Robot Arena: Design and Destroy

Our 9 year old daughter loves robots. We have Lego Mindstorms and Vex robot kits, but one surprisingly good find has been Robot Arena: Design and Destroy, a PC video game that simulates BattleBots style robotic combat.

The game is getting quite old, but it runs well on Windows XP. It does have some occasional glitches and it crashes on my PC about once every dozen combat rounds, but I’ve never lost a robot design or anything. I just have to fight a battle again.

The computer’s artificial intelligence (AI) for your computer-controlled opponents is fairly weak except for one particular robot, Emergency. Older kids and grown-ups will find good attack patterns that work over and over again against all the bots. This doesn’t take too much away from the game, but it is an oddity. The one tough bot, Emergency, is quite a challenge and shows what the game could have been. There are some hacks available on the web that will add more difficult AI for the other bots, but we haven’t tried them yet.

The multiplayer mode is difficult to keep working. We’ve had a lot of times where we just could never get connected multiplayer. Even if we get connected, the game often lags or loses connection. It’s bad enough that we rarely even try to run multiplayer any more.

The design and construction of the robots is the real winner in the game. The designer starts by drawing out the shape of the robot. Then components are added, usually starting with motors and wheels followed by weapons and batteries. Then the whole thing has to be wired up to work with the remote control system.

There are several types of motors, wheels, batteries, and different linking parts. Each has a tradeoff like weight versus power or strength. The different motors draw different amounts of electrical power so working out what type of batteries and how many of them is also a factor.

The weapons include ram plates, spikes, circular saw blades, hammers and axes. There are also pneumatic actuators powered by compressed air so a weapon can quickly thrust, if you have room for the air tank.

There are THREE different weight classes in the game which is how bots are categorized. Cost isn’t considered so you have an unlimited budget. In each weight class you face a different set of computer controlled robots, with different strengths and weaknesses.

It’s a great game for robot enthusiasts and even has some educational value.


Five Ways to Add Excitement to Chess

Bughouse chessAfter a little coaching and one game, most kids are ready to be done with chess for the day. Or maybe they refuse to even get started: “I don’t want to play another game of chess today!” Here are five ways to add excitement and continue to work on chess skills:

  1. Play with a clock. For some reason, kids love playing chess with a clock. A real clock is best, but in a pinch there are quite a few software clocks you can download for a laptop or PDA/smartphone.
  2. Play Blitz. With only 5 minutes for each player, there is very little time to think. You get to play a lot of chess in a short period of time and get to make lots of mistakes to think about.
  3. Play “the pawn game”. Only play with pawns, starting from their usual spots. Win by promoting a pawn or capturing all the opponent’s pawns.
  4. Practice endgames. Set up just a couple of units in random spots around the board and play until a draw or checkmate. King vs. king and two rooks is a good starter, or a king and a couple pawns on each side.
  5. Play Crazyhouse. On their turn, instead of moving, a player can add a new piece to the board to match ones taken from the other player. (Bughouse is a popular four-player two-board chess variant played at many kid chess club meetings.) There’s some debate about how much chess players learn from this, but it beats not working on chess at all.

[Photo via gadl.]


Resources for Teaching Chess

Home School  ChessTeaching chess to a home school student can be a challenge. Most parents can teach the moves and maybe a bit of strategy, but then it falls apart. Local chess clubs, co-op chess classes, and private chess coaching are the usual route to continue learning chess. But with some good resources, parents can teach solid chess (and maybe even learn it themselves).

Most chess books are aimed at the experienced player. Even the childish-looking How to Beat Your Dad at Chess is beyond beginning players. I’ve found three books that are excellent for teaching younger players: Chess for Children, Better Chess for Young Players, and Batsford Chess Course. The Chess For Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Chess are also decent comprehensive books. Books by Susan Polgar, a female grandmaster, would be excellent for girls.

There are many excellent chess websites that offer articles, puzzles, and ways to play real opponents. One exceptional one for learning is ChessTempo, which dynamically rates players and puzzles so the player is offered puzzles at the appropriate difficulty. A bonus for kids is that you can see your score rise (or fall) as you work, so they continually get feedback on their efforts and can stay motivated to beat the scores of friends and family.

A great free chess tool is Winboard (and the bundled Crafty chess “engine”).  Whenever you can’t understand where a game went wrong, playing through the game with analysis turned on is a tremendous help.


Entrepreneurship Online

This year’s Thirty Day Challenge has just started. Every August for the past few years, Ed Dale and friends present a month-long course in “making your first $1 online.” It’s totally free and takes you through the basics of online marketing. Home school families have done the challenge in the years past and it is taught at a level that most children can follow. The program takes between 1-3 hours a day and there are catch-up days built into the schedule.

We attempted to do it as a family last year but dropped out. This year, older and wiser, the kids are excited about doing it again.


EPGY Expansion

Stanford’s outstanding EPGY program gets even better! Great news was released today!

EPGY has consistently exceeded our expectations with each of our experiences with them.

Directly from EPGY program:

Stanford’s online high school adds grades seven, eight and nine

The Education Program for Gifted Youth at Stanford University will be adding three additional grades to its online high school.

Created in 2006 to meet the specific needs of gifted students, the EPGY Online High School (OHS) will add the seventh, eighth and ninth grades for fall 2009. Applications are currently being accepted, and classes for these grades will begin this fall. Full details are available at

“The addition of these lower grades is particularly important, since this is where the frustration for these students so often begins,” said Cathie Wlaschin of the Malone Family Foundation, which provided an original gift of $3.3 million to launch the high school three years ago, and through the support of which the new grades are being added. The foundation provides scholarship endowments to select U.S. independent secondary schools to fund the education of gifted students with financial need. Through a separate program, the foundation also supports research on gifted education.

In the past three years, the EPGY Online High School has been fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and approved as an online provider by the University of California. Enrollment has grown from 30 students to 135, with students coming from 20 states and nine countries. Seventeen students will be graduating this year, with five entering Stanford University in the fall.

“It had always been our intention to be a full six-year school,” said Patrick Suppes, director and faculty adviser of EPGY and a philosophy professor emeritus at Stanford. “With students of this caliber, it is essential that they be identified early and put to work. The sooner they are fully engaged academically, the better off they will be.”


More Educational Flash Games

GeekDad posted a list of 4 educational Flash games and there are many more in the comments.

Odosketch is also an interesting online sketchbook.


Handwriting Help

This week’s theme over at Teachnology is handwriting. There is a video for lefties, and tons of resources for making your own practice sheets. Check out the whole unit here.

Teachnology is a fantastic resource for homeschoolers and supplemental work. Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Aby Arabit.


Liberty’s Kids DVD Set

The Liberty’s Kids: Complete Series DVD box set that we talked about last month is being released on October 14th. All 40 half-hour episodes and lots of bonuses in one set for less than $50. We have one on order.


Eat This Not That!

Over the weekend we found this great book at Sam’s Club, Eat This Not That! for Kids!. It’s an awesome real-world guide to nutrition for today’s kids. It covers everything from picking the right breakfast cereal to which restaurant / fast food meals are better choices. It’s full of photos of actual products and meals to captivate visual learners.

Our daughter would not put it down and is actually getting a bit annoying criticizing everyone else’s food choices. That’s ok though. She’s had a few units nutrition and the food pyramid, but I don’t think she’s really understood the differences between real world food choices. How could she? Most adults don’t. The book might be a little light on emphasizing complete nutrition, whole grains, etc. especially if you’re really into nutrition, but if you’re a more typical family that doesn’t buy only organic and eats out from time to time, this should be a great fit.

The book is small enough to keep in the car so your gifted kid can drive you nuts every time you break down and hit the fast food drive-through. There is an adult version of the book.


Liberty’s Kids

Last year we were struggling with getting Elizabeth going on American History until we found Liberty’s Kids.

Elizabeth had some interest in Egyptians and the middle ages but not much else as far as history. We tried The Complete Book of U.S. History workbook by School Specialty (Sam’s Club special) but she didn’t want to do it. We tried a If You Lived In Colonial Times book but she never even finished reading it. Since we were still hoping to make unschooling work, we didn’t want to force her to work through the workbook.

Then I found Liberty’s Kids, the television show. The premise of the show is that the three kids are working on a newspaper for Benjamin Franklin. The kids report on different events of the American Revolution. The show is full of celebrity voices, the animation is excellent, and it is very captivating for an educational show.

It still airs daily in some markets. Some episodes are available on DVD, but a nice complete DVD set is due out in mid-October 2008.

What I did find though is the Liberty’s Kids computer game. I turned it over to Elizabeth and she played through the entire game over 2-3 days, then went back and did it all over again at least once. Without us even once asking her to do it. In the computer game, the player interviews historical figures and reports on events, even assembling the stories on the page.

There is a Liberty’s Kids website that has additional material and activities for students.