The folks at SAM Labs reached out a while ago and asked if I would be interested in checking out one of their STEAM kits. These expandable, interoperable kits are designed to introduce students to coding logic and more as they connect and configure a variety of Bluetooth-enabled blocks and software ‘widgets' to create fun interactive electromechanical devices.
They sent me an “Alpha” kit to try out. This weekend I sat down and took it for a test drive.
Getting Set up Before you Start Your Project
There are a couple things you want to be sure to do before you try and start assembling these parts into some sort of functional project.
You'll want to charge the SAM blocks (the Alpha kit I received had a “light sensor”, an “rgb led”, and two motors). A couple of these needed to be popped out of the little Lego-compatible encasements they are packed in order to find and use the power ‘button'. It took some poking around to find these (nearly invisible) power buttons. There is a handy little multi-armed charging dongle that will allow you to charge up to 5 devices at once (connected to a USB port – I used by laptop's).
I charged these one day and then didn't get back to the project for a couple days and some of the blocks had lost some of their charge so they needed to be connected again for a little to get back to fully charged.
Next, download a version of the app for the device you will use. There are choices for iOS (iPad), Windows, and Chromebook. I used the Windows 10 app. I had a rather frustrating persistent problem with it though, which required me to keep shutting down them the app and then starting it over and logging back in (the mouse seemed to refuse to “let go” when I dragged something on to the app screen, so I could not continue my work).
Building Your First Functional Project
I am a little embarrased to say it took me a few hours to figure out how to assemble and configure a device that would axctually do something. This was frustrating because I was looking forward to this being some fun, and because, unless I missed something, this could have been more straightforward.
There is a small “getting started” sheet included with the kit, but it only covers some initial basics like charging the devices, downloading the app. I then started poking around the web site and app trying to figure out how to actually use the tools. I spent a lot of time fumbling around and going down different rabbit holes until I gave up and turned to YouTube hoping that I would be able to find a video someone made that showed me how to actually put something functional together.
I found a few videos that included parts I did not have (I wish they included a ‘button' device instead of the ‘light sensor', I think that is just much more straightforward). Finally, I found the video below, and was able to get my the motors to spin the wheels.
Overall, I was impressed with the many software controls that are available to program how the interconnected devices work and interact with each other. Once the basic concepts are understood, there is tremendous flexibility and opportunity for students to use their creativity to devise unique functionality with these gadgets.
There are a variaty of options available from SAM Labs, from the simple Alpha Kit they sent me to the full blown STEAM and Classroom Kit bundle. They are not inexpensive, ranging in price from $50 to $1500 depending on which kit and where you buy it. I will say, the high end bundle kit would be an awesome addition to many science or math classrooms, across a wide range of grades.
On main caveat though – be sure to give yourself time to get familiar with how this works before you open them up to student use.