Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit Review
The Neuron Explorer is an innovative new kit by Makeblock designed to teach kids aged 6 and up the basics of electronics and coding. The modular electronic components snap-together to form fully functioning circuits, which can also be programmed through a variety of companion Apps. There are lots of great projects included to get things started, plus tons of ways for kids to create their own custom experiences. Let’s dive into our review of the Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit!
What’s in the Box?
The kit is crammed full of all sorts of electronics components and hardware, from sensors to buttons, connectivity blocks to lights and buzzers. In the Neuron Explorer kit, 12 electronic modules are included. These are divided into input modules – collect data from the environment and send it to the output modules, output modules – emits signals in response to the data inputs i.e. sound or lights, and energy & communication modules – power and wireless communication.
The only major thing not included is a device to run the programming software for the Neuron Kit – more on this below. So you will need to make sure you have a computer or tablet that is compatible.
Overall, we were extremely impressed with the overall design and presentation of the Explorer Kit. It was sleek and modern, with a very Apple-like feel to it. The components were all neatly packaged and several user manuals in different languages were stored in an envelope on the underside. It’s exactly the experience you want when first opening a new kit!
The actual design of the electronics components is also fantastic and very well thought out. Not only aesthetically, but also because the different block types i.e. input, output etc, are all color coded, which makes identifying them smooth and easy once you come to start building circuits. Additionally, the parts don’t feel cheap at all and are quite sturdy. Certainly a quality you’d expect in a kit designed for kids.
It doesn’t take long with the Explorer Kit to tell Makeblock have put a lot of thought into its general functionality and usability for kids. For example, all the components have magnetic backs on them so they can be mounted to metal surfaces. This is great for kids as they can create circuits and mount them to the fridge or radiator!
Furthermore, the use of ‘Pogo Pins’ for assembly was also a great idea – the same as the type of pins used to connect chargers to mobile phones and other electronics appliances. These mean no soldering is required so building is super safe, plus they are magnetic so it’s also very easy to assemble/disassemble circuits. Additionally, modules can only be connected in the correct order, which prevents short circuiting.
The simplistic design does have some downsides though, as slightly older kids don’t get a chance to learn the nitty-gritty soldering element of electronics. That said, it’s still great for younger ones and beginners, plus the coding element can get quite advanced so older ones can still be stimulated this way.
Starting out with the Neuron Explorer kit was pretty easy. The user manual is very informative and clear and does a good job of introducing the different modules and explaining their function. Though our only gripe with it was it did not seem to be targeted at kids but parents. We felt it was certainly too complicated for a 6 year old to interpret without supervision.
With some other kits, such as the Piper Computer Kit, the whole process is taught with a storyline approach that takes kids on a journey to introduce them to the kit and complete projects. We think this is more appealing to kids and the Neuron Explorer could benefit from developing this element further.
That aside, making your first few functioning circuits couldn’t be easier. All you need to do is get the Smart Power block out, connect it to a computer or charge it up, then connect your input and output blocks. We were really quite amazed at how easily the modules pop together with the magnets, it’s great! The intro circuit in the manual involves the twist knob and buzzer, which provides instant gratification as the knob can be used to control the pitch. This is great for getting kids hooked.
Next, the guide introduces you to the rest of the components with some simple circuits. Along the way, we ended up experimenting and mix and matching the components together. Not only was this was really fun, but it made us realize just how great the design of this kit is. It’s so easy to connect different modules together and test out the effects – perfect for kids to develop trial and error skills.
The final mini activity was assembling the DC motor. Since this is also compatible with Lego, kids can really let their creativity loose. There’s a lot of fun to be had before you even get to building the activities or programming your circuits! More on this below.
To access the guides for the project builds, you will need to either download the Neuron App in the App Store on Google Play, or download Swift Playgrounds – though this is exclusive to IOS devices. The Neuron Explorer Kit comes with materials for 4 awesome projects; a mini piano, ukelele, a vehicle and an LED sword. All of which integrate with the electronics modules to make fully-functioning miniature models!
Unlike the instructions to the other parts of the kit, the build guide for the activities was really kid friendly and very straightforward. It would be good if all the instructions in the Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit were of the same quality!
However, these are really only an introduction to get those cogs turning in kids’ minds. After they have completed these projects it is time to let the imagination run wild and see where their creativity takes them. As we mentioned above, the motors are compatible with Lego, which means there are pretty much endless possibilities for experimentation.
Learning to Code
When Neuron modules are not connected to a device, they are in offline mode. This basically means they follow the default settings and react to whatever command the block before it sends out. However, when connected to a device they enter online mode, allowing you to determine how the blocks interact by writing custom programs. Here are the 3 ways to code with the Neuron Explorer Kit.
Most of the Neuron Kits have two ways to code. The first is with flow-based programming in the Neuron App. With this platform, kids have to drag and drop blocks into a flow chart and then draw lines between them to determine how the program functions. It’s the simpler option and very visual, so good for beginners to understand the basics.
Getting started was easy, with the App guiding you through the steps to get connected – though Makeblock also have a helpful tutorial online. Upon turning on Bluetooth and the Smart Power module, the two automatically connected with no issues. The App is also designed to pick up any modules that are plugged into the Smart Power automatically. It was all very seamless!
Aside from guides on how to assemble the four projects included in the kit, the App also teaches you how to program them. This was a lot of fun and once we got the hang of it we experimented creating our own programs. The flow-style is very logical and therefore makes a good foundation for understanding the basic principles of coding.
The next option is with the mBlock 5 application for PC and Mac. This interface is based on Scratch 3.0 – a platform created by researchers at MIT designed for teaching kids to code – and is more complex than the Neuron App. However, it still has a graphical drag-and-drop style, so good for those looking to step things up a bit without getting too advanced.
But we have yet to get to why mBlock 5 is such a great educational tool. As not only can kids learn to code with the graphical interface, but with the click of one button can toggle to text-based programming in Python. This allows kids to make the link between their graphical blocks and the text version, making the transition to easier to grasp. Furthermore, Python is one of the most widely used languages for web and App development, so kids can learn a valuable skill.
Getting started with mBlock was easy enough. Although, we felt there was limited direction here as in the physical user manual there is no mention of where to go to find Neuron tutorials for mBlock 5. We had to Google it to find the getting started guide. Again, given the kit is intended for kids 6 and up, this needs to be made more straightforward. Furthermore, similar to the user manual the tutorials didn’t seem as though they were targeted at kids. We think this element really needs work.
That aside, the mBlock 5 software is great. It’s really intuitive and easy to pick up, plus the design was very slick. We had a lot of fun going through the Neuron introductory sample projects, then experimenting and creating some simple programs for our electronic modules. Once kids have completed all of these, they can then progress toward some more complex projects from Makeblock. Additionally, if you get stuck there is a forum where you can post questions.
As the Neuron Explorer Kit is currently exclusive to Apple, circuits can also be programmed with Swift Playgrounds on an iPad. For those not in the know, Swift is the coding language used to build programs and applications for Apple’s IOS operating system. So similar to Python, kids can develop a valuable skill by learning to code with Swift. Tutorials for over 30 projects are included.
Overall, we absolutely loved the Neuron Explorer Kit. It’s a fantastic educational tool for both younger and older kids to get an introduction to the world of coding and electronic engineering. We loved how easy it was to get stuck into building circuits and learning to write programs, plus the compatibility with Lego really opens the doors to creativity.
We felt one of the main drawbacks of this kit is the price. Compared to the alternatives, it comes in pretty steep. For example, for less than half the price you can get the Snap Circuits Pro SC-500 that comes with over 70 electronic components and the Snapino Arduino for programming it. That said, what you do get with the Neuron Explorer is free access to the Makeblock ecosystem, including all their fantastic coding Apps. So it really depends how much you/your kid values this aspect.
Our other minor issue was with the instructions and guides. We thought that they weren’t always as kid friendly as they should have been and could do with developing a bit further. Regardless, we would still not hesitate to recommend the Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit to any parent with a curious kid!