SAM labs Science Museum Inventor Kit review

I am one of those guys who signs up for all these newsletters from different companies for promotional stuff. Usually I get one a week from a provider and believe it or not, it feels like there is a new edtech resource come out every week. A lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon to create edtech resources especially in areas of Computer Science and Robotics and I guess that had to happen with the surge in demand. While schools are still catching up with the demands of the revised Digital Technology areas of the curriculum in New Zealand, teachers are keen to know whats available and could work in their classroom. I just got my hands on this little kit by SAM labs, UK and decided to have a quick play and write a few lines about it.

Technology – it uses a combination of Bluetooth 4.0 with a web based interface for coding through Blockly (open source coding blocks). Each of the (wireless) blocks charge through a Micro SD charging slot and have a soft rubber padding around the block.

4 blocks come in the inventor kit which all pair up with the computer individually.

LED lights on the blocks turn up when plugged in for charging and are also controllable from the Web based interface. A blue light comes on when pairing is achieved as well. The blocks are capable of interacting with each other and there are a range of blocks like motors, gyro, light sensor, tilt sensor (and others in the extended kit).

The (power) button is very delicate!

I couldn’t find the (android) app easily so I decided to try out the desktop web based interface. Only after searching through Google, that I realised the app is called SAM Space and is different to SAM Blockly, the web based interface. I plugged in the provided Bluetooth dongle in my computer, visited samlabs.com and found the ‘start programming’ link along with a whole bunch of activities and lessons. It seems like this module must be a dated one as there were a range of class sets available now. This came with one charging cable but no power adapter so you can plug it straight into your USB port of your computer.

A wide variety of classroom kits available (More info at www.Samlabs.com)

My first thought was ‘this is cool’. Its colourful, connects wirelessly and code compilation was instant. The first one I tested was the DC motor and I was impressed that the motor driver, battery, lights and chip are all packaged up nicely in the little module. They seem to interact with each other really well too. I managed to program when the light sensor was at a certain level or lower, to turn on the DC motor. Adding modules was really straight forward (through the connect button on the GUI which takes care of the Bluetooth pairing). I wasn’t sure how many devices can be paired at once to one computer (as the I only had 4 in the kit).

Downside – I managed to break the power button on the tilt sensor. I can assure you I wasn’t being clumsy. The unit had charged for a fairly long time and just wouldn’t turn on. After multiple attempts to press the button, I took apart the rubber casing only to realise that the power button was broken! However, in there I saw the internal components including the tiny LiPo battery which was encased well.

Battery didn’t seem to last for three quarters of an hour of bluetooth connection and use so I am struggling to see teachers keen to using it in the classroom. It will be a pain to keep charging these units (however, the classroom sets look like they have charging units so it might be slightly more convenient). Connectivity is simple and straightforward, so it should (in essence) work with Chromebooks which are the preferred devices in NZ schools these days. Learning curve for students – minimal as its aimed for primary students while the usual DT teacher, who has done some Scratch before, should find it comfortable.

All in all, it’s another neat little physical computing module for students to learn programming and interaction; however with a longer battery life it would be suitable for the primary classroom.