Many people have asked us about how to get started in robotics and other electronics projects, so here are some tips. Farther down the page there are some additional tips for parents.
1. We recommend using an Arduino microcontroller for your project. It’s an inexpensive, easy-to-use, open-source platform with great flexibility and capability. The Arduino will be the brain of your project. To learn the fundamentals of using an Arduino, you should purchase an Arduino starter kit that includes an Arduino circuit board, a servo, a motor, various sensors, a breadboard, jumper wires, and a book with easy-to-follow tutorials. We recommend any one of these:
2. Once you complete one of those kits, then purchase an Arduino-based robot kit with wheels, or treads, or whatever you want to build. Just make sure it is an Arduino-based robot kit. Here is a good site for robot kits:
You have the option of skipping step 1 and building a robot kit immediately, but you’ll miss some of the fundamentals, so if you have the time and funds, we recommend starting out with an Arduino kit. Also, when you’re just starting out, avoid robots that fly, crawl, or walk. These are much more challenging and expensive than robots that roll.
If you want to try a non-robot electronics project that includes soldering, we recommend these, both of which we enjoyed building:
3. Once you’ve built kit or two, then you’re ready to build a more advance kit, or design and construct a robot yourself. Robots normally include the following subsystems:
- The Chassis (aluminum, plastic, wood, whatever)
- Wheels or treads
- Motor Controller
- Communication (Xbee, RC, bluetooth, wifi, or IR)
- Servos and Servo Controller
- On/off switch and other wiring
Here are some of our favorite part suppliers:
4. Use the Internet to learn. You can use Google and Youtube to find great articles on how to do just about anything, like “How to Solder” or “How to light up an LED” and so on. Sparkfun, Adafruit, and other sites have great tutorials.
Here are some tips for parents working with their children:
- Children want to be with you. Children want your attention. They will love working on projects with you as long as they are the center of your attention. Stay focused on them.
- Your child should do all the work. Your child should plug in the wires, solder the wires, make the connections, and so on. The moment you take over and do it yourself, you’ll lose the child’s interest. The key to keeping a child engaged is to have them do the work, not just “help”.
- When it comes to robots, there is little difference between boys and girls. I have found that both girls and boys love building robots. Many of our robots have “cute” eyes and fun names. Others have serious automatic gun turrets. Some of our robots look like Mars Rovers and others look like animals. They were all built because my girls and I thought up an idea and wanted to build them.
- Learn together. When I started out, I didn’t know anything about soldering, electronics, machining, or making home-made robots. In many cases, my children and I learned together working side by side by watching youtube videos, reading posts on the Internet, and experiment. In other cases, I learned the skills first and then taught them to my children.
- Get your child involved in the project selection process, the naming of the robots, the decoration, and all the more imaginative elements of the project.
- Solve problems off-line. My children and I love building robots together, but they do have their limits. They are not especially patient. If you encounter a serious problem that stops your progress, then I recommend having your child go do something else while you bang your head up against the wall to figure out the problem. Your child will learn plenty of problem solving skills during the course of the project, but for the real show stoppers, give your child a break. When I encounter a big problem, I say, “Let me work on this a bit and see if I can resolve this. I’ll call you back when I’ve got it figured out.”
- Develop your child’s skills. Your goal, in addition to having fun, should be to develop skills, knowledge and capability in your child. Teach and guide your child so that they become strong and independent in specific areas such as soldering, wiring, mechanical assembly, programming, and so on. You will be amazed what ten-year-old and twelve-year-old children can do if you teach them the skills and give them an opportunity to become good at it.