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Prototyping: Back To The Brick

E D U   B O T S


...EduBots-SAW.inddLewis & Clark College

Portland, OR

Prototyping: Back To The Brick, by Miles Crabill

EduBots.inddMiles Crabill is a senior, majoring in computer science at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He is also enrolled in the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

Rapid prototyping can feel like an elusive dream, especially in academia. Projects require grants, labs, graduate students, and research to act upon. Companies have the freedom of offsetting research and development budgets once products hit the market. For a research lab or academic pursuit, though, there is no market, let alone a requirement that an idea be marketable. No matter who you are, the path from inception to fruition of a project requires time, money, and dedication.

EduBots.inddThis status quo is increasingly being shifted. 3D printers have enabled a rapid prototyping revolution that even small schools can afford. Of course, there are times when money isn’t the only issue. Sometimes a team has different levels of expertise, and needs to find a common denominator. These are times when our roots can better serve us: that is to say, by going back to the brick. In this article, I’ll briefly describe a few tools I use to understand and prototype projects, making them relatable to myself and to more broad audiences.

LEGO has been a longtime cornerstone of engineering curriculum. LEGO offers a freeing of creativity3/4easily combined pieces with virtually infinite combinations. Building a prototype with LEGO gives a sense of the device’s physicality and can answer many related questions, such as, “Would I want this in my pocket?”

The MIT Media Lab has advocated strongly for LEGO, which researcher Tiffany Tseng describes as, “a pathway into engineering.” Tsung’s team developed Scratch, a programming language that takes the brick- building concept a step further. [See “What do Legos have to do with engineering?” at edu/ask/what-do-legos-have-do-engineering ]

Scratch allows for the creation of complex scenarios, stories, and more, using combinations of different blocks. A block might react when clicked, might cause other blocks within it to repeat, or might cause a character to move on-screen. Just as the basic LEGO bricks can serve as an introduction to the more complex MINDSTORMS sets, Scratch can serve as an introduction to more complex programming languages, and is simple enough that nontechnical team members can grasp it easily.

Now imagine a combination of the physical brick with the snap-together programming of Scratch, and you have LittleBits. LittleBits are magnetized boards that snap together like Legos, each adorned with a different circuit, or “bit.” It should come as no surprise that LittleBits’ founder, Ayah Bdeir, is an MIT Media Lab alum. There are many different bits, from lights and speakers to NOR gates, to inverters and wireless receivers. Like LEGO and Scratch, the real power of LittleBits is in their approachability. LittleBits make a difficult topic¾ electrical engineering¾ simple, by snipping out the wires and soldering that are normally required for hardware projects. It’s this simplicity that makes them such an ideal tool for prototyping.

In a class at Lewis & Clark College, we were divided into groups, each with a set of LittleBits and several different modules. My group made a car, using motors and improvising wheels from K’NEX pieces. Another team thought outside the box and made a steerable boat using duct tape and cardboard for the body, two fan bits, and a mast mounted on a servo for steering. LittleBits bring your prototypes into working reality while maintaining the creative ease and simplicity of LEGO bricks.

Beyond LittleBits, Arduino is a fantastic platform for combining hardware and software prototyping. Arduino allows for stored program logic, unlike LittleBits, which simply perform their specified function. Programming in Arduino requires knowledge of the C programming language, which can be a barrier for entry, and unlike LittleBits some soldering and specific knowledge of circuits may be necessary, but the possibilities with Arduino are nearly endless. Almost anything with pins can be operated and programmed by an Arduino microcontroller. Arduino can be the prototype that becomes the product¾ it’s cheap, packageable, and incredibly versatile. It’s a natural fit for the end of the prototyping process.

There is a place for each of these steps in the prototyping process. I’ve found a lot of success by starting simply. Taking an idea and refining it through the different prototyping techniques I’ve mentioned above allows for distillation and concentration on the goal of a project. I’ve taken ideas that I thought were fantastic, tried expressing them with LEGO bricks, and realized that they made no sense in the real world. By the same token, I’ve taken ideas through the prototyping process, eventually building out fully functional Arduino prototypes.

The key is to keep an open mind and a willingness to learn, even if you’re mocking out a next-generation robot with a toy you played with 10 or 15 years ago. [MINDSTORM image courtesy LEGO Education. Team photos courtesy Andrea Dean.]


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