Arduino Alvik, a STE(A)M Education Game Changer? (Review)

    • by Clemens Valens
    • Reading time: 8 min

    Every day, the demand for technicians, engineers, and developers grows as our technology-driven society continues to evolve. Finding and training these essential professionals is a complex challenge, especially the recruitment aspect. Despite numerous science and technology popularization programs and campaigns launched over the past decades, as well as the creation of many low-entry-level tools and platforms, the number of individuals choosing careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) remains insufficient. Adding the arts transforms the acronym to STEAM, emphasizing the need for a broader skill set.

    The Arduino Alvik for Teaching Children

    One way to find and create the engineers of tomorrow is to look among our children. By providing them with engaging, easy-to-use tools and exercises, we can ignite their inner passion for technology or at least spark some interest. The Arduino Alvik perfectly fits this vision.

    What is the Arduino Alvik?

    The Arduino Alvik is a predominantly white, flat, square autonomous robot vehicle platform, measuring 9.6 cm by ___ cm (Can you guess the missing dimension to test your STEM skills?). Its height is approximately 45 mm, as measured by me, since I couldn't find the official dimensions. The top features abstract blue graphics, and the front displays a smiley face. Overall, the Alvik has an appealing design and feels sturdy.

    Bare Electronics

    esp32 nano dont touch
    A don't touch warning on an educational robot for children?

    Unfortunately, the initial impression of robustness is slightly undermined by the exposed electronics of the Arduino Nano ESP32 board mounted on top of the Alvik, accompanied by a do-not-touch icon. While it’s true that the Nano board is removable, it also serves as the main controller, providing Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and acting as the battery charger, making it a crucial and sensitive component.

    The Arduino Alvik has Sensors

    The welcoming front side features a Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensor. The rear side houses a row of I²C connectors compatible with Qwiic (Sparkfun) and Grove (Seeed) formats. Additionally, you'll find the On/Off slide switch and a pin header for connecting up to two servo motors.

    i2c connectors
    I²C-based extension connectors on the rear.

    Flipping the robot over reveals the line-following sensor array (technically located on the front side). You’ll also spot the accelerometer, the color sensor with its bright white LED, and two small pushbuttons (Boot and Reset) situated at the bottom of a deep recess. Hopefully, these buttons won’t be needed frequently.

    Replaceable Battery

    arduino alvik bottom
    Bottom side.

    The bottom also features the battery cover, allowing access to the removable 18650-type li-ion cell. The concept is that teachers can have spare charged batteries on hand, enabling quick battery replacements when needed, rather than cutting the class short.

    Mechanical Extension

    mechanical extension options
    Mechanical extension holes, two of which are compatible with Lego Technic.

    The robot features two wheels and a metal-ball caster wheel to prevent it from tipping over. Each side of the robot has six mechanical extension holes: two compatible with Lego Technic and four for M3-type screws. While not specifically designed for this purpose, you can also mount accessories on top of the Alvik using the top fixing screws. Additionally, the top side includes two oval notches, though their purpose is not specified.

    Touch-Sensitive Keypad on the Top Side of the Arduino Alvik

    The top side is actually the rear side of the main circuit board. Upon closer inspection, the graphics reveal a capacitive touch keypad with seven keys: Up, Down, Left, Right, Enter, OK, and Cancel. Additionally, there are two RGB LEDs (DL1 & DL2), one positioned above each wheel.

    arduino alvik top side
    The Alvik has a capacitive touch pad on the top side.

    The Nano board features rows of holes along both sides that can be used with breadboard wires (also known as Dupont or jumper wires). This design enables the Nano to interface with external circuitry on a breadboard or similar setups. Interestingly, the TX1 pin of the Nano board is not accessible through these holes, likely for a specific reason.

    The remaining small holes on the board do not conceal any sensors or LEDs; they are merely fixation and alignment points for components mounted on the opposite side of the board.

    arduino alvik insides
    A peek at the insides of the Alvik. The large IC is the STM32 MCU.

    What can you do with it?

    After charging the battery (indicated by the LED on the Nano board) and turning the robot on, it initially seems inactive aside from some LED flashing. However, once LEDs DL1 and DL2 turn blue, the robot is actually in standby mode, waiting for your input. Using the Up and Down keys, you can select one of three demos: Red (program a path for the robot to follow), Blue (black line follower), and Green (hand follower). These demos are straightforward and function well, allowing you to start experimenting immediately. While not revolutionary, they provide a good introduction to using the robot.

    Enter MicroPython

    After you’ve finished playing with the demos, the next step is a deep dive into MicroPython. You'll install the Arduino Lab development environment to create Alvik programs and try out an example. However, newcomers to programming might find this part a bit challenging.

    programming lessons
    Some of the free programming lessons. (source: Arduino)

    If, after climbing this hill, you are still interested, you can proceed to the free programming lessons. At the time of this review, there were eleven lessons available, ranging from basic LED blinking to finding a (virtual) charging station. All lessons are in MicroPython, and there's also a comprehensive beginner's course in MicroPython to help you get started.

    School Plan

    Additional courses are available through the Arduino Cloud-based School Plan. However, since it’s a paid service and I don’t have access, I wasn't able to review them.

    arduino stem learning path
    The Alvik (top left) is just a small part of an extended STEM curriculum. (source: Arduino)

    Other Programming Languages

    Despite my thorough search, I couldn't find much technical information about the Alvik. While it's certainly possible to program the Alvik in languages other than MicroPython, the process remains unclear. For instance, a schematic or a document detailing how the Nano communicates with the STM32 MCU would have been very helpful.

    Conclusion

    The Arduino Alvik is a captivating and meticulously crafted mobile robot platform, boasting versatility, expandability, wireless features, and ample processing power for a range of exciting experiments. Despite its somewhat steep price of around €150, the product itself is solid. A protective cover for the Nano board would be a great addition to enhance its durability.

    Is the Arduino Alvik a Game Changer?

    However, the Arduino Alvik aims to be more than just a small robot. It's touted as an educational game changer for STE(A)M training, but I struggle to see how it stands out. The concept isn't new—I've encountered many similar products before.

    AI Support?

    While Arduino has provided a significant amount of documentation and exercises for the Alvik, which is commendable, the materials are incomplete and focus solely on MicroPython. It would have been logical to include support for Arduino itself, along with more detailed information about the underlying hardware for those interested. It seems as though the Alvik hardware was launched before the content producers were fully prepared. Additionally, introducing ChatGPT-like programming support could have been a valuable enhancement.

    arduino alvik front side
    Alvik keeps a happy face, even when its program isn't working.

    Is MicroPython the Solution?

    Moreover, it's hard to see how throwing MicroPython code—or any programming language—at children (or anyone) will effectively motivate them to pursue engineering, science, or art. Learning programming doesn't necessarily require robots:

    Take your bike
    Mount it
    Start pedaling
    Ride to the shop
    Get off your bike
    Enter the shop
    If they have milk, buy one liter
    Else, wait forever /* TODO: handle exceptions gracefully */
    Go home

    Now rewrite this using a programming language of your choice without making a single typing mistake.

    Jeez! Sooo boring! What’s on TikTok?

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