Jul 8, 2006

Educator needs some help...

Reader Adam sent me an email recently: "I am a teacher and want to use Mindstorms in my classroom. I have the money to get them, and I would like to get the NXT, but my administrator wants to go with the tried and true RCX. She feels that a lot of the wrinkles have already been worked out of that system, and feels we shouldn't be the guinea pigs for the new system. Keep in mind that using anything in a classroom setting is quite different than just tinkering on your own. You have to be able to get a meaningful task accomplished in a set period of time without technical glitches. We are also concerned about the new building system and think in might be hard for seventh grade girls (who I teach) to use it. I would be very thankful if you or other who visit your site could offer some opinions. Would the NXT offer that much more to my students?"

Please add your thoughts for Adam if you have any... thanks!



Brian Davis said...

This question has come up a couple of times in different forums, and I think there's a couple points to be made.

Your administrator is correct, most of the bugs have been massaged out of the RCX system, and they're likely are some bugs in the new system. So there's a choice here: do you want to follow the herd (less risky, but always a little bit behind), or lead the way (more risk, but also more reward potential)? That's an old debate that I don't want to get into, but it's an important context to this.

The NXT has at least two things that should really recommend it to your setting:

(1) It looks to become *the* LEGO supported platform for education robotics. I will keep my RCXs until they die natural deaths, but for a school that needs to replace or maintain equipment, depending on a legacy product where support will forseeably be discontinued seems short-sighted. This is, ultimately, an economic issue: buy a classroom RCX set now, and quite probably have to upgrade to a NXT based system in a few years, or buy a NXT based system now that may last significantly longer?

(2) From my experience, I would *much* rather teach programming techniques with NXT-G than with RIS, and I probably prefer NXT-G over Robolab as well. Again, both of those older languages will see dropping support and improvements, while NXT-G will I think see an increase in functionality (it already has *far* more than RIS). NXT-G provides user-named variables of several types, on-screen display (wonderful for debugging), and the ability to record information for later download to the computer (RIS lacks all of these, while Robolab lacks the first two).

For me, these two factors would heavily bias the decision in favor of the NXT. Also, for a similar price as the RCX-based system, you get three motors and more sensors.

The studless building issue is a significant point. Esepcially for us adults, this often seems an "odd" or "unnatural" building style. And it *may* challenge your students more (depending on your goals, that could be a good thing, although it may take more time in the schedule). But a partial solution to this to provide the students with plenty of examples of simple robots, construction techniques, etc. I've built a very simple two-motor "roverbot" (JennToo... should I put out the plans somewhere?) for just this reason - it's a simple build, and allows the builder to get familier with the building style, but at the same time rapidly make a platform to starting learning programming on. The LEGO models offer a lot of other similar teaching tips in their construction.

My conclusion? Not important - it's *your* decision. But in my opinion, there are a lot of strength in switching to a NXT based program... *especially* if the school has not yet invested in the hardware (hardware that again, for the RCX, is likely to be phased out of production and support over the years. Not immediately by any means, but over time).

Brian "I need to write shorter comments" Davis

Anonymous said...

There is a thread on the nxtasy.org forum on this subject, visit the forum and give you opinion:

nxtasy.org forum

Filip said...

I agree totally with Brian "you really should write shorter comments but I like them" Davis. I believe there are lots of things that you can teach using the NXT, which are much harder using the RCX.

For instance, making a robot drive straight is easy with the NXT, but it is not with the RCX. Students get frustrated when even simple things like that are not working the way they expect them to. Servo motors in general are much easier to teach and use than ordinary motors (for robots doing tasks).

There is another consideration: a number of third party sensors and other extensions for the NXT are already being announced from various places. In the future, I expect a wide choice in parts that plug-and-play with the NXT. The (educational) pallet will be substantially wider than it will ever be for the RCX.

And don't even get me started on Bluetooth, which opens up amazing capabilities beyond what a "simple" NXT can do.

Filip "not so short either"

Drew Stevenson said...

Never claiming to be short (6'2) especially in commnents I wade in.

As a teacher I know how valuable time is, and NXT may take a couple more hours to learn to build, but you save that in program learning time.
Also beware student frustration. RIS inventions that are not designed by master builders often tear themselves apart. The studless building is much easier in this regard. Check out
This will show you a british trial school. I know its propoganda I love to pick holes in propoganda but I wholely support and agree with what the kids are saying. Its easy to build basic or complex. YOUR choice! if your students have interests in programing or building or other aspects then they can simplify the other parts to get to what they enjoy. No student left behind policies frustrate me but I think NXT really lets ALL learners participate easily.
You'll find some students will go the simplist route, some will come in at lunch to do more - but all will learn and succeed once they start.
Personally I find the NXT to be far more versitile. Keep an eye out for my classroom bot (a highspeed interactive instant feedback quiz or game show assistant - like the remote response systems used in some universities.) www.nxtidea.blogspot.com

Also NXT has legacy abilities. Buy some used RIS parts and your good to go with added abilities. OR if your admin is still not satisfied order 2x 1/2 class sets (a little more for 2 site liscenses) and start them with the one you think is easier and work up to the other (alittle more time to learn 2 programs unless you use a 3rd party). Oh and you'd want to see www.hitechnic.com to buy IR relays which allow NXT to talk to RIS (and boss it around).

YOUR BEST BET IS TO GO 97% NXT and just use RIS for extra parts.

In a class enviroment the only draw back is the post market cables - Learn to make and crimp your own cables (good skill anyways to have and supposedly easy.)

Drew the longwinded

David Levy said...

The feedback from this blog and similiar ones used by MDP testers has been pretty positive.

As a result, I just purchased 22 NXT sets for my son's elementary school.

I can see holding back if you already have RCX kits at the school but if you need to make a new purchase, I think the choice is pretty clear.


Drew Stevenson said...

Wow - I'm 26 years old - do you want to adopt me??? Wow very generous. Thats wonderful the kids will really enjoy that. Elementry often gets overlooked for the really cool things.

david levy said...

I'm 42. You've got 16 years to start a family, enroll them in school and start throwing your weight around.


david levy said...

I just realized that I may have implied that I paid for the equipment.

Not so. The PTA gave me 2k. Then the Principal wanted to match it. Then the county threw more money into the pot.

I really only wanted to raise enough for eight sets and a classroom license to teach an after school club of 16 students. Now I'm into a school site license, 22 sets, curriculum from CMU and four teams registered with thee FLL.

Sometime you just got to say:
"what the $#$&* " - obscure movie reference


Anonymous said...

I just got my NXT in today. It was a breeze. I never programmed my RCX so I cannot compare. But the NXT system was quiet easy to use. The quickstart build included with the commercial package was very easy. I wish I could have played with one of these in school.

good luck

Anonymous said...

I still agree with Adam on 1 aspect...the studded beams versus the Studless beams. I find that the older studded beams are a very important addition to the newer style beams and it is funny that in some new Lego boxes these older beams are still used in combination...so it seems obvious that Lego still welcomes this "alliance". Can any of you MDP'ers make a point to Lego to perhaps come up with service packs with various studded beam assortments to please the many existing lego fans...they used to have these service packs...I know because I bought many of them!

Please make this point to Lego!!

Regards from a Lego Fan

Drew Stevenson said...

Lego Does make packs of studded technic beams and others. Check the lego parts collection.

Anonymous said...

Dear Drew Stevenson,

Again, yes, directly available for US Customers on the Lego Education Site and Shop but NOT on the Corporate Lego.com shop. Again Lego Education does not sell or deliver to other nations...for example Holland, Germany or UK....already called the Sales Manager at Lego Education in the US and that was confirmed. People keep forgetting that US customers are lucky with Lego Education but for Europeans it is a true hassly!!!!!!

Regards from a Dutch lego Fan.

S Wright said...

I too am a teacher and I can say for certain that when school starts up again next month I will be using the new NXT in my classroom.

I received my first set a week ago (obviously not and educational version) so I have had neumerous opportunity to use it. I would certainly say that for a classroom setting it will be much easier to use than the previous RCX. Keep in mind that I am not working with middle school students, I am an elementary teacher, so I certainly do not go into the depth of programming and building as you are sure to do, however for me programming using the new system is easier and makes more sense.

As for your question about building, I also think that it is is easier. My students had a very hard time attaching the old motors to the gears and wheels, and maikng the robots work properly. It took a large amount of time before they became accustomed to how things worked. The new studless system combined with the new motors is easier and again seems to make more sense (to me). I am hoping that my students will catch on quicker, and I think they will.

Connecting the sensors and motors is easier, and there is no longer a concern of attaching the wires backwards and thus having the motor turn in the opposite direction that the students intended. Althought this turned out to be a good learning tool, it will again make the learning curve much shorter.

If you want my opinion, go with the new sets. They are far imporved from the old, will engage the students much more effectively, and provide many more learning opportunities and activities.

Parima said...

This is kind of delayed question for Devid Levy's post on this thread...

How can I find the Curriculum from CMU? I'd like to use it for my kids' school too...


Jim Kelly said...

I'll see what I can find for out for you...


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