We are always on the lookout for new technology to add to our library makerspace and, thanks to a generous gift from our school’s Parents and Friends fund raising group, we were able to make a significant purchase of new robotics. After much research I choose to request the purchase of Cubelets from Modular Robotics. Have you seen these super cute modular robots? The tactile and seamless design of these robots was the first thing to catch my attention. And the students agree. “Ohhh, pretty” is the usual first reaction, along with a quick grab to study these cube-shaped robots. So, let’s take a deeper look at these robots, their use in our makerspace and our reaction.
What are Cubelets?
“Cubelets are robot blocks that easily connect to form robots that inspire kids to become better thinkers.” (Modular Robotics, n.d.).
We purchased a Cubelets TWELVE kit, which provides 12 robot blocks and two brick (Lego) adapters, as well as an extra battery block (which I will talk more about later). The blocks connect via their magnetic faces, snapping together with ease. Blocks have five or six connecting faces and each face has three conductors: the outer ring and magnets conduct ground; the inner metal ring conducts power; and the centre pin conducts data. Each block also has an LED light to indicate power and connectivity.
Each block has a specific function and the blocks are divided into three main function types – Think, Act, Sense. Sense blocks are black, action blocks are clear and the think blocks are varying colours. There is also a blue-grey battery block. Each robot construction needs a battery block to power the robot (this is why we purchased an additional battery block to enable multiple robots to be powered at once.) The battery block can be recharged using the micro-USB cord provided.
Okay, my first reaction was total attraction to the beauty of these blocks. The aesthetics were very appealing, but the simplicity and clever design was what sold us – especially the ability to connect to lego.
When the Cubelets arrived, the packaging was very appealing and impressive. The 12 blocks were neatly encased in a small box, along with the recharge cord and a small start-up booklet.
The blocks click together easily (except the Rotate Cubelet, which has a rotating face, which needs to be directly lined up with a matching block face. If the connections don’t align, the magnets with repel each other”.)
With the help of the included booklet, it is easy to get your first robot constructed. Each robot must have a battery block, a sense and act block.
Our main purpose of using the Cubelets is to allow students to experiment with coding and robotics in a fun and stress-free environment in our library makerspace. In this informal environment it was fun to give small groups of students a quick description of the blocks and how they work and let them experiment and teach each other. Students quickly picked up the concept and started using the blocks to build a variety of robots.
While the twelve pack and extra battery allows two small groups of students to create separate robots, students very quickly want more and more blocks, with little conflicts over the division of blocks breaking out. To create an interesting robot you need at least 5 blocks and sharing the twelve blocks between two groups limits the type of robots you can build. While conflicts are quick to emerge, it does teache the students to share, negotiate the division of resources and to work their way around the problems they face by not always having the blocks they want. However, I can see that having any fewer than the 12 (plus extra battery) blocks would severely limit the number of students who can access the blocks at one time.
Modular Robotics has a huge range of resources, lesson ideas, printables, units and activities on their Hub.The Twelve kit also comes with the Bluetooth Cubelet, which connects your Cubelets to a variety of free apps and expands the ability to program the blocks with Blockly or C. With the Bluetooth Cubelet and the three available free apps, the Cubelets can also be extended to more advanced programming, something we will be experimenting with the in the near future.
Pros and Negs
– Cost: The very first, very obvious negative is the cost of these robots. The Twelve Pack cost us just under $300 (Australian dollars; the cheapest deal we could find was on Modern Teaching Aids).
– Limit to number of students: As noted above the application of the blocks mean that you are limited to the number of students who can interact with a small number of blocks at the same time.
+ Integrates with Lego with the adapter blocks.
+ Easy to use, easy for students to pick up the basic applications and then experiment
+ Beautiful, functional design.
+ Easy to recharge. Battery lasts for at least two 45 min sessions.
The Cubelets are fantastic robots and, cost aside, a great addition to our makerspace. However, if you are looking for a robot to start your makerspace, you might be better looking at a more cost-friendly, multi-user option like an Ozobot. While the division of blocks between many students can cause conflict and limit the complexity of the robots built, the Cubelets are very easy to use and have a great range of applications.