is 13... (1)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419108)

Please don't sweat it - you wouldn't believe how many people make the same mistake (and sometimes I let them keep making it because it's funny for those watching who have sigs turned on. It can lead to some really interesting discussion threads :-)

Even on Tuesdays. On second thought, make that especially on Tuesdays.

Re:My son is 13... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418278)

You're wrong, of course. The best gifts open up new worlds for the recipient. Do you think I wanted a Radio Shack Electronics Lab when I was a kid? I had no idea. But I spent hours on that thing learning the basics of how circuits worked. I've received gifts that similarly unlocked doors to things I'd never thought about. Sometimes they were merely provoking, other times I ignored them completely. But simply filling in the checkboxes on someone's wishlist is the exact wrong way to go about gift-giving.

Re:My son is 13... (1)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418444)

Nobody's advocating a "fill-in-the-checkbox" approach. What I *am* saying, is think about what *they* would enjoy. Here's part of the last line:

Has anybody gotten their younger relations into programming through robotics

So there's your motive - "I want them to get into programming". A field that has a surplus of labour, terrible working conditions, is extremely easy to outsource, and will eventually be mostly rendered obsolete by AI. Frankly, while I was disappointed at the time, I'm now glad my daughters never caught the programming bug.

Might as well recommend buggy whips - there'll always be demand for a high quality buggy whip maker!

Re:My son is 13... (3, Interesting)

gtbritishskull (1435843) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419090)

I completely disagree with you. For one, I do not think you should avoid teaching a child something because you are afraid that they will want to do it when they are older. I think you should expose them to as much as possible so that they can make the decision for themselves.

Also, the "programming bug" is not a bad thing to catch. While I agree that being a code monkey is probably a bad idea, and going to be even more of a bad idea in the future, for the reasons you mention, almost EVERY other field can benefit from programming knowledge. Physicists might have to know how to program (to analyze data). Engineers might need to know how to program CNC. Even librarians might need to know how to program to make SQL queries. Computers are used in just about every field. Knowing how to program is a value-add.

You should try broadening your kids horizons instead of narrowing their vision. If you have been a good enough parent then they should know how to make the right decisions. If not, then you probably shouldn't be telling them how to live their life anyways.

Re:My son is 13... (2)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419376)

Hopefully in the future, SQL will die the death it so richly deserves. After 40 years, you'd think we'd have come up with something better ... :-)

Also, if they want to "discover programming", there's this great tool that they probably already have access to, called, hmmm, wait a minute, it's coming to me ... oh, right, the Internet. And if you google for "learn how to program", the first unsponsored hit gives a realistic perspective teach yourself programming in 10 years [] .

But seriously, if they want to learn how to program, there are already so many opportunities right in front of them - even basic things like a spreadsheet to keep track of their allowance or "cheat" on their homework - are a simple start. No need for any "occasion."

You don't want to come off as "the dork who always gives these awful geek presents". That would have the same negative halo effect as trying to introduce someone to linux by exposing them to an RMS speech and then having RMS sleep on their couch. It's like a previous article where someone wrote about how they gave DVDs with open-source software on them, and wondered why people weren't bowled over by it.

You really don't want to be *that* person. Even *that* person doesn't want to be *that* person.

Gift giving for nieces is simple. When in doubt - give chocolate. Because chocolate never goes out of style. If you've ever tasted some of the more expensive specialty chocolates, you'll know what I mean. Think of the sweatiest, dirtiest, raunchiest, kinkiest sex you ever had - and multiply by two. It's that good.

Re:My son is 13... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417758)

I too anxiously await recommendations from /.ers!

A Spanish and/or Chinese language course.

Because that's where we're headed.

Re:My son is 13... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418310)

A Spanish and/or Chinese language course.

Because that's where we're headed.


Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (4, Informative)

korgitser (1809018) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417476)

Arduino makes electronics and programming simple.
Cheap chinese toys provide you with part( set)s like motors, gears and radio links, with the additional engineering tricks to observe.
Regular Lego parts provide you with fast no-brainer mechanics. Fear not the drilling and abusing of Lego blocks to mount that motor!
The hard part now is for them to come up with ideas and interest.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (1)

durrr (1316311) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417516)

Hacking toys is a bitching process. My recommendation would be a basic arduino compatible robot platform prebuilt, that way you get up and rolling fast. A set of wheels on a platform and some ~$20 electric motor and lipo batteries for something chocklingly fast if you want to pick them more separately.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (1)

pinkeen (1804300) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417588)

Kids aged 12-14 might feel a bit too intimidated even by simple programming. It might be an unbreakable entry barrier. I would recommend something that uses this simplified "visual progamming" software.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417820)

I would recommend something that uses this simplified "visual progamming" software.

Yes! Get them to write the code using Vi, the Visual editor. It makes everything easy.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (5, Insightful)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417856)

Any 10 year old of average intelligence can be taught to do simple programming. Ten year olds can be taught to make electronic devices too. A fourteen year old who actually is interested enough can earn an amateur radio licence and build a ham radio. Please don't contribute to the growing pandemic of treating our children like morons.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (2)

Missing.Matter (1845576) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418720)

The issue isn't if they can do it, it's will they. Kids and teenagers want to play video games, hang out with their friends, chase girls, etc. If you don't present programming in the right light, they won't be interested or try it out and set it aside. I've seen it at every age level. Starting with C/C++ is probably the worst approach possible.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (2)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418818)

who said c/c++ had to be used? a nice library to a fun language could instead be employed. as to attention span and hobbies prevalent today, the issue is proper mentoring and teaching, to create and nature interest. I am very thankful my parents and a couple very influential teachers provided that for me. I was indeed making electronic devices at age 10 and writing software at age 11 (programming was thanks to teachers). I'm 48 years old), my hobbies have become my income source over the years, and that story started at age 10 thanks to adults with proper mindset.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417896)

For the past 4 years, I worked at a summer camp teaching lego mindstorms to 4-8 graders. Most 4th and 5th graders (9 and 10 year olds) pick up on the visual programming (dropping programming "blocks" in a row) very quickly. I would think by 14 they would be able to handle some more advanced programming (as long as they show interest in it). My parents bought a 486 when I was about 12 or 14 and I started programming in basica and qbasic from programs I found in 3-2-1 Contact. At the same time, I started experimenting (on my own, with no help) with making my own programs.

I think starting your kid with some programming around 12 or 14 is a good idea but only if they are interested in it. My parents wanted me to do a lot of things when I was that age that I just didn't care for. Programming was something they weren't interested in (and knew nothing about) but I picked it up anyway because I had the tools.

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (1)

mrchaotica (681592) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418502)

12 or 14 is too old. Give 'em a copy of Logo [] or Squeak [] when they're maybe 8, and they'll be off to the races (if they have any aptitude or interest, at least -- and if they don't, find a sport or musical instrument for them instead).

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (1)

AK Marc (707885) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418976)

That's about as useful as saying "give them Python and Cold Fusion and let them go." For my generation, "give them BASIC" was easy because it was included with Apple and DOS. And there were magazines with code in the middle, you type in 200 lines someone else wrote, and you had a working program. If it didn't do what you wanted, you used BASIC's expert compiling options to determine the problem. If you wanted to tweak it, you did so. But the "guides" for how to do it were out there and at the 4/5 year old level, as all you had to be able to do to use them is copy characters. You didn't even need to know how to read (though it would help, obviously). So where are those resources for Logo and Squeak? Really, I have a child of appropriate age and would like to know. Some homeschooler program for programing or beginners guide that an 8 year old could follow?

Re:Arduino + cheap chinese toys + lego (1)

0100010001010011 (652467) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417890)

I vote for the arduino too. I might even build them a 'dumbed down' "case" for them (opto isolators and the such) so they can't break it.

But there is nothing cooler and makes stuff click in programming more than when you say "pin on" and an LED lights up or a motor turns on.

FIRST (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417510)

Alternatively, or in addition, you could find a FIRST team for them to interact with. It would provide a good gateway for them to get into it, and it has teams for every level from kindergarten to high school. Obviously only an option if there's a relatively local one though.

Re:FIRST (3, Informative)

timothyb89 (1259272) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417938)

+1 to this. I know from personal experience that this is the way to go, especially for younger kids. Not only does it have a solid track for growth, from elementary until high school (FLL -> FTC -> FRC) , but it makes sure that you have other people to work with. Plus, there's generally no or very little cost to the student.

If that's not an option, I'd still recommend Mindstorms. It's more expensive, sure, but it really is leaps and bounds better than the alternatives. Younger kids (late elementary through middle school, 10 - 14 or so), tend to struggle with some of the less-developed kits, particularly if they lack a large community. Mindstorms is a great development kit, as you can see from all the /. articles about it. Adults and kids can make great use if them - I do all the time.

If that's still out of budget, VEX may be somewhat less expensive. I believe kits run about $200 and there's still a large community and yearly competitors and challenges to participate in. It's not quite the same community as FIRST, though.

Basically, there's no cheap way to get a (good) robotics kit. Even homebrew stuff (Arduino and the like), is going to be $100 at the absolute minimum. The cheapest way is to find a local team, or perhaps try starting one - many schools districts offer funding, support, or even full kits for new teams, in addition to lots of FIRST scholarships.

Disclaimer: I mentor FLL (Mindstorms) and FRC teams, after having been on several myself through middle and high school.

Re:FIRST (1)

timothyb89 (1259272) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418124)

Oh, and to expand a bit, for little to no electronics and entry-level programming, Mindstorms is again the best option. Graphical programming for new users, and hobbyists can use both a C derivative (NXC) and Java (LeJOS), two programming environments that I personally envy, even with higher-level robotics.

VEX again comes fairly close. You can program it with EasyC, which works very well for teaching to kids and I think would work great for letting the kids become more independent after a short time.

I've never seen an independent kit that offers reasonable ease of use. I've worked with quite a few, and for the most part none of them will satisfy the requirements. They generally are difficult to set up, and require lots of soldering, etc. While great for those interested, they wouldn't work very well for kids working independently. Essentially, the focus is on the electronics side rather than the software side, while the more mainstream kits (Mindstorms, VEX) tend to be more about software and construction (with pre-made parts) rather than electronics.

Re:FIRST (2)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418744)

You could probably get started with arduino for around $50, but it would be an uphill battle. But you can get $1 servos now, so it's not totally infeasible if you have some nifty scraps around, broken toys, et cetera. We have a salvation army center pretty near me that sells us armloads of stuff for five or ten bucks, and there's often a lot of electronic toys in the bins in various states of disrepair, some of which have obvious hack value. Flea markets and yard sales are some other good sources. Just picked up a scooter powertrain for $5... scooter was bent and batteries shot, but got two-piece wheels, motor, controller, charger. I think it'll make a dandy R/C buggy of about 1/4 scale.

With that said, I'd certainly suggest mindstorms, because it makes it so easy to get going, and legos are cool. It costs money, but realistically, you will have to spend some money, so you might as well spend it on something good with high resale value.

the Roomba people sell a programmable platform now (4, Informative)

Trepidity (597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417524)

It's a bit higher than that price range though, at $130 [] .

Re:the Roomba people sell a programmable platform (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417586)

Nothing gets women into robotics better than a programmable vacuum cleaner!

Re:the Roomba people sell a programmable platform (1)

Trepidity (597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417598)

Well, the 'iRobot Create" isn't actually a vacuum cleaner, though it looks a lot like a Roomba and probably is the same base platform.

Re:the Roomba people sell a programmable platform (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417764)

Nothing gets women into robotics better than a programmable vacuum cleaner!

That's why he needs to get them both the iRobot and the Robotic Arm mentioned above. That way the girls can learn to program robots to vacuum, make sandwiches and open beers.

Cell phone based (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417528) sells a cell phone based platform.

Parallax! (3, Informative)

Dzimas (547818) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417534)

Visit - lots of robot kits starting at about $130. These are great gateway products into "real" robotics, without the oversimplification of Lego bricks.

Re:Parallax! (1)

VIPERsssss (907375) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418566)

I second this suggestion.
I bought the $70 Basic Stamp 2 years ago for my son.
He made us buy the Boe-Bot accessory for it last Christmas

I'm not going to say what he got this Christmas because he's right behind me playing with his stirling engine.

I read, "root kit" (1)

fotoguzzi (230256) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417536)

I suppose the field of rooting would be called rootics.

Sources for kits (5, Informative)

savuporo (658486) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417558)

There are numerous kits available, best sources for choosing one would be [] , [] , [] , [] , [] and a bunch of others. [] and [] for more general electronics components

Cant really recommend one in particular, as it depends on what you want to do. There are several categories : 2wheel differential drive bases, legged hexapods, 4wd bases, even bipeds and robotic arms.

If you get one that is designed to be Arduino-compatible, and can take any number of Arduino expansion shields, you will have endless possibilities. I'd say easiest starting point is a complete 2WD kit with some accessory sensors. This is a nice one [] , comes with motors and all. Just pick a "mainboard" and motor driver shield and you are good to go.

I am not an expert. (2)

pinkeen (1804300) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417574)

But from what I gather robotics are expensive. Even entry-level. That said, if you want something easy to play with Mindstorms seems to be the only viable option.

Re:I am not an expert. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417618)

That's really the point, isn't it? LEGO mindstorms is easier to use. Most parents don't think twice about plunking down $40 for a NERF blaster.
The LEGO device is right priced and provides a good ecosystem of peripherals. If your child loves it, then give him an allowance and let him meander through the parallaxes and what-not.

I recommend not doing it (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417584)

if you want a robot kit, buy yourself a robot kit. They probably want an iPad or money or a bag of weed. Something they can actually use.

Re:I recommend not doing it (0)

Joce640k (829181) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417628)

+1 Insightful.

Re:I recommend not doing it (0)

Ethanol-fueled (1125189) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417754)

Who the fuck modded parent down? Theirs is currently the most insightful comment in the entire discussion!

Could you imagine being a introverted nerd with a room full of code and robot parts, only to have your dad come in and say, "Son, I'm worried about you. It's about time we get rid of all this sissy shit and play some FOOTBALL!

Involuntarily enrolled in Pop Warner, you get knocked around and bloodied on a regular basis, then teased and treated with "tough-love" when you show signs of weakness because your arrogant parent is trying to hammer a square peg into a round hold so you can me a "mini-me."

Re:I recommend not doing it (2)

PPH (736903) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418846)

But this is the exact psyche we'll need to develop for our future soldiers [] . Geeks that can handle the technology and who have an inferiority complex and a score to settle for getting kicked around as kids. If we can direct this pent-up rage against our enemy, we'll be invincible.

Still, LEGO (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417594)

The LEGO RCX or NXT offers more than anything else in this price range. Get the RCX from ebay or buy the NXT. It is most definitely worth the money.

Yet, keep in mind that either one (or any other kit) require a lot of dedication and time to get anything non-trivial working. Good luck with your nieces, but be prepared for a disappointment nevertheless.

Fisher Technik (1, Informative)

Bram Stolk (24781) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417604)

Fischer Technik is an absolute winner here.
Excellent for teenagers. []

It goes well beyond what lego mindstorms has to offer.
True 6D connections, and even has stuff like pneumatics! []

Bram Stolk []

Re:Fisher Technik (1)

eht (8912) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417810)

Also absolutely expensive

This post is nothing more than an ad for his ios game.

Re:Fisher Technik (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417836)

Posting as an AC because my job requires me to work with FT products...

I couldn't disagree more with regard to FischerTechnik. The mechanics are almost decent enough for what they are, but electrically it is a disaster. It feels industrial, but it doesn't deliver.

The electrical connectors are very flaky and prone to pull out. On the brick, the connectors are too close together, so you are often forced to pull by the wire. Even if you don't, there is no compliance in the set screw that holds the wire in, so they will easily fall out with vibration. They recommend folding the exposed copper back over the insulation to give some springyness, but this only reduces the symptoms and does not solve the problem.

The sensor options are decent, and it shouldn't be overly difficult to jerry-rig new sensors in. However, the wiring can be confusing for anything that requires 3 wires.

Programming wise, their default "language" is utterly unworkable for anything beyond the most basic "if sensor then motor" logic. They do provide dll hooks for other languages, but be sure to add 10ms waits between all function calls if you want reliable communication.

Mechanically, it is extremely easy to make a robot disassemble itself. For example, the gripper on the crane will disconnect itself if you close it "too hard" (motor >80% power): the detents on the axles are too weak to handle side loading. With some experience, you can work around these short comings by understanding what the pieces can and can't do.

Re:Fisher Technik (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419390)

By the time you get to the point of doing anything advanced, you should be competent enough to do your own wiring. There should be no need to rely on flaky connections. (But I admit that this is something the company should address; it has been that way for far too long.)

I repeat, however, that it is used by universities throughout the U.S. in their robotics and industrial control classes. While it may not be perfect, I don't know of any other actual construction sets (as opposed to "robotics kits") that come even close. Certainly not Lego.

Umm (5, Insightful)

Jiro (131519) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417614)

No offense, but the way this question is phrased it doesn't sound like they had any interest in the subject. We've had questions like this before, although usually it's "how do I get a kid started in programming", but we need to remember that kids are likely to have different interests and you cannot make one become a geek unless they already are.

Re:Umm (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417742)

How do they know if they like it or not if they haven't been exposed to it?

Re:Umm (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417920)

How do they know if they like it or not if they haven't been exposed to it?

Is that what the priest told you as a kid?

Re:Umm (3, Interesting)

QuarkofNature (845690) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417932)

A friend of mine has a son who's interested. Every time they come over, he's asking me about my latest computer / electronics / whatever project. He hid a from-scratch crystal radio he was building under his jacket, last time they were over, to show me and ask me questions, without telling his parents. He is interested. As cool as it is in concept, getting a $200+ kit for a kid who hasn't shown any interest because "maybe they just haven't been exposed to it" seems like a waste of money to me. If you actually interact with a kid of that age, you should have a pretty good idea if they're interested or not. Having said all that, if OP has reason to believe they really ARE interested, I'd suggest that $40-100 is tough for the suggested application. You can buy some basic parts as some have suggested, an arduino, USB interface, and a shield or two, but unless a kid is really motivated, they won't make heads or tails of it without a lot of help, not just a couple hours of your time. Plus, they'd likely nee to need to spend lots of additional money (their own?) to get the additional parts to make anything useful. The reason Mindstorms and the Fischertechnik kits are expensive is because they're easy to approach, have instructions, and come with enough stuff to allow creation of interesting things without buying additional parts. Compromising and getting something that is doesn't stand on its own or isn't suitable for beginners could're probably better off getting a more simple, but approachable kit, like a snap circuits kit in your price range.

Re:Umm (1)

BasilBrush (643681) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417956)

If they like to take things apart with a screwdriver, and successfully put them back together again, they might be interested in robotics. If they are more interested in football or dancing around with a tutu, then it's probably not for them.

PICAXE 18M2 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417638)

Really cheap at Thats a good starting place.

snap circuits? (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417652)

Snap circuits price point better than Lego Mindstorms, appear to be less complex than RadioShack's 50 in 1 electronics kits...

i bought a couple of the RS electronics learning lab kits in anticipation of my kids developing interest, but they are still too young..

several choices...

Re:snap circuits? (3, Informative)

rworne (538610) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417756)

These kits are really nice. Basically one of those old Radio Shack XXX-in-1 electronics kits with lego building simplicity. I have a couple of them (the 300 kit and the advanced rover) at home.

Society Of Robots (1)

GerardAtJob (1245980) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417670)

Why not just get a breadboard and go read [] ?
Under 100$, you have all you need to create your first robot.

Forget it (been there, tried that) (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417706)

> I thought I might try my hand at corrupting my nieces (ages 12 and 14) in a nerdier direction ...

I once tried that with my nieces of that age. I was told in no uncertain terms that they didn't want no more nerdy Christmas presents. Geeks are born, not made - or at least there must be parental support of actual thinking. Go with the cheapest junk de jour you can find *if* you must maintain family peace, otherwise a small lump of coal will do as well as any nerdy presents.

Re:Forget it (been there, tried that) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418320)

Geeks are born, not made

Exactly. It's called the autism spectrum.

Do you want cheap or educational? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417712)

Don't be a tightwad.

Lego Mindstorms is what I grew up on and it does very well what it was designed to do. Mindstorms lowers the barriers to entry enough to where someone in the age group you specified can actually get some benefit out of the experience.

At the same time, Mindstorms is sophisticated enough that you aren't just soldering together a pre-programmed microcontroller like some of the robots kits out of "Edmunds Scientific".

Arduino can teach someone who has no experience with programming or electronics how to develop for embedded applications, assuming they have the attention span and focus to work through the learning curve and programming examples.

I've met very few 12-14 year olds with that level of focus. Their imaginations and ambitions will be stifled by a lack of fabrication skills, equipment, and facilities. They will be reduced to hack-a-day style tinkering where they can put together a computer interface for existing hardware, but they will not be able to go through the creative problem solving, & design process that makes robotics so fulfilling.

By all means, graduate them to an arduino after they've built some Mindstorms, but don't do them the injustice of throwing them to the wolves of boredom by getting them in over their head. Their first impression of robotics will be "difficult, boring, and inaccessible".

FIRST, & MATE both have robotics competitions targeted at children in the age group you specified. When you think they're ready, get them involved.

$300 is a pittance considering the return on investment. The $200-260 savings will translate to negative ROI in the thousands on future education expenses. A solid robotics foundation is the difference between an engineering/computer science student barely surviving college and looking forward to class every day.

Did I mention that Robotics discourages recreational drug use?

Get off your wallet and use a credit card. Then buy them an Arduino for their birthday.

lousy gift? (2)

ukemike (956477) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417716)

They have no programming experience,

and probably no interest. You know the way to give good gifts is to try to understand what the recipient enjoys then give based on that information. When you try to push something "good for them" on them you're like that dentist who hands out toothbrushes on halloween.

Re:lousy gift? (1)

obarel (670863) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418066)

Reminds you of the usual Christmas questions on Slashdot: "This year I've decided to give my family a Linux distro on a USB stick. Any suggestions?"

Re:lousy gift? (1)

jones_supa (887896) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418900)

Hehehe. Or the "My 3 year old daughter seems to be very interested about what I do on computer, so I am looking for suggestions for her first laptop..."

Re:lousy gift? (1)

IANAAC (692242) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418120)

They have no programming experience,

and probably no interest.

That was exactly what I thought when I read the summary. If a 12 y/o kid hasn't shown any interest in something like programming, they probably aren't going to be interested in it.

Spend the money, you get what you pay for (4, Insightful)

Missing.Matter (1845576) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417746)

The thing about robotics is there's a great divide between really cool stuff and really lame stuff in terms of price. There are a lot of really cheap robotics kits.... but they're pretty lame: solder a few wires to a motor and board and watch a car follow a line. BFD. And then that's it, you can't do anything more with it. On the other hand all the awesome hexapods and humanoids are going to run you thousands of dollars. A single servo can cost over $100!

With that in mind, I highly suggest reconsidering the Mindstorms kit. You might even consider buying a Mindstorms 1.0 kit from Ebay. They're apparently on the 2.0 generation, and it seems like the 1.0 kit is significant;y cheaper. But it's seriously worth it.

If I were a kid again, I know something like a mindstorms kit would certainly get me interested in robotics. In fact, what got me interested in robotics initially was a Capsela robotics kit I got for Christmas. It was great having all the pieces and sensors there so whatever I imagined I could create and program. The programs were simple (eg. go forward until bumper press), but I didn't spend hours frustrated and stuck knowing what I wanted to do but unable to do it. Soon enough I graduated honest to god microcontrollers, soldering tools, and C.

Also I would rethink concentrating on the software side. Most people I know who are in robotics (I know a lot of people in robotics, it's my field) started because they loved building things with their hands. The appeal of robotics is to build something and then give it life. Both parts have to be there for you to foster interest. Getting bogged down in the programming is a bad idea, as it will just lead to frustration and then disinterest, especially if they've never programmed before. Again this seems like a win for Mindstorms.

tldr: don't be cheap and spend the money. You get what you pay for.

Re:Spend the money, you get what you pay for (2)

savuporo (658486) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417894)

>>The thing about robotics is there's a great divide between really cool stuff and really lame stuff in terms of price.

This is just flat out wrong. You can do really really cool stuff relatively inexpensive, you just have to plan and think about what you are trying to do. Arduino and its shields have endless possibilities, and if you pair it with a powerful embedded CPU like any of the Android phones ( Arduino has specific support , ADK ) you can do amazing things.

Or if an android phone feels too locked down, get a real embedded computer like Beagleboard ( to pair with Arduino, some cheap USB webcams, and again you are free to do amazing stuff. Or use XBee or Bluetooth for wireless connection to the MCU, the modules are dirt cheap, and you can do a lot of heavy lifting algorithms on PC.
Again, you have to think and plan for flexibility. There are some basic types of feedback sensors you want to get running early, like wheel encoders and some sort of inertial measurement, gyro and accelerometers. Both can be had very cheap these days, from single axis up to 9DOF fully integrated modules.

Yes, if you think that a $1000 Bioloid kits or $10000 NAO kits are the only cool thing in town, you will have to shell out for them, but then whats the fun in that ? Oh, i have a humanoid. That can do backflips. BFD.

Re:Spend the money, you get what you pay for (1)

Missing.Matter (1845576) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418160)

You do realize we're talking about teenagers who have never programmed here? Everything you listed above isn't exactly beginner friendly.

Re:Spend the money, you get what you pay for (1)

savuporo (658486) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418196)

I can tell that you have never used any of the Arduino kits, a lot of them solderless. Or Basic STAMPs even ?

Re:Spend the money, you get what you pay for (1)

Missing.Matter (1845576) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418356)

I've used Arduino. Who hasn't? True they're solderless. That's not the deal. We're talking about kids who have never programmed before, and who we're really not sure if they want to program at all. C/C++ is not how I would introduce them to programming. I teach C/C++ at the college level, and if I had my way the cirriculum wouldn't include C at all, or at least toward the end of the semester.

I agree all the things you mentioned are good once you have some experience, but if you're going to give a kid (again, with unknown aptitude and prediliction for programming) an arduino, and expect to spend "a few afternoons" showing them how to program it then pat them on the back and send them on their way, they'll probably put it down as soon as you turn your back.

The freedom to do anything can be overwhelming and paralyzing especially when you don't know all the right things to do or even how to start. Which arduino do I use, which shields do I use, how do I interface with my PC? Bluetooth? Wifi? Xbee? Serial? USB? What are the differences? What is a microcontroller? What are the differences between them? How do I provide power? Why do I need a voltage regulator? What is voltage? Some kids will embrace this new knowledge. Some will become overwhelmed and therefore disinterested.

With something like Mindstorms, all the pieces are there, all the parts and instructions are there, programming is dead simple with a graphical programming language. You think of something, you snap it together, you make it move. No issues about compatibility or protocols or frying circuits, or other frustrations that come up with something like Arduino.

Re:Spend the money, you get what you pay for (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418408)

I have used them extensively, I have 3 pro-minis, 1 uno, 2 duemilanoves, 1 Mega 2560, 1 PhoneDrone/ADK, 1 ArduPilot, and 2 ArduIMUs within spitting distance as I type this.

I agree with Missing.Matter

When I think of 12-14 year old girls, even the Arduino IDE & female header sockets are not basic enough to make a good introduction. They don't know what reverse polarity is, they've never heard of ohms law, they don't know the difference between volts & amps, and would have no idea how to find a datasheet.

Their uncle isn't going to be there to hold their hand. The mindstorms are an unsupervised learning experience. The Arduino is a great learning platform but is too advanced for their level.

It's like recommending a Linux-box to someone who's never used a computer. I don't care if it's Ubuntu, it's an inappropriate platform to start a complete novice on.

Re:Spend the money, you get what you pay for (1)

Spiked_Three (626260) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418638)

+1 from me on Lego. I've been pursuing hobbyist level robotics for a while now, and I have found nothing even remotely close to what Lego's offer.

With that in mind, reconsider your budget (a useless toy isnt really saving money), and or look for bargains - used V1 on eBay.

The Legos allow you to go from simple with a visual programming environment, to very complex( eg LeJOS or MRDS) if a true interest develops.

And if all else fails, it's still a Lego, build non-robtics stuff.

boe bot (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417762)

the boe bot from paralax is the best one

Too late (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417778)

Should have done so maybe 5 years earlier in their lives. As you write it, they aren't interested and teenagers are already set in their way and especially don't like being coerced to something they haven't had an interest in before, (except for;... you know what. NO you can't help with this.)

Durabitlity (1)

Murdoch5 (1563847) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417798)

I've used a number of entry level boards, some of them really bad and some really good. Do you have any idea what kind of language API you want the board to be based on? I ask because I know boards with C based API ( Handyboard ) and I know BASIC based API's etc...

You said you also have no programming experience so are you going to want to learn with them or go ahead and learn first then teach them? All of these things way into what I would recommend to you for a beginning board. However all that aside my big two recommenations would be:
1. Go PIC
2. Go Arduino

Both excellent entry names, next you just have to look at the choices and figure out what you want.

$99 Cyborg (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38417860)

Backyard Brains sells the only commercially available Cyborg kit called the RoboRoach. It lets you steer a living cockroach around via an IR remote control. The control only works for a 5-8 turns until the roach adapts (but works again after ~15 minutes in his cage). It lets you learn a bit about robotics and biology.


Buy what YOU like (1)

sgt scrub (869860) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417872)

Whatever my brother and I "played with" is what "neef n' not" (my two nephews) found interesting. I had tools to make metal models and dies. My brother made rockets out of everything, usually things he shouldn't have. Both his kids spent more time with him playing with his toy rockets than they did with the latest cool toys. The excitement of blowing shit up, shooting things into the air, and the ability to build their own transformers had more effect than any commercial had on either of them. Long story short, get something your going to enthusiastically enjoy sharing with them.

First Lego League (2)

DoofusOfDeath (636671) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417914)

I signed one of my kids up for FLL ( [] ), and it's worked well. The cost was something like $70 for one season. They use Mindstorms.

- Kids develop teamwork skills as well as robotics skills
- More social for the kids than just working at home
- Each season kids are provided with some reasonable motivating problems. Even though the kids won't really solve them with Lego Mindstorms, it could give some kids a sense of the real good they can do if they pursue S&T careers.

- Have to drive kids to the meeting every week, sometimes twice/week as end-of-year competition gets close.
- Kids can't totally choose their own problems, and won't have access to the equipment except during meeting times (probably).

Re:First Lego League (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418180)

- Kids can't totally choose their own problems, and won't have access to the equipment except during meeting times (probably).

So the whole point of thinking for oneself and coming up with things oneself is replaced by something somewhere between being a factory worker and color-by-the-number "painting".

Sorry, this is really really bad and only produces even more drones and passive cattle.

Re:First Lego League (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418688)

As part of my job at a science museum, I coached a dozen FLL teams this year. I strongly recommend FLL for just about any child.

The material (programming and building) is very accessible (routinely taught to 9 year olds) but can be extended to concepts that adults can have a hard time following. In fact, at our state-wide competition was yesterday the judges had to call back one of my teams twice to explain how their program worked. (that team used the official programming GUI to write a parser, and then wrote their commands in plain text)

If you just buy the Mindstorms kit you can replace the firmware with something else, like RobotC (a C variant maintained by Carnegie Mellon).

Just tossing an Arduino at an adolescent who isn't already begging for one is going to result in it sitting around, unused. You wont have that problem if you they are part of a LEGO robotics team. :)

Also, the competition teaches less tangible but very useful things that many kids would learn from sports, like teamwork, maturity, patience, etc.

PS: The age cut off for FLL is 14 (competition season starts beginning of September), but there is always FTC:

My List (4, Informative)

MikeD83 (529104) | more than 2 years ago | (#38417980)

I have about 10+ years of experience with the FIRST Robotics competition. For an "all inclusive robotics" kit you will need to increase your budget. However, electronics and software kits are in budget. Here's my list:

1. Innovation FIRST's Vex Robtic system. [] This is hands down the best system available. The kit is basic enough that you can get something working while also open enough that the possibilities are limitless. You can interface your own custom circuits with it. It comes with default software in source code form that you can modify to whatever you would like. It also has mechanical kits where you can build almost anything. It's also not flimsy. This is one of the most expensive options, but you can start around $300 and add on for years.

2. Lego Mindstorms [] I would reccomend this kit for someone younger (8 or so.) It's not quite as extensible mechanically or electrically but is easier to use.

With those two out of the way and actually answering your post based on the budget, I would recommend a Basic Stamp kit from Parallax [] . The kits are aimed at learning electronics and software. They're not a lot to them mechanically, you need additional parts and know-how for that. The kits are low cost and require you to learn. I cut my teeth on the Basic Stamp 2 (BS2) and I turned out to be a successful software engineer.

BoBot (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418114)

I would recommend the Parallax BoBot kit. It has all the parts for a rover bot. I am not thrilled with the Basic Stamp 2 microcontroller however when it comes to programming. The kit is currently on sale. . The mindstorms kits are fun (and expensive) and they can be programmed in C (NQC) if the mindstorm learning lab software is too elementary for you. I think building with legos gives an inferior learning experience to having to cut and solder and scrounge for parts but that is my own prejudice. Arduinos with a motor shield would give the most satisfaction as "real robotics" in my opinion depending on the teenager. It is fraught with frustration getting anywhere in the beginning but the payoff is greater. The Arduino community is a great resource and if the kid gets tired with robots the platform is versatile in many other areas. The Arduino Uno and various shields are available at Radio Shack now as well as various Parallax kits. You might want to pick up a soldering iron some breadboards and some bags of assorted resistors, capacitors and trimmers while you are at it.

Don't coruppt Kids ! (1)

burni2 (1643061) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418116)


even if some might think off it as a nice twist of the fate, but let kids play with the toys they like !

If a boy likes to play with dolls let him be.
If a girl likes to play with GI-Joe let her be.

If some kid either boy or girl has shown interest in something technical just support don't push .. and giving out presents without being certian about kids interest is a way to push kids in a limbo of having to be thankfull and feeling probably guilty for not playing with the toy because it does not match the interest.

Ask and find out about interests first.

just my 2 cents

I bought myself 3 real working industry robots from the late 80s early 90s weighing 300kg ( 700 lb) each, they were not that expensive. (inlcuding control + teach pendant)

That's a real robotics kit ;)

Re:Don't coruppt Kids ! (1)

crankyspice (63953) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419262)

If a boy likes to play with dolls let him be.
If a girl likes to play with GI-Joe let her be.


I just read this article, it's an extreme, but it proves the point I think: []

I remember every year asking for an Erector Set and never getting one; as an adult my mom confided she was hoping I would "come out of it" and get interested in football or something. (She also pushed hard for me to go to a Big Campus (UofA or ASU or ...) like she did (NIU); I chose a small liberal arts school and blossomed... She also mocked (as an adult) the science fiction conventions I used to drag her to (as my essential transportation), and I remember having to save up on the sly and get a ride with one of the adults in the computer club I attended to the local hotel sale to buy my first Apple IIgs...)

Find out what the kids themselves are interested in, and encourage that. Don't try to mold them to what /you/ think it might be cool for them to become. Expose them, sure. "Hey, want to check out this robotics project I've been working on?" But don't wrap it for them under the tree.

get this too.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418130)

..for yourself, learn about it and explain it to the kid.

ps: it's worth for all of you

Umm, epic fail at gift giving (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418234)

A present should be something given to bring pleasure to the recipient. While I think that you have good intentions, unless your nieces really want to learn something about robotics, you might give consideration to other things.

Arduino LilyPads (1)

story645 (1278106) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418528)

So they're not robots, but if the girls are into fashion it's a a great way to get them started on programming while still keeping their interests in mind, They can make funky pillows for their bedroom or keep out signs for their doors or I dunno something else that a 12 year old girl might actually want. []

The Pololu 3pi is a great little robot. (1)

hamster_nz (656572) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418586)

It's small, fast, pre-built, can be made Arduino compatible, full source available, well documented. At $99 (but you need a $10 AVR programmer and batteries) so it's just outside of your budget. Check it out on youtube.

But I can highly recommend it - []

Interesting Kit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418598)

Have you seen this kit from Engadget [] ?

It looks interesting but they have been sold out for a week. I guess they weren't prepared for demand from the media response. I've been keeping my eye on this because of the functionality. Being able to build a robot with my kids out of a toy is appealing. Specifically one that can listen to voice commands and be controlled by our Wii Remote Control. I think the best part is I do not need to know how to program. The last thing I have time for is learning how to program when I have a career already! From what I understand, the software has a programming language that we can use later. My son will learn it. I sure won't!

Regrettably and fortunately (1)

Pirulo (621010) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418824)

Regrettably you can't buy curiosity, drive and will for under $100 (nor any other amount btw).
Fortunately there's plenty of easy learning material on robotics you can compile in few minutes scourging the web.
A nice selection of tools to break stuff open and a solder iron might be a good companion

Minecraft has "redstone" circuits (1)

Paul Fernhout (109597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38418830)

It's not exactly robotics, but for about $20, my kid is learning a lot about electronics Minecraft through building redstone circuits: [] []
"Redstone circuitry is a feature introduced in Alpha which allows for intricate Redstone wire based mechanisms to be created by players. Redstone circuitry is similar to digital electronics (based on boolean algebra) in real life. t's also possible to use pistons in redstone circuits. "

You can even build stuff like elevators and music players.

Warning: Minecraft can be pretty addictive-seeming. Be sure to get your vitamin D, maybe get a treadmill workstation, and take regular breaks... []

Uhh... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38418966)

Kids shouldn't be able to learn something as dangerous as robotics. Kits like the ones described here should be banned. If it saves just one child, then it's completely justified.

Cheap NXT sets (1)

Kilbanio (1492725) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419118)

I have been picking up nxt 1.0 and the lego education 9797 sets on craigslist for no more than $125 over the last year. I have found 7 of them so far. I have picked up the older RCX lego sets for as little as $50. They have only needed a few missing pieces that have totaled about $20 on The NXT kits are great for all ages. I am using them to run summer camps and help scouts get the robotics merit badge.

Fischertechnik (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | more than 2 years ago | (#38419224)

I will tell you up front that this is a bit on the pricier side, but for construction sets nothing in the world beats Fischertechnik [] . It is used by everyone from small children making toy houses and trucks, to universities in their robotics courses.

Fischertechnik was designed from the ground for making robust but easy-to-build precision constructs. While I admit that with the more recent Lego stuff one can build very complex and even impressive "machinery", Lego pales in comparison to the engineering, quality, and precision of Fischertechnik.
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