Getting children into science and technology is one of the big challenges facing UK education today. Getting kids into programming is even harder. Or it used to be.
Yesterday I met up with Jane Braybrook and Peter Kibble of Q4 Technologies. Jane (a Teacher) and Peter (a .net developer) have built an Integrated Development Environment(IDE) for children, called Go-Robo, which allows them to use their Windows PC to program the Wowwee range of robots!
The IDE comes in three flavours targeting the different key stages (KS) defined in the UK education curriculum. At KS1 & KS2 there is the Go-Robo Controller. At KS2 & KS3 the Go-Robo Programmer and at KS4, 5 and higher the Go-Robot Studio. There are three flavours so that the right level of features and user interface is presented for the age range of the children. Controller is a simple environment with mouse operations enabling the programming and execution of the code on the robot. The other versions move towards a complete scripting language (called GridScript) with all your normal language constructs. The IDE provides break points and stepped instruction execution too, along with a resources environment for teacher and student support! The new UK curriculum revisions provide many, and I mean many, topic areas where programming can be used appropriately as a practical exercise for the topic. Go-Robot provides the tools and the Wowwee robots ensure the children are focused and motivated.
My eldest son of 7 years, who's previous programming experience was limited to the original Lego MindStorms RCX, was programming his Robosapian V1 with only two minutes instruction on the environment from me! Ok we haven't got into loops, if..then..else or sub-routines just yet but combinations of movements, speech and input messageboxes were no problems.
There are several key things about the Go-Robo software (and accompanying IR beamer): The versions are focused on specific age ranges, accessibility has been a high priority in the UI, Go-Robo teaches children sequential programming - not picture drawing - real programming. Wowwee robots deliver instant gratification to your young programmers and are cheap, robust and importantly ready built. I particularly like the way Go-Robot uses speech synthesis to feedback what is happening in the IDE (such as at build and deployment time). During deployment with a Robosapion V2 it is as if the Windows PC and the bot are having a conversation! It can also speak the GridScript language elements so even children who can't read can use the tool. There is also a storyboard style timeline onto which your program or direct Gridscript elements can be placed along with accompanying music (for all those synchronised dance routines).
We've only had Go-Robot in the Foster household for a few hours but already I can call my 7yo a programmer, and my 4yo is real keen to have a go too (school has got in the way, he'll have to wait until he gets home).
Peter and Jane have had an excellent response from the education community in the UK. Not only have they won a Bett Education Show award, they have support from a local education authority (or whatever they are called these days) to deploy Go-Robot and Robosapian V2 to 50 schools in the Grimsby area of the UK.
So, if you are like me, you're a dev who so wants to inspire his children into the wonders of science and technology, or a teacher who really wants to execute in STEM topics, I heartily recommend Go-Robot with your choice of Wowwee robot. Robosapian V2/RS Media provide the most functionality at the moment, but Robosapian V1, Roboraptor, and Roboquad all are very useable and fun. RoboPet has limited functionality.
At present Wowwee UK importer - Character - have most of these robots reduced enormously!! Like you can pick up the originally priced £300 RS Media for £99!!! The other bots are even cheaper.
The new generation of Wowwee robots promise even more and Peter is geared up to support them in future Go-Robo releases.
I shall be taking Go-Robo to schools in Staffordshire at the end of this month to get further hands on experience and feedback from children. They'll use both Lego Mindstorms and Go-Robo - the feedback and observations are going to be really interesting. I'll let you know how I get on. There are several activities I've done in the last year which have been about inspiring your people to use tech - Go-Robo provides an even more programming focused activity.
I really think this is something us techie pros should step up and do more of - supporting schools with our skills, inspiring young people to be creative with technology. If you agree please drop me a note - I want to make a contribution to UK Education. Are you with me?