It’s vitally important to get young people interested in science and engineering if we hope to continue innovating and developing new technologies in the coming decades. But unfortunately, it can be very difficult to present this information to children as there is a dangerous mentality that those kind of topics are “for nerds”.
One of the best ways to overcome this is by doing more hands-on work, allowing students to see a practical application of the topic rather than abstract concepts. A child will be much more interested in a robot they were able to build and play with than simply reading about how an electric motor works. But not surprisingly, keeping these practical examples simple enough for young children to work with has always been a considerable challenge.
The Hummingbird Robotics Kit aims to address these concerns directly, by providing a microcontroller and various accessory components which can be easily assembled and programmed. With well documented hardware, open source software, and cross-platform compatibility, the Hummingbird could prove to be an important tool in turning today’s youth into the engineers of tomorrow.
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The Hummingbird has been called the “Arduino For Kids”, and for good reason. By taking the expandable design of the Arduino and simplifying it even farther, the Hummingbird MCU is very easy to work with. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the hardware design of the Hummingbird, and it definitely shows.
Students can read right on the board where they are supposed to connect hardware like motors, sensors, and LEDs. By taking the guesswork out of connecting peripheral devices to the MCU, the Hummingbird helps eliminate a lot of the initial difficulty in setting up the hardware.
Devices are also connected up with easy to use terminals; simply push down on the tab and slide the wire in. The designers were even smart enough to put all of the board’s electronics on the bottom side, so they are less likely to be damaged by misplaced wires or objects being dropped onto the board.
Design aside, there is also a lot of hardware included with the Hummingbird. Right out of the box you get regular and tricolor LEDs, sound, light, and distance sensors, vibration motors, two DC motors, 4 servos, and an assortment of wires and switches. Basically, you don’t need anything beyond the Hummingbird kit to get started working on projects, which is a big advantage in the educational environment.
The other side of the Hummingbird product, and equally well thought out, is the software. It could be argued that the Arduino’s simplified C programming language was and is largely responsible for its large userbase, as it removed a lot of the most tedious aspects of MCU development and let users get up and running as quickly as possible. The Hummingbird team is keenly aware of that fact, and decided to take it one step farther.
Students can develop Hummingbird software without any previous programming knowledge through the use of visual programming, wherein the user puts together digital “blocks” which correspond to different actions and reactions. The Hummingbird’s “Visual Programmer” software is cleverly deployed as a Linux, Windows, and Mac OS Java application which can be launched right in the browser. This keeps the requirements very low on the computer side, to the point that if the school has a computer that can get on the Internet, they can more than likely use it to develop Hummingbird software.
Open Source Elements
The Hummingbird firmware is released under the MIT license, which allows users to both better understand how their software interacts with the hardware and modify the Hummingbird’s core functionality to better suit their needs.
Its hardware is very well documented on the Hummingbird site, and while the PCB designs don’t seem to be available, the circuit diagrams for the board have been released under the Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0). With the information given, a patient and industrious user would be able to build their own Hummingbird board from the ground up if they so chose.
The Hummingbird Robotics Kit is available now though the Hummingbird site, where you can purchase either the entire kit or its components separately. If your purchasing for a school, you can also get volume discounts on the kits by ordering as few as four.
At $199 for the entire kit, or $89 for the MCU alone, the Hummingbird is certainly not cheap. But its ease of use is certainly leagues ahead of any of the other MCUs on the market, so if your’e looking for the easiest way to get your students (or children) into electronics, it’s certainly worth the money.