Let's Make Robots!

Ideas for a Children's Museum Exhibit

There's a very small children's museum near me, and I've talked to them about putting together a robot exhibit. They've shown some interest, so I'm going to put together some ideas. Here's where you come in...

The 'museum' is basically just a large room at a community center. They don't have a dedicated space, so this is not to be a permanent exhibit. They can set up tables for different kids' activities. The events I've seen at the place had to be pretty open to accomodate a range of ages. Also, I would expect that most activities would be manned by volutneers. A demonstration or video presentation could be scheduled, but other activities would just have to be available throughout the day or weekend.

My idea is to have a bunch of tables where kids could learn and experiment with different aspects of robotics. For example:

  • Gears: Kids free play with pegboards and build gear systems. Two pre-set displays show how different gear ratios affect the ability to lift a weight.
  • Motors and Generators: Two identical gear motors are electrically connected so that one acts as a generator to power the other. A switch would allow the generator to power a light bulb or LED instead. Kids can crank the generator to power the light or turn the other motor.
  • Batteries: A fixed display of batteries of different types shows kids something familiar. A supply of potatos, zinc and copper allow them to build their own batteries and power an LED.
  • Motion: A comparison of different methods of motion. Kids can play with platforms that have wheels, tracks, legs, etc. and see how they compare over flat ground, bumps, ramps, and other terrain.
  • Turning: Example platforms the kids can play with that show differential steering Vs. front and/or rear wheel steering.

You get the idea, I think.

For the demo/video portion, I thought about showing a variety of commerial robot toys, and asking the kids to identify how some of them work, based on their experience at the tables. Then I'd show fun videos of various robots (hobby, industrial, toys, etc.) in use.

There's a potential for a more focused workshop with older kids who would sign up for a 2-3 day class that includes building and programming a robot.

So, I need thoughts on the structure of the program, ideas for activity tables, demo/video thoughts, and build a robot workshop thoughts.


Update: 2011-06-19

I got the go-ahead from the local children's museum for a robotics exhibit this fall. Now it gets real.

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That's brilliant! I've got to do this with my kids. It's a great idea for a children's museum too. Thanks so much. This one is definitely IN!

Here's a link to the Squishy Circuits website, which includes the TED video Geir linked, plus instructions and circuit examples. 

Last weekend we have seen an easy to build robot kit at a science exhibition. No brain only a reflective sensor with transistors and resistors. The kids had real fun to build those little line followers and make a competition.

Build instructions can be found here (sorry all in german)

That's a great little robot project, which I was able to read with Google translate.

I think I have most of what is needed on hand to build a prototype at least. Thanks for the idea!

I built this control console set piece for the Steampunk Worlds Fair.

 I think I can modify this for a display with lots of cool stuff for the kids to experiment with.

I would put two cranks on the front, each connected to a gearmotor. A switch would connect the two motors together so that turning one crank makes the other rotate, and vice versa. If you put the switch in the other direction, turning the cranks generates electricity to power lights, buzzers, etc. I'd love to install a couple of panel voltmeters with this so that they can see how much electricity they are generating.

Using the NITE software in the Openni package in ROS with an kinect, You could track people's hands and have a robot arm mimic their movements

Yes. Brilliant.

  • Step 1: Look up all those acryonyms so I can learn what they are.
  • Step 2 - ?: Learn how to do all that stuff you just said.
  • Step TBD: Implement.

I'm sure it would be super-cool, but it is currently over my head! Thanks for the suggestion.

Ah sorry, ROS is robot operating system (http://www.ros.org/wiki/). Openni is the open source driver for the Microsoft Kinect that allows you to use the 3D point cloud information from the Kinect (http://www.ros.org/wiki/openni_kinect). Nite is included in the openni_kinect package, this does skeleton tracking with the Kinect right out of the box.

All someone would have to do is download all this stuff (ros and openni_kinect) on a linux machine, hook up a kinect to the usb port, type a one line command into the command prompt, and the position (x,y,z) of a person's hands are readily available, no code to write or anything. Then you would just need a little robotic arm (3 to 6 degrees of freedom), and feed the x,y,z info from the kinect to the inverse kinematics of the arm. Bingo bango you have a robotic arm that mimics people's arms. The kinect costs $130, all the software is free, you just need a laptop a cheap servo arm (and what ever needed to drive it).

I realize it seems very involved, and probably not what you had in mind, but I just wanted to clear it up a little and point out it wouldn't be expensive or extremely difficult.  

Thanks for the explanation. That really does sound pretty darn fun.

Hey, I just want to say thumbs up to the project, cool :)


you can make them with a tothbrush, a pager motor and a watch battery - very satisfying for the young - I'm going to try this with the local cub group. They really do move !


take a look at this link - see what you think