Learn Engineering and Draw Narwhals


Using LEGO robots and other ‘intro to robotics’ platforms is a great introduction to kinematics and programming, but if you’re teaching a classroom of people who don’t know what a 1/4-20 screw is, perhaps it’s not the right introduction to engineering. That’s the thinking behind NarwhalEdu’s upcoming, Kickstarted online course: give kids a bunch of servos, bolts, and a microcontroller, and they’ll be able to build anything, and not just what the instructions for a Mindstorm’s robot says.

Robots, Drawing, and Engineering is an online course built around a simple SCARA arm robot. It’s made out of laser cut hardboard and powered by three servos and an Arduino Nano with an extension shield. After building this robot in the first hour of the online class, students then learn a little programming and get their robot drawing everything from narwhals to nyan cats and faces.

In the second part of the course, students then tear apart their robot kit and start making other, cooler interesting devices. There’s a contest for the coolest project that will hopefully go a long way to show how creative engineering can be.

Two videos below of the NarwhalEdu SCARA arm in action.

23 thoughts on “Learn Engineering and Draw Narwhals

  1. “give kids a bunch of servos, bolts, and a microcontroller, and they’ll be able to build anything”

    Correct if I’m wrong but, ain’t that what LEGO is all about?

    And charging +U$150 for that kit is quite expensive for what it is …

    1. Hello! That is the hope with LEGOs and how they started, and they’ve done a lot of good in middle schools that have FIRST Lego League teams. We hope with the course we can reach more diverse people who may not have the peer groups / engineering parents / well-off schools to help them with building things. The kit is more expensive than we’d like, we hope in the future to be able to scale and bring the costs down, but in the meantime we are going to make the most awesome engineering course we can with what we have :)

    2. As I understand it one is also buying an online educational course to go along with the parts. Is the total package worth $150, I don’t know but I’m just too tired at the moment to make sense of all the information.

  2. It could be made more precise and less shaky by turning the whole thing upside down, mounting the sharpie closer to the tip (and perhaps cutting it half off) and making the sharpie move straight up and down rather than swinging up and down to touch the paper. I suppose that’s the idea, they left lots of room for making improvements. Very cool!!

    1. Turning it upside down? Whoa, I don’t quite get what you mean, although we done prototypes of the upright style of design ala thermino arm. We did not think about using a smaller sharpie. We investigated linear servos, but they weren’t usable in the end. We spent a long time trouble-shooting the shakiness and welcome improvements on that. And your last comment is precisely what we went for in designing the kit — we don’t want people just using it as a kit (that’s not the point of engineering), we want them to build their own awesome things!

    1. Unfortunately a 4-40 screw means getting boned at 20 till 5 is what most new grad engineers think. Many do not have the aptitude to be good or even mediocre engineers. Salesmen selling drawing packages claim their product will make anybody an engineer with some products being so complicated more time is spent trying to figure out what the next command is rather than thinking about a good design. I do agree the robot arm package is cool and a excellent starter. I would hope a good student designer will try to improve on the design, Most of us old-timers started with Erector sets and Gilbert chemistry sets. The kids who left the sets gather dust should not have set their sights on engineering.

    1. Sorry you think that! We designed with very different goals in mind than other commercial kits, which may be why you think it’s “poorly engineered.” We wanted to use components with multiple suppliers (vs. the lego model) and encourage students to build their own creations instead of just putting together a kit, which meant a relatively simplistic design that is easy the explain and approachable for beginners (“I could build that!”) and that wouldn’t be a sleek injection-molded showpiece.

      1. it’s true though. you’re providing a product based on a material that doesn’t hold up well in high humidity muchless when it gets wet, with what appears to be a poorly dialed in laser cut, and doesn’t have significant future use.

        it looks like you designed with “get this out the door as soon and cheap as possible” rather than how can we make this a opportunity for growth and learning.

        incidentally, there are over 20 lego compatible building systems that aren’t lego. so multiple suppliers argument doesn’t hold up well.

        don’t get me wrong, i think in concept this is great, but the implementation seems to be exactly the sort of thing that frustrates new engineers/designers rather than inspires.

        1. Hello, you raise valid concerns, and I’d like to respond positively: We have actually used our kit materials with dozens of students already (who did seem more inspired than frustrated) and have talked to both professors of engineering outreach and high school teachers in order to make sure this is not “just a kit” but an engaging introduction to engineering. If you watch our kickstarter video, our intent isn’t to create a kit that has great future use in its finished state, but rather to show students how to improvise with the materials they have to build their own creations. Thanks for voicing your concerns out loud, that’s the only way we can respond to them!

          1. Nancy, I think I’m not being completely clear. What you’re trying to accomplish is great, and you seem to have a generally solid plan, however, the premise you keep returning to is getting kids able to and excited about being able to build anything. You kit can not do that, and as I understand it the course doesn’t cover things like rapid prototyping to build the parts you’re supplying. It’s a start, but a start without an obvious further path. Getting the kids inspired is great, but offering them the parts they need to keep building on their own is critical. Otherwise you start up that kindling and then don’t have anything for it to catch on. The reason lego has inspired generations of designers and engineers has been it provides a solid start (a kit with instructions) but that start can be repurposed into anything the child can dream of. It’s also a lot cheaper than what you’re offering once you factor in the volume of parts and sensors (and you *could* grind them up, extrude and 3D print with them into truly anything.)

            How many of your inspired students have gone on to make something new and different out of their robot outside of the class? They need the tools to keep going on their own (or with some assistance depending) in order to really continue, and while you’re providing the skills in your class, there isn’t an obvious reuse for the parts they’ll have worked with. 3d printing even a new pen holder is not trivial.

            Intro to robotics kit? yes. great teaching tool? yes. Accomplishing the things you claim to be aiming for? no. I think if it was out of plastic, so it could be reused in multiple classes, or had some alternate arms I’d be a lot less skeptical, but as it stands, you’re not actually providing the things you’re claiming make your kits superior to other options.

            Think about it from a kids standpoint. Is it cool? Yes. Can I do lots of cool things with it? well, it can draw. ok cool, what else… well it’s not too sturdy, and it can’t get wet….

            How can your kit give them something other than a one-off lesson? (honest question for you)

        2. *blinks* It seems I cannot reply to deeply nested comments, so I will reply here. We chose masonite instead of a wholly acrylic body (which would actually be simpler for us) because the students we worked with told us they like the steampunk look. If you watch the kickstarter video, it shows a quadreped robot we made with the kit and with an ice cream box and popsicle sticks. You can make hexapods ala http://www.pololu.com/docs/0J42 with paperclips, you can make automated turrets and animated flowers, etc. (I suppose just look for “servo” projects on instructables.com). This is the contest described as the second part of the course, where we ask the students to apply the skills they learned with the kit materials and whatever materials they can find to make their own awesome creations. Thanks for your detailed response!

  3. so for 80% of the price of the baisc lego kit, you get 2/3 of the servos, none of the sensors, none of the rapid assembly of lego, and some laser cut particle board to build 1 scara arm?

    the strength of lego is NOT the instructions, but the ease of assembling an Antikythera mechanism without having to learn machining or rapid prototyping.

    if you don’t have access to a laser cutter, or bandsaw and drill press this kit rapidly becomes much less useful than a $40 bump for the lego kit that has a huge online support community worldwide.

    1. Sorry you feel that way — in general we feel like there should be a wide portfolio of engineering education resources for all sorts of folks, in essence: that lego is awesome but not for everyone. We are approaching people who would like to learn to build without depending on any particular system and who might like the extra encouragement of a class to get started. Best of luck with your projects!

      1. by providing a particular system that doesn’t have the support or options to develop and expand. you’re planting a seed in a pot too small for it to easily bear fruit.

        there ARE a wide variety of engineering educational resources, but you’re charging (relatively) more for (relatively) less with less opportunity for continued education, in part based on the argument that because a system designed around the idea of infinite redesign is bad because it includes starter instructions.

        use kinex (sp?), or tinker toys, or erector sets, anything that’s not a one trick pony. while the programming and electronics are very important, understanding how and why the parts need to move is far more critical or you’re building something you fundamentally don’t understand.

        1. Hello! I’m a bit confused. We are using Arduino + hobby servos as our base, which are definitely a very extendable system with a strong user base, where you depend on local materials (e.g. popsicle sticks, lasercut wood, whatever is available) rather than mass-manufactured materials. Both are valid options. Additionally, we are putting a lot of time and effort into creating the course and not just the kit and hope that our students find both valuable. I also personally believe that female representation in engineering education is very important and find the general tenor of the ads for the systems you mentioned irritating, and hope you can understand where I’m coming from just as I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from. Thanks for your feedback!

          1. arduinos and hobby servos don’t attach to popsicle sticks without at least minor wood working, and unless you’re using varied and single orientation connectors can be pretty tricky to troubleshoot connections w.o a good bit of electronics background.

            kids shouldn’t have to use a power drill, or permanently glue something to a servo to expand on it.

            your early rubber bands to hold the pen teach problem solving, the holder and fabbed arm teach that they need a particular solution, not how to come up with one.

            you’re not using mass marketed materials, or accessible ones, you’re using proprietary limited availability ones. (yes you’ll release the files, but you still need a laser cutter or printer or bandsaw and drill press to make them, they’re not something you can pick up a few more of for $5)

            everything you complain about, your system currently does worse.

            design a small, adjustable clamp for the servos. then they can use pencils or popsicle sticks or even sticks for arms, and use an office binderclip for the pen holder. use Popsicle sticks and pencils in class, cut to the right lengths for ease of use and limited troubleshooting in the course, but to show them that they CAN expand, and see what happens when they change arm length.

            all of the mindstorms adverts i’ve seen in the last few years include girls if not as a principal, actively participating. while other systems do tend to market to boys, ignoring them because of that only reinforces gender bias. we should be showing girls that they don’t need pink tools to work on trucks (although that’s cool if they like pink) and they can use anything they want, without regard for what others tell them to use. when companies see girls using their products and see them as an untapped market, they will market to them. ignoring perfectly servicable things because you feel they reinforce gender bias only reinforces that impression. are you going to not use powertools or teach wood working or welding because most of those tools are marketed towards men?

        2. hmm, although your long responses make it seem unlikely, i’d rather continue this conversation in person to make sure you’re not a troll. please email me directly and we can arrange a phone call or google hangout.

          fraagen-daas: we attached popsicle sticks with the same screws included in the kit + a screwdriver. hot glue is a perfectly serviceable semi-permanent option as well. based on in-person experience, fixing the orientation is being extra clear to “make sure the black wire faces this way.”

          again, the servo arm / box pieces are not meant to be like “look at me you must build something exactly like this with a lasercutter”. precisely as you say — they can build with pencils and popsicle sticks and rubber bands as they wish. we are not focused on “expanding on the arm” — not everyone falls in love with robot arms. some people like robot cats. i’d rather free them to work on such things of their own imagination, which is a personal design choice you may or may not agree with but remains a valid one.

          i have tried to avoid complaining and instead been of the opinion that mass-market lego-like systems are perfectly valid choices, but there is room for other options.

          perhaps the confusion is the fact that we are running an online class for individual people instead of in-person in a classroom environment, which require very different designs.

          i think you are mixing up tools with brands. i can boycott engineering toys marketed to boys without boycotting engineering toys.

          thanks and look forward to talking to you in-person

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