Best Platform Choice For Computer Science/Robotics Class?

The teacher of my computer science class (which has focused mostly on programming) wants to completely redo the curriculum to be more robotics centered, and he wants me to help. So, I need to try and find the best kit/components to start building and programming robots. If anyone here knows where we should start, I would really appreciate some help. I was looking at Nerdkits, and since my teacher wants the projects to be expandable into anything we want to do, this seems like a good solution. I have one, I haven't used it much, but one of the things I noticed is that it might be a little intimidating for students just starting out in the class.
    Another choice that I want to look into is Arduino. I really haven't looked into this at all, but I've heard of many projects that use it, and it sounds like an easier platform to learn, but still flexible to any project.
    The third choice I was looking at was Lego NXT. I know this is completely different from the other two mentioned so far, but I'm thinking this may be a better way for students to start out and then move onto the Arduino or Nerdkits. There is also a firmware that will let you upload Java code onto it, which would work out well since my teacher already knows Java. Since I have one of these, I could also donate/sell it to the school, which would reduce the cost for the school.
    I will keep researching these and looking for better options, but I would also appreciate input from you guys! So if you know anything about this, or of a forum where I should ask for help, please let me know. Thank you for any help!

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mcguinnessdr (author) 5 years ago
So a few more specific questions. Are there any advantages with using the Arduino as opposed to the (upgraded) Nerdkit, since they both use the same microcontroller? The Arduino is $30 opposed to the Nerdkits $7 for just the microcontroller, so it seems more cost effective to get a bunch of Nerdkit microcontrollers instead.
Also, my teacher was leaning towards the Lego Mindstorms because of the easy lego building system, so I was going to see if there were any similar building systems that would work with the arduino/nerdkit. It just so happened that steveartrouk posted VEX which looks like a nice building system, but it's microcontroller is really expensive. So, would it be a viable option to use the VEX building system with the arduino/nerdkit, or is there a similar building system out there for this purpose?
Thank you guys for all the help, hopefully we can figure this about before the end of the week so we can order stuff and start playing with - I mean testing - it.
I would suggest contact with the vendors to see if they will send some evaluation kits to try before you buy. The worse they can say is no or else they will make a deal. It should not be a hasty decision to drop a grand on parts. The biggest advantage of Legos or VEX for the school situation that it is a complete system you are buying into with established clubs/other schools with the same program to tap into. The parts are plug and play with preset "missions" or lessons/projects. Arduino and nerdkits are nice if you have the resources to build a program and the capability to make stuff to fit together as components. Go get em.
mcguinnessdr (author)  caitlinsdad5 years ago
The preset "missions" are on of the things that I don't really like about the VEX educational system, since in our class, once you learn the basic our teacher asks what program you want to work on next, and then either okays it, or makes you come up with a different program. I think if we can find a system that will allow for the easy building of the Lego or VEX systems, but being able to attach it to the arduino/nerdkit, that would be the perfect solution.
I think if your teacher is that progressive, go full steam on arduino/nerdkits, even do 50/50 mix. There is a whole lot to learn crafting your components. Once they are fabricated from whatever, they will be models for the next class to use. It would actually be fun to have the class gather up their old r/c car toys and then salvage the motors/wheels and make robots from them. Add a few sensors, which can even be simple pushbutton switches to provide feedback, pulleys, LEDs. Many parts can be made from wood or metal threaded rod, nuts and bolts, tin cans, etc.
mcguinnessdr (author)  caitlinsdad5 years ago
It seems like plastic sheets look like a good choice for building with, just drill holes where you need to connect components.
I see that you have a few instructables that use Arduino, so do you see any advantages of using Arduino over Nerdkits?
Lexan, plexiglas, acrylic - lexan being the most expensive of the polycarbonate plastic sheets at Home Depot are great for drilling out to mount you parts. You can also heat with a heat gun/bake in oven to soften it up to bend. PVC pipe parts are good too. Easy to saw or cut and glue with PVC cement just like the plumbers do.

Arduino is a prefab board. It has "headers" to plug in the thin 22 awg gauge wire which fits in the holes in breadboards or protoboards. Just pick up a spool at the Radio shack. The pinouts are fixed and marked. That makes it easy to follow and set up something from a schematic. You will be moving the wires a lot to troublshoot or work out your circuit. The Arduino UNO model, has a built in usb interface, others need a FTDI "dongle cable" to connect to a pc. The Arduino IDE or programming interface allows you to the the "sketch". You might hear people porting over C language code or Programming code. You can power it up with a 9v battery or plug in a power supply or keep it on the USB cable. The UNO has power pins for 5 and 3.3 volts which different sensors or motors need. It has both digital(PWM for servos) and analog(switches, sensors, dc motors) outputs.

It seems the nerdkits gives you a bunch of parts that will later need to be consolidated on a circuit board(pre-fab or make your own) to use in a robot.
I would go with arduino to get a complete starter control module out of the box. You can experiment to light up LEDs (one is onboard all ready to use)for programming exercises and work from there. Throw in some switches, potentiometers, tilt switches, accelerometers, servos, motors, etc...
mcguinnessdr (author)  caitlinsdad5 years ago
I have a Nerdkit, which i haven't used a whole lot, so I think if we get an Arduino we can try using both and see which is better for our needs.
One thing though, is that I am leaning towards the Arduino/Nerdkit because it is so flexible, but my teacher is leaning more towards Lego (I will show him VEX tomorrow) since it is easier and "funner" to build the actual robot. He's just worried that we won't be able to actually build the robot once we've decided what we want to do, so if we can find an easy way to actually build the robots, which the plastic sheets seem to be, then I think arduino/nerdkit would be the best choice.
Thank you so much for all your help with this, I'll see what he wants to do when I talk to him tomorrow.
caitlinsdad5 years ago
What level is the class, high-school, senior/college bound, grade school and what is the class paired with math, physics, bio? What kind of programming, basic level or really just learning how to use software?

I think the biggest problem you are facing may be how to fund the hardware. Parts add up fast and scaling that for a class might be tough. It looks like the Nerdkits platform is similar to the arduino platform. It seems there are support forums and established projects for both. Additional parts are expensive. For robotics, accelerometers or rangefinder sensors and multiple servo motors can drive the cost of each robot over $100 easily. Look at sparkfun, makershed or adafruit sites for parts.

Lego has an established educator/school program and I think they have classroom kits, still an initial investment. The also have the FIRST robotics lego league interschool tournament program.

Programming for any of these microprocessor based platforms is rudimentary and perfect for beginners. To get the nerdkits or arduino to work, you would have to also teach some basic electronics. Lego is really plug and play. Good luck.
mcguinnessdr (author)  caitlinsdad5 years ago
Thank you! It's a highschool class, and up until this point our teacher has taught how to make programs in Visual Basic and Java. What do you mean "paired with," it's just a computer programming class? Our total budget is around $1,000 for everything.
Could someone please explain how one would go about using Arduino? Is it just a microcontroller on a board and you wire sensors and actuators to it?
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