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'Bot Basics

How To Get Your Kids Excited About Engineering, From Guys That Fight Robots

Kids need to know how to build things. You know that because you can’t stop seeing the words STEM and STEAM stamped on everything. But sometimes kids need a little more inspiration to hone those in-demand skills than “See? You can make this circuit light up!” Like, something in the neighborhood of, “See? If you stick with it you can make robots fight!”

That’s why we turned to Jon Gulko, Tim Bogdanof, and Greg Munson. Gulko and Bogdanof are designers for Megabots, a company that constructs massive fighting robots and pits the against competitors for a real life rock ‘em sock ‘em battles (they’re hosting an international bot-on-bot fight againt Japan in August); Munson, meanwhile, is one of the co-founders of BattleBots, the television show where much smaller, but still very cool, robots fight one another for mechanical supremacy. All three shared tips for how you can help steer your kids down the right ’bot building path. A path that could lead to a career in coding, engineering, or building giant creations meant for serving up some pain. Fun!

Build A Proper Foundation

A lot of hands-on robotics knowledge is going to come outside the classroom by way of robotics kits and when your little tinkerer takes apart your iPhone “just to see”. But a lot of the foundational skills for building robots are taught in school. And it’s up to parents to inspire kids to stay on track.

“If you have a kid who is interested in robotics, there are some basic subjects they will need to focus on in school,” says Munson. “Knowing as much as they can about physics, math, and engineering will give them a huge leg up. These classes might not seem like the most exciting, but they are key to helping kids understand how robotics really work.”

Invest in the Right Starter Kit

Not too long ago, to get into robotics you had to join a school club, dig deep for a starter kit, or, well, hope you lived next door to a whacky scientist.  But now? STEM and STEAM education has led to a robotics kit renaissance. “There are so many toys and devices that are geared to teach kids the basic skills that come with robotics.”

The question, then, becomes which kit is best for beginners? Munson’s pick: a beginner kit from Vex Robotics, which designs excellent age and skill-based starter sets. “Vex has these fantastic kits that are the perfect entry level robotic kits where you not only build the robot, but you can do programming as well,” he explains. Another great option? LEGO’s robotic kits. Munson again:“They have some great kits that can be the perfect way for kids to get into robotics because they’re hands on.”

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Enter Them Into A Competition

A little competition never hurt anyone. There are hundreds of robotics competitions across the country every year, each of which not only help beginners gauge their skill, but also introducing them to a community of experienced experts and like-minded kids.

Robogames happens every year in San Francisco and it’s probably the biggest robotics competition in the country,” Munson says. “But there are tons of amazing competitions all over the country for builders of every skill level. From small to big.” He recommends getting your kids to enter a one-pound competition to see how they do. “They’re so fun and there’s no better way to get connected with the robot-building community.”

Be Mindful of Their Work

Robots are a lot of fun, so it can be easy for kids to forget about the potential hazards involved. But, as Gulko wisely warns: “You are working with weapons, electricity, and a lot of other stuff that can get very dangerous very fast,” Jon warns. ” Make sure you’re aware of the hazards and understand how prevent them.” It’s your job to make sure your kid is safe and handling all equipment responsibly.

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Make Sure They Know That Results Take Time

Being able to build a functional robot is an extremely challenging task — but you wouldn’t think that thanks to time-lapsed robot build videos. “The worst thing about these popular robot channels on YouTube is that they are all about results and ignore the process,” says Bogdanof.

Gulko says the best way this can be avoided is by “preparing your kid for the frustration and making sure they know it’s something everyone goes through.” If they love it enough, they’ll endure through the frustration.

Munson agrees: “It doesn’t matter if you are building your first ever robot or something you think is good enough for competition, you have to be willing to put in the work,” he says. “Something will always go wrong. And a lot of kids don’t have the patience to overcome these obstacles. But if they do, the results are so rewarding.”

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