In order to inspire future scientists, most educators have discovered that simplifying concepts and using real world examples helps in later building up to more complex lessons. NASA has found a way to simplify their education programs and is now offering them for home or school use. In a partnership with a New York City-based hardware company called littleBits, NASA has developed a kit that is much like Legos. Now, it is easier than ever to build a mini Mars Rover or International Space Station (ISS) with the new Space Kit.
The kit includes 12 module blocks that are responsible for motorization, sensing light, power and remote triggering. There is also a microphone and a speaker module. Instead of requiring soldering tools like previous robotics kits, these “blocks” easily snap together using magnetics. Once built, the fledgling scientist can conduct real-life experiments. Other projects include a grappler and a two-way communication satellite.
Some NASA lessons come with the kits and are tied-in with what can be built. For instance, once the young scientist has built a satellite dish, they can learn a lesson in parabolas, which refers to the curved shape of the dish, and how this helps to focus incoming data. The explorer can also build a model of a satellite that actually works. Once built, a lesson is offered in mapping, using swaths and coverage. There are also directions in making a star chart.
Recommended for ages 14 and up, there are 10 kits to choose from. Between the projects, lessons and ideas offered by the online community, a young Neil DeGrasse Tyson could get a lot of mileage out of just one kit. Imagine building a working space helmet, complete with microphone and speaker. Someone in the littleBits community hacked an automated dancing owl to make it activate when the lights in the room are turned on. From serious experimenting with an energy meter, to silly projects like a Newman’s Own Microwave Popcorn box with glowing eyes and moving tongue, NASA and littleBits have developed kits that are indeed like Legos, but that can do so much more.
The price for the Space Kit is $189. A consumer could easily pay this much, or more, for a large Lego kit. However, the learning opportunities offered by the littleBits products justifies the price point. Individual modules can be purchased as well. Most of these are $20. The best value is the Deluxe Kit, for $199, in which 18 modules are included.
While the real Curiosity Mars rover inspects a slab of sandstone in search of a new place to drill, young engineers, astronauts and physicists now have a more accessible path to their future in science. The work being done on the surface of Mars can now be simulated by Earthbound enthusiasts, both young and old. Though the parts may be Lego-like, NASA and littleBits are counting on having developed a more thorough set of tools to bring the work of space exploration into any classroom or home. It will be interesting to see who the next Stephen Hawking might be and whether he/she cites NASA and littleBits’ Space Kits as part of their early inspiration.
By Stacy Lamy