My colleague, Paul Foster, works in the part of our business that talks to developers - both the commercial variety and student developers. One of the things they are constantly trying to do is to find new ways to engage students with the idea that programming is cool and valuable (remember the days when every boy seemed to be writing programmes for his ZX Spectrum or BBC Microcomputer?). Well, today's learners are a little bit more difficult to engage, and certainly have higher expectations, so to meet those Paul is involved with a range of things to do with robotics.

My Christmas present for you today is that the Microsoft Robotics Studio software is available as a free download for UK Education.

I asked Paul to tell me a bit more...

"Robotics provides a compelling activity for pupils of all ages. Today more than ever robotics is accessible to the teacher and student. Modern robot kits like Lego’s Mindstorm NXT, already used throughout schools and in the First Lego League challenge, enable pupils to experience firsthand the elements of KS2/KS3 control curriculum. The First Lego League uses robotics as the motivator to learn more. Each September a new worldwide Challenge is announced relating Robotics to real world issues.

Participating schools in the UK have from September to the end of November to prepare for one of the Regional Tournaments taking place around the UK. Teams will programme a robot to fulfil tasks relating to the challenge using LEGO Mindstorms technology, and prepare a research presentation on the subject for the year. The subject for 2007 is the Power Puzzle.

Teams of up to 10 children from 9–16 years will work in out- of- school clubs or within the curriculum on all aspects of the Challenge. They will have to take a cross curricular approach using Programming and Control, Design and Technology, Maths, Web Research, Powerpoint, Strategic Thinking and Teamwork to achieve their aims. Sometimes their fellow students will video the team or write about their work to turn their preparation into a news item for dissemination within the school.

More details of the First Lego League can be found on the Microsoft sponsored UK organisers site: http://firsthandtechnology.org.uk with more on the global activities http://www.firstlegoleague.org

clip_image001Microsoft’s involvement in the world of robotics doesn’t stop there. In December 2006, we released our Robotics Studio, a development platform providing a single uniform programming solution covering many of the typical robot hardware – from Lego NXT to research robots like the Pioneer 3DX. It also includes a simulation environment incorporating real physics using the AGEIA PhysX Engine, enabling robot development without the need for expensive hardware.

A robot can be programmed in the simulation environment exactly as it would in the real world – but allowing for safer testing or classroom projects where only a few real robots are available amongst many pupils. Microsoft Robotics Studio is free for non-commercial use and provides support for a visual programming language as well as traditional programming languages such as C#. (Microsoft Visual C# Express is required to run Microsoft Robotics Studio and it is also free to use). Microsoft Robotics Studio is available from http://microsoft.com/robotics.

clip_image002And finally, in next month's PC Plus, there's a special Robot Supplement with an introduction to the world of Microsoft Robotics Studio and robotics in general.

The supplement provides 6 simple construction projects using real electronic modules cheaply available from UK suppliers as well as articles and interviews on the world of robotic research and development. Plenty of material for the inquiring mind. Presenting a useful first step into robotics for technology teaching staff.