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Virtual Robotics Toolkit
Pros: Versatile simulator creates opportunities to explore environments that are impossible to create in the classroom.
Cons: Random competition variations cannot be simulated, and if students don't already have Lego Mindstorms experience, they may not understand the possibilities of the simulator.
Bottom Line: Virtual Robotics Toolkit can up your game by providing useful data as you test code and explore challenges virtually.
Robots are expensive. They also take up a lot of space. Virtual Robotics Toolkit strives to help schools reach more students with fewer resources. Assuming students already have access to a computer, the simulation software enables students to practice programming and testing without having physical access to a robot.
Students can use the simulator for troubleshooting or exploring different environments and challenges. Ideally, you would have at least a few robots students can take turns sharing, but that's not always possible; even when you have multiple robots, someone will forget to charge them the night before or your more introverted students might get shut out of robot time. Virtual Robotics Toolkit could be helpful in these situations.
Even if you have a classroom full of robots, Virtual Robotics Toolkit can provide students a platform for improving their skills and testing their ideas when they're at home. Just be prepared to handle student frustration when a "solved" problem on the simulator doesn't translate to a real challenge in the classroom.
Virtual Robotics Toolkit provides a realistic simulated environment for Lego Mindstorms robots. Students can program virtual Lego Mindstorms robots and see how they respond to their environment. The simulator allows students to experiment with the physical environment by changing surface friction and gravity. Virtual Robotics Toolkit is designed to support students participating in First Lego League and World Robot Olympiad competitions, but it can also be used in classrooms to teach programming and physics concepts. The website provides tutorials and user-generated content, but the simulation software must be downloaded to a Windows or Mac computer.
Virtual Robotics Toolkit provides detailed training modules to help students learn the software. However, it's an environment simulator only. You'll import your code from the Lego Mindstorms programming software to program the virtual robots. If you want to design your own virtual robots, you'll need a third application. An all-in-one platform would be much easier for students, especially those without prior Lego Mindstorms experience.
However, as a simulator, Virtual Robotics Toolkit is certainly effective and can be a good supplement to a robotics program. Keep in mind, though, that the starting position of the robot, table variations, and other random issues cannot be simulated and are often the main reasons why a planned program doesn't work in competition. Just be thoughtful in your implementation and make sure students understand the limits of the simulator.
Whether or not teachers decide to invest in a simulator like Virtual Robotics Toolkit or in more physical robots is going to depend on their specific needs. But remember, robotics programs are popular with students because students love exploring how technology interacts with their physical world. Coding for a screen is for video games -- not robots.