(Above, the author's Most Useless Machine Ever rendered in WeDo)
Two years ago,GeekDad’s Jenny Williams reviewed Lego’s WeDo Robotics Construction Set for children (the review is still an excellent introduction). I’ve been itching to get one ever since, and I finally pulled the trigger when my oldest child appeared ready for it. After spending a lot of time with the product, I thought it time to visit WeDo again. In part 1, I review the pros and cons of buying WeDo and look at Lego’s recent addition to system, the WeDo Resource Set. In part 2, I look at what has been happening in the WeDo user community, and use MIT’s Scratch software to control WeDo.
Is WeDo Worth It?
You can think of Lego WeDo as a junior Mindstorms. Introduced in 2008, WeDo combines a simple drag-and-drop programming environment with Lego’s Power Function motors, lights, and two types of sensors (motion/distance and tilt). A USB interface connects the sensors and motors to your own computer. You build a contraption and then write a program to run it.
Purchasing both the WeDo Set and Software will set you back over $200 with shipping and tax, enough to make most parents scratch their heads and wonder whether it is worth it. You can save a bit of money by making use of MIT’s Scratch software (profiled in Part 2) but you may also find yourself purchasing more Technic gears, axles and beams as your child seeks to move beyond the core WeDo models. If you do find yourself in that position, then consider yourself blessed. Your child is arguably one step closer to eventually having his or her own fixed address.
What truly makes WeDo an iffy purchase is that Mindstorms weighs in at $280. Mindstorms includes three step motors, four sensors, and hundreds of Technic pieces. The WeDo and Mindstorms software use the same National Instruments LabVIEW engine. So why WeDo? The simple answer is that it is developmentally appropriate for younger children. I could walk my six-year-old through the Mindstorms software, or I can watch my six and three-year-old sitting side-by-side, manipulating the WeDo software on their own and building the models together.
There is a level of ownership that kids can attain with WeDo that is, for most little kids, a few years off with Mindstorms. Part of what makes this developmentally appropriate is the software and simplified mechanics. Another facet is the way that Lego has created storylines for the various models, integrating Technic mechanisms with standard bricks to build narratives around the various machines. Consider how a six-year-old might approach a generic sensor-activated motor versus a sensor-activated jaw on an alligator. The models invite kids to play, regardless of whether they are naturally drawn to mechanics or programming.
In all, I think WeDo is worth it.
One of the drawbacks of using a WeDo at home is that Lego has designed it for an institutional setting. On the one hand, this means that Lego provides excellent teacher materials, guides that are helpful for a parent that is lightly moderating the WeDo experience. On the other hand, Lego more or less assumes that there will be a room full of WeDo sets. Thus, two of the basic set's builds are a soccer kicker and a goalie; you can build them separately, but it works best if students have access to two WeDo sets and can coordinate the action simultaneously. To this end, the WeDo software communicates automatically across a LAN with other computers running WeDo, and kids can link programs. It is a fantastic capability, one that is sorely missed with a solitary set at home.
One problem that has cropped up since Jenny Williams' earlier review is that the WeDo software is encountering compatibility issues. Mac users who have OS X Lion will need to boot their machines in 32 bit mode (hold down the 3 and 2 keys when you reboot) in order to install the software. Once installed, you may reboot in 64 bit. More bothersome is that the WeDo Activity Pack does not work with the latest versions of Adobe Flash Player. The Activity Pack is not necessary to run the WeDo software, but it is the best way for the kids to build the models. As it is completely unacceptable to use an old version of Adobe Flash (from a security standpoint), I took to uninstalling the current version and temporarily installing an old verison (prior to 10.3). I merely kept copies of all install packages in a folder on my desktop and did a quick, two minute changeover when the kids were going to use the Activity Pack. My kids, incidentally, went through the activity pack in about five lengthy sittings, so this is not as onerous as it sounds. The 10.2 version of Adobe Flash player can be found at: http://kb2.adobe.com/cps/142/tn_14266.html.
Lego introduced an add-on set, the WeDo Resource Set (9585), in 2011. Priced at $49.95 and available only from Lego Education, the set is composed of standard bricks and Technic pieces. Lego posted directions for four models (a house, a car, a ferris wheel and a crane) on-line. Here again, Lego assumes a classroom setting for WeDo and requires that you have two basic sets (9580) and one Resource Set in order to build the house and car to Lego's specs. We were able to build the models separately, but only after taking advantage of ample spare parts in our house. The other two models only require one 9580 and one 9585.
The Resource Set does not have the same impact as the basic WeDo. And though we liked the additional models, especially the ferris wheel, I think the Resource Set is best viewed as a good mix of spare parts for doing WeDo free-builds. For the same money, you would be hard pressed to get a similar assortment from more readily available Lego sets (e.g., by combining a low priced Creator set with a low priced Technic set). What is especially hard to find in the lower priced Technic sets are the studded Technic beams; these beams make it possible to integrate the standard Lego bricks with Technic mechanisms. However, were you to buy something like the currently available Quad Cycle, you would get a chain drive, wheels, and spring-shock absorbers, all very useful parts for whatever Rube Goldberg WeDo mechanism your child might design.
Incidentally, if you are unsure about what parts are in the various Lego sets, you can take advantage of the Peeron database of Lego set inventories. Also, it is worth mentioning that Lego Shop@Home has sometimes deep discounted unsold inventory of Technic sets just after Christmas and at mid-year. You can't bet on it, though, and it sells out quickly.
In Part 2, I look at what others have managed to accomplish with WeDo in the last four years, and what can be done using MIT's Scratch software to control WeDo.