Book Reviews: Getting Started with LEGO MINDSTORMS, Mastering LEGO MINDSTORMS, and The LEGO Engineer
If you are a LEGO builder, you probably have tried out the LEGO Robotics Inventor Set, or if you have been in FIRST LEGO League or school in the past couple of years, you will have encountered SPIKE Prime. Both of these sets are a couple of years old and until now, haven’t been easy to work with or understand. part of this is because LEGO robotics is not just building a model, but programming it – which is actually building two very different models. One is real and has to allow for movement, and the other is basically training the real model (robot) to actually do something. The tutorials provided by LEGO attempt to teach, but do so by having students build and provide a program to tweak – there’s no real explanation behind why something is built or programmed.
Finding books that addressed this has been difficult, as LEGO decided for some reason to limit outside information on the sets. Previous books dealt with building robots, but the new set had a new programming language that is block-oriented. There haven’t been too much out at all about programming the new sets, until now.
No Starch Press, a publisher that releases LEGO-related books, is releasing two books that will be great resources for those who are starting out with the new sets: builders, makers, and FLL teams: Gettng Started with LEGO MINDSTORMS (144 pages), and Mastering LEGO MINDSTORMS (136 pages), both authored by Barbara Bratzel and Rob Torok. Both of the authors are also teachers, and it shows. I received early review copies of these books, so here’s some comments on them.
Gettng Started with LEGO MINDSTORMS
Getting Started with LEGO MINDSTORMS is a great beginner book that would be a good textbook for lessons. A look at the chapter list shows the format:
Chapter 1: Building Your First Robot
Chapter 2: Introducing the MINDSTORMS App
Chapter 3: Light and Sound
Chapter 4: Motors and Movement
Chapter 5: Events and Control
——— (this is where my review book sample ended)——
Chapter 6: Sensors
Chapter 7: Operators and Remote Control
Chapter 8: Variables, Lists, and My Blocks
Chapter 9: Troubleshooting
Chapter 10: Techniques forBetter Building
Chapter 11: Fixes for Fables and Fairy Tales
The reader starts with building a robot, but unlike the LEGO set app, the instructions are open-ended – an example robot is built, but other ideas are explored and construction is explained. The only issue that I had with this was that there is a prompt after building the car showing a model that had a lot of flaws asking the reader what the flaws were – while the answers were on the next page, it would have been better to show the answers, not give the answers!
It’s also important to note that there are differences between the MINDSTORMS sets sold at the retail level (the Robot Inventi
on System) and the educational level (SPIKE Prime) – and the books explain the differences as they are encountered with a note. The notes should be highlighted, but only a bold notation is given, which hides the importance of the differences.
The book uses the retail program for the Robot Inventor System, which is different from the Educational program. This needs to be stated like the other note, but isn’t. What is important to note is that while the programs are different in relatively minor ways, the file formats are different enough to NOT be transferable between the programs. This is a real sore point with me, as I use them both.
There’s a lot more to be positive about, though! The book mentions a LOT of things with the programmmable brick that simply aren’t documented, like a built-in program, (the Play Program) for running the motors and the sensors. This isn’t mentioned in LEGO materials, as there isn’t any models associated with it. There are a lot more hidden things that are in the book.
After building the robot, builders get to program and get a nice tutorial on all of the blocks. Turning is explained with a diagram as well as other blocks. I would really want a ‘cheat sheet’ of programming blocks, and this is a great start!
If you’re a beginner, or want to know the new robot system for FLL or yourself, you need this book!
You can get this book in September and preorder here (https://nostarch.com/getting-started-lego®-mindstorms) for a print copy and Early Access E book!
On the other hand, if you want to go to the next level….
Mastering LEGO MINDSTORMS
Mastering LEGO MINDSTORMS is a followup book to Getting Started with LEGO MINDSTORMS that would also be a good textbook for lessons. Here’s the chapter list:
Chapter 1: Introduction to Python Programming
Chapter 2: Python Control Structures and Operators
Chapter 3: Efficient Python Programming with Variables, Lists, and Functions
Chapter 4: Controlling Motors and Sensors with Python
Chapter 5: Gears and Mechanisms
Chapter 6: Moving with the Gyro Sensor
Chapter 7: Avoiding Obstacles and Following Lines
Chapter 8: Playing Games
Chapter 9: Useful Inventions
Chapter 10: Ultimate Challenges
I got a Preview Sample, which included Chapter 5 through 7. And from this sample, I can tell you that this book is just as good as the first book in showing and teaching. Gearing is one of the hardest things to teach, but here it is in a form that is understandable. Also, the book shows in a program the limitations of turning with a gyro and how to work around it, which is an important thing. Chapter 7 is a chapter that is meant for FLL teams. Line following is explored in both Python and blocks, showing how these work and can be adjusted.
So if you want to learn more about the SPIKE Prime and RIS, these are great books to help out with building and more importantly, programming – and should be important references for a class or FLL team!
You can get this book in October and preorder here (https://nostarch.com/mastering-lego®-mindstorms) for a print copy and Early Access E book!
And now for a slightly different book being released by No Starch Press:
The LEGO Engineer
. Written by Jeff Friesen, who has written several LEGO-oriented books, this is a slight deviance from his previous work. He usually shows and talks about architectural subjects and micro building, and his books are filled with wonderful photos of his builds and instructions to match! With The LEGO Engineer, he goes into vehicles as well as structures, still in micro scale. Instructions and some information on each model is given, and there’s enough models inside to appeal to almost anyone that is a LEGO builder.
For beginners, there is a guide on building to find and/or substituting parts in a model. Parts lists are included for each model. To fit in the Engineering theme, there is some explanation on the engineering behind the real-life counterpart to each model. For example, different types of bridges are modeled and discussed, with a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each version. A builder gets to read and then see how each version works as they build.
As to stuff to build, here’s the table of contents:
BRIDGES AND TUNNELS
Build a LEGO Beam Bridge
Build a LEGO Arch Bridge
Build a LEGO Truss Bridge
Build a LEGO Cantilever Bridge
Build a LEGO Suspension Bridge
Build a LEGO Cable-Stayed Bridge
Build a LEGO Boring machine
TRAINS AND BEYOND
Build a LEGO Steam Train
Build a LEGO Diesel-Electric Train
Build a LEGO Shinkansen Train
Build a LEGO MAGLEV
Build a LEGO HYPERLOOP
THINGS THAT FLOAT
Build a LEGO Cruise Ship
Build a LEGO Container Ship
Build a LEGO TITANIC
Build a LEGO Hovercraft
Build a LEGO Submarine
Build a LEGO Airship
Build a LEGO Airplane
Build a LEGO Helicopter
Build a LEGO Jet Airplane
Build a LEGO Twisting Skyscraper
Build a LEGO Plant-Covered Building
Build a LEGO Pencil Tower
Build a LEGO INTERLACE
Build a LEGO Tower Crane
Build a LEGO Rocket Launchpad
Build a LEGO Falcon Heavy and Gantry Crane
International Space Station
Build a LEGO International Space Station
Space Launch System
Build a LEGO Space Launch System
Holy smoke! That’s a lot to build! And a lot to look at and read about. But it’s only 200 pages. And worth getting!
You can get this book in September and preorder here (https://nostarch.com/lego-engineer) for a print copy and Early Access E book!