November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Reviews Kid-Friendly Robots Dash and Dot | Test Drive

1508-UpFront-DashDot

Dash and Dot, by Wonder Workshop, are two robot “buddies” that arrive ready to play and program out of the box—or at least after a quick charge and a few downloads.

The two robots interact with one another, their surroundings, and users through a small suite of apps that let you customize the robots, tell stories, make music, and code their behaviors. Dash ($169.79) and Dot (bundled with Dash for $230) share a few common design and interface traits but otherwise differ in how they function. Both emote, so to speak, through one-eyed, spherical heads that use LEDs and speakers to greet their users. They blink their eyes, trumpet their sound effects, and even yawn and fall asleep after short periods of disuse. There are anchor points for attaching accessories on the sides of the robots’ heads. Both Dash and Dot connect to their apps and your tablet through Bluetooth connections.

Dash’s head rests atop three other spheres. Two front spheres have motors and wheels, as well as distance sensors and anchor points for more accessories. The rear sphere has an unmotorized wheel, a distance sensor, and additional anchor points. Dash also has several microphones for picking up audio cues, several infrared transmitters for communications, sensors for detecting Dot, and a bright, front-facing spotlight. Dot’s spotlight is built into its eye. Dot rests in a stand, but otherwise doesn’t move. Dot also has one microphone for picking up audio cues. This robot serves mostly as an environmental navigator for Dash.

The robots and their components seem sturdy and weigh enough to feel solid without being too heavy for younger school children to easily manipulate.

The apps

Included with Dash are downloads for four interactive apps. “Go” lets you connect your robots to your tablet device. You can use Go to customize the color of your robots’ lights and to set their default “wake-up” or greeting noises. “Path” offers a series of maze-like navigation challenges on screen. You draw paths across different levels for Dash to follow. Completing each path unlocks commands and sound effects for the robots. You can add “nodes” or special behaviors to each path (like an engine-revving sound effect) and have Dash run the course on screen by pressing the button on Dash’s real-world head.

“Blockly” is a block-based programming app that will seem instantly familiar to kids who have used Scratch. Blockly lets you code simple to complex scripts for Dash and Dot to follow, including commands for movement, but also for sensing obstacles and waypoints in the real world and for using sound and light cues to “perform” moves or even parts of stories.

“Xylo” is a Dash-specific music app that lets you program an attachable arm to strike an attachable xylophone. By tapping out a pattern of notes on a virtual xylophone on your tablet, you can program Dash to play the same song on its xylophone.

These apps generally function well, although there were a few glitches with Path, and I had to restart to move past points where I got stuck and could not troubleshoot a way to proceed. Apart from those difficulties, the software functioned well, and I suspect that classrooms will spend most of their time with Dash and Dot using Blockly and, to a lesser extent, Xylo.

The accessories

You can purchase Dash (and sometimes Dot) as part of several different packs that include various accessories. For example, the Wonder Pack ($280) comes with both robots, Dash’s add-on xylophone and arm, building block connectors (for building on to the robots with toys like LEGO), and snap-on accessories like a bulldozer and smartphone holder that enable creative play and movie-making with Dash. The Music Pack ($200) comes with Dash, and the Builder Pack ($240) comes with both Dash and Dot. Other packs only include accessories ($20–$40).

The accessories are sturdy, like the robots, and snap on and off of the robots easily. They fit snugly enough to survive the rigors of play. The smartphone holder opens up all kinds of video production possibilities while kids learn to control Dash as a kind of roving dolly or camera on wheels.

The connector blocks are a fantastic idea. While Dash and Dot aren’t DIY kits, the blocks let kids use toys like LEGO to build their own additions and costumes onto the robots to overcome mechanical challenges and add to the duo’s storytelling possibilities.

The educator community

Although Blockly is a fairly robust programming app for Dash and Dot, the robots and their accessories seem aimed at a young audience. They are not robotics kits per se, but rather kits that use robots to encourage creative programming and play in the classroom. I can see schools buying just a few packs—perhaps one per room—to use as hybrid, physical computing coding and storytelling stations for students throughout elementary grades. Part of what helps me imagine that set-up is the Teach Wonder community, accessible through Wonder Workshop’s website. The community feature offers not only educator pricing, but an ambassador program, a list of pilot schools using Dash and Dot in the classroom, a lesson pack aligned to content areas, and a curated, user-contributed “Ideas” page that shares classroom- and kid-tested lessons searchable by difficulty, app, and robot.

The bottom line

Dash, Dot, their apps, and their accessories are well-designed and well-suited for young learners drawn to robots, storytelling, and computer science. Because Dash and Dot can be used to solve both traditional early robotics challenges (“go here”; “knock down that”) and perform as cast members of creative play, many kids can find entry points to engage them. Path may not be an essential app, and you don’t need Xylo to make music (why not build on a LEGO arm and instrument instead?). But Go and Blockly offer users a high degree of interactivity with the very personable Dash and Dot.

I’d use this platform to help blur the lines between STEM and the humanities in my classroom, and I think that’s an important thing to do. Kids should have the opportunity to learn and discover the interdisciplinary connections between these areas, and we should help them develop an awareness of the technology at work around them. If our kids can figure out how and why Dash and Dot seem so human, they’ll have a good chance of both designing more human-centered technology in the future and recognizing the ways in which some technologies seek to manipulate us and our behaviors through something as seemingly “robotic” as code.

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Chad Sansing About Chad Sansing

Chad Sansing (csansing@gmail.com) teaches middle school language arts in Staunton, VA.

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