In Depth User Review: Grove Zero Starter Kit

Philip Mallon is a Systems Engineer & STEM Educator from Sydney, Australia. He originally published this review on Facebook, and you can find it here.

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In my last STEM workshop in late Jan this year (2020)I prepared for 10 year old students. At the start an advanced 18 year old arrived and the last student to arrive was 8. What an age difference!

Despite this we managed and delivered the content but next time I will be better prepared.

This is where Grove Zero components and kits come in. They work will with an early age group from 8 and allow them to snap together electronic modules to build a project.

There are many modules available in the Grove Zero collection but you do not get them all in every kit.

When I first starter with Grove Zero Version 1 I only had one kit but now I have:

  1. Grove Zero Explorer Kit – mid priced version with 15 electronic modules and accessories at $US329
  2. Car Kit – uses the standard Main Board BLE controller and coms module to make a robot
  3. Bit Kit – add your own BBC microbit to made a robot
  4. Grove Zero Starters Kit with 9 electronic modules at $US129

There is also the most expensive kit: All in One Kit at $US549 and this is suitable for between 4 and 6 students.

The Starters Kit gives you good bang for your buck but is only suitable for one to two students working together on the same project.

What is important about these kits is that they do the job intended. They are for the average or below average students that needs additional support and there are a good kick starter for students that have never had a STEM experience before. The big advantage is that they save time during your STEM session.

Compare Makeblocks’s mBot or any other of their robot kits. They take lots of extra time to construct and about half of your STEM workshop goes into just build the robot. So with kits like the Neuron from Makeblock or these kits from TinkerGen you cover the whole program in a STEM session without missing out on the essential construction phase.

For more advanced students from 12 to 18 I do not recommend these kits but stick to the more challenging kits from Makeblock.

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The electronic modules from TinkerGen are expensive but you have to consider what is in them.

There is a processor in each module and its firmware helps connect each module so you don’t have to worry about the hardware details.

This is another time saver and also allows more time just to snap together modules and explore.

The modules supplied in the Starter Kit are basic and in the end you end you have a kit does the same thing as the microbit but cost much more and you don’t even get the accelerometer.

However one good thing about the Starter’s Kit is that it comes with lots of project material and two good printed manuals and these are quite suitable for ordinary teachers to learn and they do not have to be tech wizards. The active engagement of the kids in these projects with card board cutouts also encourages active engagement. making, construction and exploration.

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What is interesting about the latest version is the heavy reliance on the servo module supplied. This module was not even supplied in the original version 1 edition of the kit so TinkerGen have learnt what kids like.

You can associate each project with plenty of story tell and it should excite the imagination of the kids and encourage play and learning.

The Lego integration is also a nice feature – something that the kids would be already familiar with so they can combine the two.

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Even better is the software to animate the kit’s electronic modules.

This is easy to use and is a fantastic way to also show the code behind each graphic software construction.

You can examine the python code even though you do your construction using the graphic coloured software blocks and again snap them together.

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 I limited my commissioning and testing to just the electronic modules supplied in the Starters kit but combining these modules with other kits or modules allows you to go much further.

There is a big difference between Version 1 and Version 2. Version 1 modules will not work with the Main Board BLE module from Version 2. This is a big disappointment as you can only stick with the original software IDE that was developed for Version 1 and you can not add new Version 2 modules to your Version 1 projects.

Hope this practice does not continue into the future as Version 1 kits are only two years old and now useless. Version 1 used the Microsoft Makecode IDE and the firmware can not be updated on its Main Board module.

Despite this I proceeded to commission Version 2 and explore Starter Kits capabilities.

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My objectives overall were to:

  1. verify that the modules worked
  2. learn what they do
  3. propose projects based on these modules
  4. explore the relationship between the Codecraft device and stage programming and get Grove Zero circuits to interact with the Stage on Codecraft.
  5. explore the Codecraft extensions and in particular examine the AI extension and propose projects based on it.

So I constructed six projects and I will only expand on the last one.

For the other projects I tested each Grove Zero module and was happy to report that they all worked and were easy to use.

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So besides exploring the relationship between Codecraft’s stage and device programming I explored how Microsoft’s Cognitive Services could be used in A Grove Zero project.

This program used my Windows PC camera and used my image to let Microsoft Cognitive Service estimate my age. It would then use messaging to made a happy emoticon on the Grove Zero LED array if it underestimated my age and a sad one if it gave me an overestimation.

This was a fun project and I am sure that it would appeal to everyone even the grand parents of STEM students.

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This is the hardware that I used for the project. The extra hardware items: Twin Button, Sound Sensor, RGB LED and Buzzer are for testing other functions.

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Here is what you can do with blocks associated with Microsoft Cognitive Services.

When you press the “Open recognition window’ it activates a window on your PC with the image from your PC’s camera.

I also tested emotion recognition and again had an emoticon on the Grove Zero LED Array reflect my own facial expression. Great fun!

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Here is the device code for Codecraft emphasising what to do with the message from processing Microsoft Cognitive Services in the Stage programming.

Device code is compiled and downloaded into the Grove Zero Main Board and BLE module.

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The code for the Stage in Codecraft and the recognition window with my face in it.
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Press Button A on the Grove Zero Twin Button module and it relays my emotion to Codecraft’s stage.

Button B was used to test speech recognition but I could not get it to work. There is obviously a timing issue as I suspect that my speech was not being sent to Microsoft web services on-time.

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Now to identify my age just fom my image. It underestimated my age by two years so I got a happy emoticon on the Grove Zero LED Array.

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Only issues I have are:

1) some of the panels in Codecarft take up to much room and this is annoying in larger programs when already the graphics of the program takes up lots of space. This is not TinkerGen fault as it is inherited from Scratch 3 as it does the same thing. This is not an issue on a PC with a wide screen.

2) measured parameters say from either the Sound or Light Sensor can not be processed directly in Codecraft’s stage. This is disappointing as intuitively you are encouraged to try this. A work around is to use messages but this take more programming effort.

3) the machine learning extension works but it is not linked to coding. This is disappointing as I wanted my code to react to the Lego coded bricks I presented to my PC’s camera but Codecraft can not used the result from this category recognition. Hope this is corrected in the future.

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The good experience I had in commissioning encouraged me to think of STEM projects I could use in my STEM workshops.

The main theme I use is fire fighting and using robots to assist firefighters at a bush fire. Using the Grove Zero robot kits I should be able to develop many simple and engaging project that work with my firebots to putt out bush fires.

I can also think of many robotics projects where modules fro the Starter Kit can be used – for example using the colour sensor module you can use this to detect a red traffic signal that interrupts the robotcs path on the line. You do not need a camera on the robot for this – just use its color sensor for decoding the read traffic sign on the path.

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My overall critique for Version 1 was that it had positive and even more negative issues and I did not recommend it.

It is different for Version 2 – its a great kit and I recommend it not only for STEM education but for the parent and grandparents to -the whole family could have fun with this kit. The extra value comes not just from the electronics but from the additional project resources supplied with the kit. A great resource for teachers with limited time.

The only main issue I have is that you get much better value for it with you mix it with other kits especially the robot kits.

If you are a maker, do not need the education resources in the kit and want to explore more technology you might be better off with the microbit but you might still get value from the bit car kit.

Philip Mallon is a Systems Engineer & STEM Educator from Sydney, Australia. He originally published this review on Facebook, and you can find it here.

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