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InfoQ Homepage News Putting Arduino and the ESP32 at Work for STEM Education

Putting Arduino and the ESP32 at Work for STEM Education

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Launched on IndieGogo a few months ago after 2+ years in development, Crowbits is a STEM education project that leverages both the Arduino and ESP32 boards, in addition to the BBC Micro:bit, to teach logical thinking and programming. Featuring Lego-blocks compatibility and a Scratch-like interface, the project has reached its IndieGogo backing goal and is ready to ship, says Crowbits' maker Elecrow.

Crowbits are little plug-and-play blocks that can snap together thanks to their magnetic Pogo pins, which makes it easy to connect crowbits with one another. Elecrow has already built 40+ different crowbits, including a DC motor, a buzzer, a LED, a gesture sensor, and many more. In addition to input and ouput modules, you also have programmable micro-controllers and IIC/UART modules.

On their back, crowbits feature LEGO-compatible pin holes, which make it possible to attach crowbits to LEGO blocks to build, for example, animated robots.

Crowbits can be assembled to create a number of different projects of varying levels of complexity and come bundled in four different kits: the Explorer, Inventor, Creator, and Master kit.

The Explorer kit focuses on electronic and engineering projects that do not require coding, such as building a quadruped robot, a smart fan, or a climbing monkey.

The Inventor kit introduces the first steps in programming using a Micro:bit microcontroller. The Micro:bit was designed by the BBC for use in computer education in the UK and integrates an accelerometer, a compass sensor, two programmable buttons, LEDs, Bluetooth and other sensors. The kit comes with an adapter module for the Micro:bit which enables crowbits to be used as inputs/outputs. Projects you can build with the Inventor kit include a horizontal bar gymnast, which combines a DC motor, an IR reflective sensor, and LEGO blocks to simulate a gymnast's moves; an ultrasonic guitar, which uses an ultrasonic sensor and a sound buzzer to synthesize sounds based on the relative displacement of LEGO blocks; a car able to avoid obstacles, which requires all modules used in the previous two projects to build a car that can avoid obstacles; and more.

The Creator kit is based on an Arduino-compatible board, the Crowbits-UNO module, which integrates Bluetooth and an Mpu6050 gyroscope among other things, and aims to further develop programming skills. Projects you can build using the Creator kit include horse racing, which uses an IR reflective sensor to control a moving horse; car racing, which combines a linear potentiometer and a button to simulate a car race; a motorcycle, which uses a vibration motor; a memory challenge, which uses an RGB matrix to display patterns; and more.

The projects in the Creator kit are slightly more complex than those in the Inventor kit, which makes it possible to move from basic programming concepts to more advanced ones, including functions, event handling, conditional loops, complex logical predicates, and so on. The Inventor kit on the contrary uses almost exclusively sequences of operations, waits, and conditional branches.

The most advanced projects can be found in the Master kit, which is based on the ESP32 microcontroller. The ESP32 provides a WiFi and a Bluetooth chip and is clocked faster than the Arduino. The kit also includes a keyboard module, a 2G GSM network module, a 320x240 TFT screen, a thumb joystick, a laser ranging sensor, and a servo module. The projects included in the Master kit include driving the TFT screen to display geometrical shapes, building a distance detector, a radar, send SMS messages, and more.

Besides the analytical effort required to build such projects, the Master kit main focus is understanding and using APIs, such as those required to drive the TFT screen, the 2G module, and so on. In addition, given the relatively higher complexity of the ESP32 in comparison with the Arduino-ONE, this kit targets older kids, who can comfortably grasp advanced concepts such as uploading firmware to an external device.

The four kits use the Letscode IDE, which provides a graphical programming environment that uses Scratch-like blocks to build programs. The program only runs on Windows, though, which may appear as a limitation to some extent.

In conversation with InfoQ, an Elecrow spokesperson stated that all modules have passed the "compatibility" test and all kits are ready to ship to backers once the campaign ends on IndieGogo.

The next step in Crowbits development, says Elecrow, will be doubling the number of available components for the four existing kits, going from 40+ to 80+, and to add new projects that make use of them.

In the next phase, Elecrow says they will focus on exploring the best way for Crowbits users and beginners to use the kits and learn programming skills.

Crowbits is not the first STEM kit available on the market. Close competitors include LEGO's Robot Inventor MindStorms kit, the littleBits STEAM kit, Microduino STEM Education Mix kits, and others.

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