Interview: Teaching Kids to Solve Problems in Engineering—and Life

May 15, 2015
Speaking with Jon Hiller about kids and how playing with robots can teach them to solve complex problems in engineering and life.

Jon Hiller is director of engineering at Modular Robotics, a toy company whose goal is to build robotic construction kits for children. The firm started in 2009 out of the Carnegie Mellon lab and is headquartered in Boulder, Colo.

What is your engineering background?

Hiller: I studied at the University of Washington for my B.S. in engineering and went to Cornell University for a combined Master’s/PhD program in dynamics and controls. My research at Cornell revolved around 3D printing with voxels (3D pixels). At that time, I was printing small, inert voxels to serve as a multi-material rapid assembly method.

How did you get started with Modular Robotics?

Hiller: I met Eric Schweikardt, the founder of Modular Robotics, in my lab at Cornell while he was completing his post-doctorate. He invited me to join him in 2011.

What made you jump from 3D printing to robotics?

Hiller: I’m a huge proponent of 3D printing and at Modular Robotics we use it extensively for rapid prototyping—the initial use of 3D printing. We use a high-resolution polyjet printer to print plastic robot components that we use to build functioning robots. It lets us quickly get the robots into the hands of kids to play with and test.

The Exofabulatronixx is one of the MOSS kits sold by Modular Robotics. It can be built into four different forms and has a Double Brain block that connects to iOS and Android devices.

What products do you offer at Modular Robotics?

Hiller: In 2010, Modular Robotics announced Cubelets, magnetic blocks that can be snapped together to create robots without using wires. Each Cubelet contains a computer that performs different tasks. For example, there are blocks that contain a motor, battery, or a sensor that responds to light, temperature, and sound. Together, they enable the finished robots to perform complex tasks.

We introduced MOSS blocks in 2013 as a way to introduce youngsters to more proposed design thinking. They start to understand mechanical construction, basic circuitry, kinematic motion, robotics, and software programming. The blocks connect via magnets, and a steel ball at the corner of each connection provides simple motion via ball joints and hinges. MOSS contains many of the same sensor types as Cubelets, but utilizes more direct/centralized control whereas Cubelets use distributed control. MOSS robots can be remote controlled from our mobile apps. If a user wants to dive into coding, they can be programmed with either SCRATCH or C language.

The image above shows the available Cubelets blocks that can be used to create robots that move, have proximity sensors, detect light, and changes in temperature.

How is easy is it to operate or code the software?

Hiller: SCRATCH is a project out of the MIT Media Lab that takes the difficulty of syntax out of programming. It removes the open/closed parenthesis, semicolons, and so on, leaving you with puzzle-piece blocks to create new programs. You still have loops and conditions, but it eliminates some of the more frustrating reasons why programs don’t compile.

What type of motor do you use to drive the robots?

Hiller: We use dc brush-gear motors. They let us change gear ratios as needed, which helps in the testing. Our average motor block has a 100-to-1 gear reduction running on a 3V dc brush motor.

What is your design process?

Hiller: At the simplest level, we start with the function when designing a new Cubelet or Moss block. For example, for a new proximity-sensing block, we start with the underlying technology. In one case, it might be infrared, so we nail down the performance specifications. Then we would jump straight into Solidworks and develop a 3D sketch with all the components in their appropriate places. This helps keep the design realistic. The blocks, especially ones with motion components, often go through half a dozen iterations of 3D printing and testing. We identify any problems where tolerances are a concern and ensure the block fits together. Feel is important in our industry, and that is another advantage of 3D printing them.

What is the learning curve for kids?

Hiller: Cubelets is marketed to children age four and up. They will take the pile of colored blocks, stick them together, and make a robot that lights up and rolls across the table. With Cubelets, they start to really grasp the underlying robotic concepts like sensing, thinking, and acting at around age six.

MOSS is marketed for youngsters ages eight and up. MOSS takes a little more thinking to make a functional robot. An average middle-schooler understands the MOSS system within 10 to 15 minutes of playing with the blocks. We find adults are actually a bit more apprehensive with the technology, so internally we also use that as a barometer or test. We make sure adults with little to no technological experience can use new blocks before we market them.

We use Modular Robotics to teach kids about complexity. Most of the world’s hardest problems are highly complex. So we want to teach kids how to identify simple behaviors and break down complex behaviors into simple solvable parts. Our products are not the same as Erector sets where kids need tools and manual dexterity to build robots. They are user-friendly, but because we are engineers we try to avoid making the kits too limited. We want to ensure that the underlying concepts of robotics come across.

Each MOSS block has its own function and the indicated faces on the block provide different port options from power to data.

Is your market strategy geared more toward schools or individual families?

Hiller: We want to dominate both the home toy and school field. Schools are a nice stepping-stone. From a consumer perspective, our products are expensive, but from an educational price-to-product ratio, our prices are competitive. We were the first company to sell modular robot kits. The parts are high-quality and provide good tactile feel and operation. We certainly hope in the future to lower the cost of our robot kits to reach a larger market.

What new toys is Modular Robotics designing?

Hiller: We will be releasing a new Threshold block for Cubelets that will be similar to a transistor or neural synapse that will create jumps in behavior once a threshold is exceeded. That will make way for a whole new class of educational opportunities for Cubelets. For MOSS, we are planning a tank kit with a Nerf dart-shooting block. We also plan to support the ability to attach Lego bricks to both product lines.

What are the long-term goals of Modular Robotics?

Hiller: We pride ourselves on making it easy to learn how to build robots while still retaining a high ceiling of functionality. You don’t need to know how to program or have access to a computer to have fun with all of our products. Remote control provides a nice stepping-stone to programming. SCRATCH and C allow kids to move beyond basic robot assembly to writing programs to define their own robot’s behavior.

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