The BeetleBot: the bug that teaches the basics of robotics

Henry Levine is on a mission: if you’re a parent, he wants you to know that schools don’t need a humungous budget to bring robotics to life. In fact, he’s designed a robot that can be made in a classroom for under R200 a pop.

Everyone and their kid wants a Lego MINDSTORM these days, and, even though they’re pretty powerful, they start at around R8 000 per kit. And at around 15 to 30 (or even more) students in a class, it gets prohibitively expensive (in this economy, we won’t even talk about the school fees). Many parents, even those who desperately want their child to learn robotics, can’t afford to pay that kind of money for a single kit.

So the man behind Made in Workshop got thinking.

“I knew there must be a way to solve this problem and find a cheaper alternative, while still providing all the important fundamentals of robotics. That’s when the BeetleBot came to mind,” says Henry, his eyes flickering.

The BeetleBot concept has been around for more than 10 years. There have been variations to it, but it still remains one of the best ways for anyone to learn the basics of robotics, without becoming overly technical and complex.

The end result? A little toy robot that is able to run along the floor, hit the wall, bounce off and carry on going – much like a live beetle does when it thumps into walls, bounces off, and buzzes along.

With the BeetleBot a student can learn how to solder and use a multi-meter, which, Henry says, are   two of the most essential tools for getting into electronics and robotics. It has a laser-cut frame and a 3D-printed caster, along with basic electronics that can be soldered together. Plus, there’s no micro-controller (Henry is not a fan of micro-controllers; read this to find out why).

“There is no programming; it’s pretty much exactly how the basics should be taught,” he adds.

A teacher who has adopted the concept of the BeetleBot is Stephan Knopperson , a technology teacher from Hyde Park High School. He has incorporated the BeetleBot across all subjects in the same grade, for a full term.

“I met Stephan when I started a group called STEAM Education short for Science, Technology, Electronics, Art and Mathematics Education – and he has embraced all the lessons from that in the best way possible. He tries to get everyone’s strengths involved, which is amazing.”

While the technology students build the robot, the students who are strong in English write the manual, and the design students create the cover and box for the BeetleBot. Even accounting students get involved.

This all-inclusive project works to everyone’s strengths, while also teaching the students the noble art of compromise. And that soldering irons are freaking hot.

“I’ve had eight year olds building a bot; will they burn themselves? Yes, it’s part of the learning process,” says Henry.

Henry has also released all the BeetleBot’s design files to be available to anyone who wants to learn how to make it.

He is able to supply the kits and welcomes all teachers to come through to Made In Workshop and learn how to teach the course to their students. And they don’t need to be tech teachers, either. The teacher will be taught exactly how to build the robot, troubleshoot, and how to add their own flavour to it.

Henry challenges anyone who has made their own BeetleBot, to have some fun.

“The BeetleBot is impossible to race because, unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly go in a straight line. But if there are two of you that are up to the challenge, you can put a balloon on the back and a pin on the front of each BeetleBot, and then put the two of them in a square. The one who pops the other’s balloon first, wins!”

It’s stupid and it’s childish, so obviously Henry loves it.

You can find Henry’s video tutorial on how to make the BeetleBot here. Want to teach your students the basics of robotics? Or perhaps you want to take a crack at building a bot?

Contact Made In Workshop on 087 701 4156, or pop by and take a look around at 65 Maria Street, Fontainebleau

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