Hands on Review: Sam Labs STEAM Kit


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Thanks to MicroK12, I was able to spend some hands-on time with the STEAM Kit from Sam Labs. In this review, I put the STEAM kit through a variety of tests and scenarios. Overall, this product is a winner and a great learning material to integrate into your school. Before we get into the specifics, here is an overview of the kit:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAdCYul3ZKxSlMlx1w7DFYw

There are many things to unpack from this video so let’s break it down:

The Hardware

The STEAM kit is just one of a variety of kits available from Sam Labs. The entire product line includes the Classroom kit, Alpha kit, Team kit, and the Curious Cars kit. Each kit contains sensors, chargers, and blocks (these blocks work with existing Lego’s in your classroom, more on that in a bit). Here is a full list of everything that is included in the STEAM kit. The sensors are fascinating pieces of technology. Each sensor has its own rechargeable battery and built-in Bluetooth. Bluetooth is the way the sensor blocks communicate with the software. The STEAM kit is all about sensors. Of all the kits currently available the STEAM kit contains the most amount of sensors. Sensors measuring light, pressure, tilt, proximity, and heat gave me the building blocks to run a variety of experiments. Additionally, with the included motors, wheels, and car base, I was able to create a moving robot that interacted with its environment based upon the sensors.

 

Sam Lab Steam KitSam Labs blocks were built to integrate with other products to bring new functionality and depth of learning. If you have existing Lego Mindstorm kits or just Lego’s in general, Sam Labs kits provide connector blocks to allow you to integrate all of their sensors and motors. This inclusive strategy makes sense in the education landscape and is a good model for other companies looking to build products for the education sector.

It is becoming more apparent that the magic mix in getting elementary students to engage in programming concepts is to combine the physical (product) with the digital (software). We have known for decades that manipulative objects are a vital component to teaching abstract Math concepts. The same holds true for programming. This is one of the reason’s products like Lego have lasted the test of time. Sam Lab’s strategy to offer physical blocks that can interact with anything, while being enhanced through a more abstract “program” is a very smart strategy. This strategy only works if there is tight integration between the software and hardware. Fortunately, one of the things that Sam Labs nails is the effortless combination of hardware and software.

The Software

Sam Space AppThe Sam Space App, available for iOS, Android, and Windows 10, is well designed and easy for students and teachers to pick up quickly. The app is very straightforward and does a good job of walking you through connecting the Sam Blocks to the software. As with many visual programming apps, you can draw connections to create an outcome. For instance, using the push-button Sam block and the software-based “play sound” from the app, I was able to program my iPad to play back the sound of my choosing when I pressed the physical button. Because all Sam block connects over Bluetooth, I could be a room away, press the button, and the iPad would play a sound. I was able to do all of this in the first 5 min I opened the set. Why is that important? One of the aspects of a good learning tool is that it scales from being easily accessible to becoming more complex as the learner is ready. This is where Sam Labs really shines. You can start exploring and creating basic coding right out of the box without reading a bunch of instructions. Then as students become comfortable with the app and the blocks, Sam Space can become much more complex.

The Sam Labs blocks not only work with the Sam Space App, but Sam Labs has smartly integrated the Blockly platform for more advanced block based programming. With the blockly platform, students can start to learn about If-then statements, loops, and repeats. Here is an example of a game built with the blockly software. This game changes the color of the button that you press and the two adjacent blocks. The mission is to get all of the buttons from red to green.

Blockly Sam Labs Game

As you can see, Sam Labs is building an accessible pathway for students to learn programming in a systematic process that grows with the learner. Sam Labs intends to integrate their blocks with full programming languages in the future. What this means for a school district is a K-12 pathway for computer science that uses a familiar physical object (Sam Labs blocks) while increasing the programming complexity over time.

In your School

Sam Labs is a natural fit in any makerspace as it will integrate and add functionality to everything. With the push to get more CTE concepts into elementary classrooms, your curriculum committees should take a good look at what Sam Labs has to offer. To my previous point, this is one of the first products that I have reviewed that is actively building a K-12 pathway for computer science. Imagine starting students in their elementary years with Sam Blocks and the Sam Labs App. In the upper elementary and middle school years, using Blocky and Sam Blocks to build more advanced outcomes. Finally, using Sam Blocks in high school to create outcomes for students programming in Python or Javascript. Sam Labs recognizes that this pathway only works if there are supportive learning resources to help teachers integrate their products into existing curriculum.

Extensive Learning Materials

In talking with the Sam Labs team, I was struck by how much they understood the importance of high-quality lesson plans to accompany their product. The Sam Labs Teaching Materials are extensive and the team is committing resources to continuing to develop more lesson plans. This is important to assist educators in integrating their product into their classroom. All teaching materials are free and the lessons are curriculum aligned and span the core subjects areas. I am glad to see they are taking this approach as it is important for students to understand that computer science concepts are not limited to just the Science area of study, but have value across all subjects. In reviewing the lessons, I was impressed with the amount of predicting and reflection writing that was asked of the students. It is obvious that Sam Labs utilizes trained educators for their lesson plans.

Check out Sam Labs at ISTE 2018

If you are headed to Chicago for ISTE 2018 Sam Labs will be there and you can experience some hands-on time with their kits at booth #662. Hope to see you there!

Tech Savvy Teacher Approved

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