How Lego, EZ-Robot, First Robotics, and Vex Stack Up
Have you ever wondered how one robotics platform stacks up versus the rest?
We've spoken with hundreds of teachers who have direct experience teaching with the educational robotics platforms that we'll be reviewing. We've also demonstrated robotics to more than 18,000 students. The opinions expressed here are a combination of educators and student feedback, as well as our own experiences.
In the interest of disclosure, we do sell and promote EZ-Robot (one of the robots reviewed in this article), however, the opinions expressed below are based on thousands of hours of research and discussions with educators as well as our own hands-on experience.
When reviewing each robotics platform, we'll be reviewing them for:
- Power / Expandability / Real-world applications
- Universal appeal
- Integration with other Technologies
Each platform will then be scored out of 100.
Lego NXT / Lego EV3: Educational Value: 65/100
Like many adult men, I grew up on Lego. It was my favorite toy, and on more than one occasion, I was guilty of feigning illness to stay home from school, in order to complete some larger projects.
With the NXT and EV3 platforms, Lego is teching up one of the world's favorite toys.
Lego seems to be most commonly used within middle schools, but is also used within elementary, high schools and universities.
Like all Lego kits, assembly is a key component. It's modular design allows students to create their own robotic designs. This is an important feature as it helps students improve their visual spatial skills, while affording them the opportunity to experiment and innovate.
Lego is generally easy for students (and teachers) to learn, and isn't overly intimidating. It seems to appeal to both boys and girls reasonably well at younger ages, but girls seem to lose interest significantly as they progress beyond the 7th grade.
Educators have reported a high reliability, though several teachers indicated that keeping track of all the pieces was a challenge and that parts would often go missing. From this perspective, the modular design is both a Pro and Con.
Lego comes with a couple touch sensors, a gyro, a color sensor (limited number of colors) and an ultra-sonic distance sensor or infrared sensor.
It can also be used with a some 3rd party sensors, but the limited number of inputs for servos and sensors limits the range of potential learning and real-world applications. Expansion is possible (to 32) with additional investment.
EZ-Robot: Educational Value: 95/100 - (Best in Class)
The newest entry into the educational robotics market is EZ-Robot. Created in Canada, EZ-Robot is a real-world robotics platform that is also happens to be incredible for teaching robotics.
Prior to the release of EZ-Robot's new Revolution line of educational robots, robotics could basically be broken into two categories - robotics platforms and stand-alone robots. Vex, Lego, and First Robotics are platforms. NAO and Dash & Dot are stand alone robots. Both categories have their own benefits.
The "platforms" provide a wider range of learning possibilities, while the stand-alone robots are typically more engaging (particularly for girls). EZ-Robot is the only platform that combines the functionality and versatility of a platform, while providing the emotional connections that occur when the robots don't look like a collection of mechanical pieces.
It's also worth noting that there is a drawback that typically exists within robotics kits, in that they typically don't have as high a level of potential usage as stand alone robots. For example, if you have a robotics class running on Mondays for 2 months and the students are tasked with building a robot to perform a particular function, then that same robotics kit can't be used by different students on Tuesday or Wednesday, as it would require the constant dismantling and rebuilding of the robots. EZ-Robots provide the flexibility of allowing students to build and create their own robotics designs, but most teachers simply leave the robots in their assembled states (at least in the early stages of the process).
In addition to being able to be used in multiple classes per week (or even per day), one of the primary benefits of the stand-alone robots is that they can have a more attractive form factor. NAO and Dash & Dot draw a higher number of people (specifically girls) into robots simply because the robots are more appealing - they're "cute".
EZ-Robot is a hybrid between a platform and a robot. While it was originally designed as a modular platform, many educators are using the pre-designed robot kits (humanoid, rover, hexapod) to introduce students to robotics. We've had many grade 8 and 9 students ask "can he hug me" after seeing the humanoid perform. The impact of this emotional connection cannot be overstated.
EZ-Robot provides a broad range of learning opportunities, and can be used for students as young as 4th grade (some educators reported using it as low as 1st grade), while high school students were using the platform to create real-world robotic applications like snow-shoveling robots, submarines, and life-sized 3D printed humanoid robots.
EZ-Robot provides students and teachers with a low-intimidation entry point into robotics with its Robo-Scratch and Block programming interface, while also allowing students to elevate their skills, eventually programming in C++, C# and visual basic. Of all the platforms tested, EZ-Robot had the easiest interface, while also providing real-world learning opportunities.
When it comes to programming the robots, EZ-Robot is the only platform that can take students through the full range of programming styles/strategies. Students can start with Robo-Scratch, progress to a Block interface, use the native graphic interface (which is outstanding), and graduate to traditional style programming in C++, C# and Visual Basic.
How easy is the interface to use? When we demonstrate the robots to 4th graders (who have never seen the platform before), within 40 minutes, the students will program a humanoid robot to:
- Play back a recording of the students voice, while the robot is waving
- Respond to their voice (For example the student will say, "Swagbot, wave to everybody", and the robot will wave"
- Recognize and track a color
- Learn one of the students faces, and be able to greet them by name
... and that's in the first 40 minutes. To be fair, the students aren't "masters" of any of those skills, but if you're familiar with educational robotics, you'll understand how incredible that list is. Equally important to the broad range of cool things that the students have programmed, is the fact that it was the students who did the programming. Following the presentation, they are incredibly confident in their own skills to program, which is a key to getting 90% of ALL students to want to learn robotics
EZ-Robots come with built-in cameras and can respond to audible input, in addition to a wide range of sensors (ultrasonic, infra-red, LIDAR, Gyroscope, Accelerometer, Thermometer)
With all of that power, it would be easy to assume that the teacher needs to be a high level roboticist to teach using EZ-Robot, but they also have an excellent self-directed "Introduction to Robotics" curriculum that can be taught by anyone - no robotics or programming experience required.
Recommendation: EZ-Robot is an excellent platform for teaching robotics, it's easy enough to use that a 4th grader can be learning powerful robotics, while also being so powerful, that it's used within the real world (for a variety of applications) every day.
First Robotics: Educational Value: 70/100
First Robotics is an excellent program for teaching real-world robotics to students. It's highly engaging and teaches a wide range of advanced engineering and robotics principals. It also encourages exploration-based learning for the students.
With such a glowing first paragraph, you might be wondering why we've only given it a score of 70.
We love First Robotics, but it presents a few challenges:
- It's expensive compared to other platforms (several thousand dollars per year for a handful of students).
- It only appeals to 1%-2% of students and is highly intimidating for the majority of students
- It requires very knowledgeable mentors and teachers and a significant commitment outside of regular school hours.
In truth, we'd like to see all schools offering this program. Any student who takes this course is well on their way to a successful career... we'd just like to see more students involved. In an ideal world, educators would hook more students on robotics using other platforms in earlier grades, resulting in significantly increased enrollment in First Robotics.
Vex: Educational Value: 70/100
Vex is a modular robotics platform that allows students to perform traditional-style programming. It is predominantly used in high schools, and is less frequent in middle schools and universities.
Programming languages include Blockly, Python, Robot Mesh, EasyC and RobotC
The controller has a sufficient number of ports and there is a good variety of sensors, to allow students to build a wide range of robotic applications.
One of the largest drawbacks of the Vex platform is that it doesn't seem to appeal to a broad range of students.
NAO: Educational Value: 55/100
NAO is an excellent humanoid robot, with a high degree of appeal for both boys and girls. It's also used for real-world robotics applications, such as hospitals where the robots are used to engage and distract children.
It provides 25 degrees of freedom, allowing students to program elaborate and smooth movements. It comes with a range of sensors allowing the robots to "see" and "hear" it's environment.
NAO can be programmed in several languages, including C++, MATLAB, JAVA, Python and .Net Framework. NAO can also be programmed with a graphic interface called Choregraphe, though some educators reported that a large number of students were intimidated by programming NAO.
Recommendation: NAO is a powerful robot, and we'd recommend it for a wide range of uses, but the price point ($8,000 USD) makes it difficult for many educators to afford. The price point also typically means that educators will have one robot for an entire class or school. Given that robotics is best learned hands-on, it's hard to recommend NAO as an educational robot at anything other than the University level. It's also important to understand that NAO is "just a humanoid robot", and it can only teach you the things that a Humanoid robot can teach you. Platforms like EZ-Robot, Lego and Vex are far more versatile and offer more of a creationist experience.