Learning to Code : Hello Robota!

My 7 year old loves his Lego. He still plays with them everyday. It’s the first thing he runs to after a long day at school and he will only sit down and do his homework after getting his dose of Lego fix.

Like most kids, he loves anything that is computer related. He has learned some Scratch programming from his elder brother. But unlike the Arduino stuffs his brother fiddles with, there isn’t a physical ‘robot’ that he can command using Scratch. The programming language his elder brother used is too complicated for a 7 year old and we have yet to figure out how to make their Arduino ‘speaks’ Scratch.

We realised that the next closest thing to building his own robot is using Lego Mindstorms. Lego Mindstorms is a series of kits which contain software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robot. It is made for little people but comes with a hefty price tag and it is not something that we would splurge on the kids. So far, the people I know who own Lego Mindstorms are adults, mostly Dads, usually fulfilling a childhood dream.

So my 7 year old was pretty excited when we received an invitation to try out Introduction to Hello Robota programme at MINT Museum of Toys. He would be playing with computers and Legos, how not to be excited!

Over the 4 weekends, he learned about basic programming and the history of robots.

Because I was unable to sit in during the lessons, I’ve got him to tell me what he learned. This was what he had to say after his first lesson.

About the Robots

I learned that the first robot in the world was Liliput. It was built in the 1930s by the Japanese. The second robot in the world was the Atomic Robot. The third one was the Hook Robot. It was called the Hook Robot because it had a hook on top of its head. The fourth robot was Robby the Robot. All these robots were built by the Japanese. The next robot was Astroman. It was the only robot build in Germany then and it was a remote control robot. My favourite robot is Astroman because it looks like an Alien and it can be remote controlled. I wish I have one of these robots.

About his first lesson

I learned about teamwork and the different types of robots. My partner was Ian. We worked together to build a robot using Lego Mindstorms. To build the robot, we were given a book with instructions. We followed the pictures to build our robots but we needed some help from other groups because we couldn’t finish in time. We programmed the robot to move forward for 4 seconds and backwards for another 3 seconds. The robot had 4 wheels. The front wheels were a little bit smaller than the back wheels. It looked like a sports car. We were supposed to make the back wheels of the robot touch the line on the floor. The next lesson we are going to make the robot turns.

As the lesson progressed, he learned about the different types of sensors. They used touch sensors and colour sensors for their robots and they learned how to connect and program these sensors.

He obviously had a lot of fun as he looked forward to his lesson every Saturday. The programme was a drop off session but I was able to have a short chat with the instructor just before picking him up after one of the lessons.

Winston Lau who conducted the lesson has a knack with kids. During the short period that I was there, kids were running up to him, interrupting our conversation and asking him for help. He was able to engage the kids and build a good rapport with them.

While I think that coding isn’t meant for every 5 year old kid, that children need to reach a certain level of maturity, be able to think logically before they can learn computational thinking, which is effectively, the ability to break down tasks into a logical sequence of smaller steps. Winston has an alternative view. He believes that every child is capable of learning how to code. He pointed out to me how the kids never get bored during the lessons even when they couldn’t get their code to work and their robots couldn’t move the right direction most of the time. They were having so fun that they didn’t even realise that they were learning!

Maybe he is right.

Unlike conventional learning in a school classroom, children in a coding class are not penalized for getting the wrong answers. In fact, there is no ‘model’ or right answer because there is usually more than one way to write the code to get the robot to do a certain task. It is impossible to penalize the children so long as they can make their robots move the right direction and there is no way for the children to memorize the answers!

On top of that, children in a coding class stumble and fall all the time. They are testing and failing their code over and over again to gain understanding and mastery. If their code works, great, they get instant gratification for the work they put in. If it doesn’t, the instant feedback motivates them to persist until they fix the error. Coding does seem like a powerful educational tool and it is no wonder many countries, England being the first and Sweden probably the most recent one, to introduce coding in their school curriculum.

 

Note : MINT Museum of Toys will be conducting their next Introduction to Hello Robota programme in June. It is priced at $280 per child and is suitable for children aged 7 -12 years old. You can follow their FB page to check out for their latest updates.

Introduction to Hello Robota is a 4-lesson starter programme aimed at introducing robotics alongside its predecessors, vintage robots, to kids. Using the LEGO® Mindstorms EV3 System, kids will learn basic programming skills, such as moving forward and backwards, which will be applied to explore the museum’s collection of vintage robots. Set in a fun and interactive environment, kids will get to learn the fundamentals of robotics as well as learn more about the collection of vintage robots.

 

 

2

An Online Bookstore : NoQ Store

I was at my desk working late at night, and the light bulb blows. Intuitively, I click to the Amazon website, type in “light bulbs”, and get 1.5 million hits. I look at the bestseller, and think to myself that it looks about right. I select it, add to my cart, and select check out. Because the light bulb is on the Amazon Prime list, it would arrive in two days time at my door step and I didn’t have to pay a cent for shipping. All that in less than two minutes.

We have been spoilt by the online shopping experience in the United States. With so many retailers competing across the whole of the United States, we the consumers are the main beneficiaries, with lower prices and incredibly short delivery times. Online retailers such as Amazon have made going to the stores almost redundant, and malls across the United States are going bust.

Although I don’t think that Singapore malls were going bust anytime soon, I was exhilarated to find out that we were going to get our own online bookstore – NoQ store, the e-commerce arm of Times bookstore. We love books and we love hanging out at bookstores. It is a pity these days that there are less and less physical bookstores due to alternative print such as digital books. We were very sad when a large bookstore chain at Wheelock Place closed its doors due to bankruptcy. So, we are glad that an old brand like the Times Bookstores survived the competition and is now expanding into online retailing. One of our favourite hangouts in Singapore is the little Times Bookstore at Changi Airport. My husband and I would sit by the cafeteria opposite the store sipping our kopi-O while the kids spend hours at the bookstore flipping through books.

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So when NoQ store asked me to review their online store, I jumped at the chance. After all, I would get a couple of shopping vouchers at NoQ Store to buy books. I decided to look for Malcolm’s school textbooks as those were probably what we needed most. Finding the textbooks was a breeze, and soon they were all in the shopping cart. And since Father’s day was round the corner, I decided to find some of the books from my husband’s wishlist of about 20 titles. Because it was an online store, I could do all these while we were still in the States!

The NoQ Store search interface was usable and the selection of books was wide. There was hardly a book that I could not find. As long as you exceed $25 for your orders in Singapore, you get free shipping. Furthermore, NoQ claims that the prices are cheaper than in any physical bookstore and they are willing to backup their claim with a Price Guaranteed Program where they would refund you the difference if you can find the same item selling more cheaply in a physical bookstore. Delivery time in Singapore is estimated to be 7-14 working days. So if you want your book in a hurry, go to the bookstore and buy it. If you are willing to wait, get it online at a better price.

After the couple of pluses there, I must mention one important area for improvement. One of the most amazing aspects of online shopping in the US was the short delivery times. Amazon.com delivered many items in two business days. Zappos delivered the next business day, and even offer free returns for all its items. Yes, that means if you don’t like the item, you print out a return label, stick it on the box, and send it back to Zappos free of charge. We have been thoroughly spoilt by this experience, and so 7-14 working days felt like a really really long time. 14 working days could mean that the book is delivered three weeks from the date of order. I think many of us would be put off by the long waiting time, and would not mind paying the premium to get the book from the bookstore. After all, being a woman, most of my purchases are spontaneous and spurred by my intense need for (nearly) instant gratification.

To be fair to NoQ Store, this is a great step forward. Amazon was not built overnight, and they suffered teething problems in the beginning and many many years of negative earnings. I would say that the key to improving the shopping experience at NoQ is to substantially improve the delivery times. Perhaps one day, I would be ordering light bulbs from the NoQ Store too.

Get a 15% discount at NoQ Store
From now till 31 July, NoQ Store has generously offered a 15% discount to all readers here when they use the coupon code MALMAL at their online store.

http://www.noqstore.asia/

So go grab some books for the kids this coming school holiday!

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