Book Review – Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published on Fridays. These reviews will cover art & technology books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

cover picture of mindstorms ev3 discovery book

By Lauren Valk

Ages 9 and up
Valk, Laurens. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book. No Starch Press, Inc.: San Fransisco, 2014.

Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

This fabulous book is one of many in a sea of EV3 instructional books, all of which are designed to teach your young roboticist how to navigate the convoluted Mindstorms software. However, this one differs in that it is written directly to your young roboticist. It’s not written to the robotics teacher (ahem), and while it is wordier than my budding roboticist would like, it does provide a lot of little “challenges” to help reinforce the programming concepts. We have been working with it for the last nine months. Plus, it’s in color, which makes my visual-spatial learner very happy.

The target audience is the owner of the Lego Mindstorms retail kit (the ones sold at Toys R Us, etc.)  I have the kit that comes from Lego Education, which means that I own the Educational Software ($99). However, the free version utilizes the same programming, and the only major difference is that it does not include Lego’s video tutorials. Personally, I haven’t been a huge fan of the video tutorials, also known as the ‘Robot Educator,’ though they may be more useful in a classroom setting.

EV3 Mindstorms, Seymour Papert & Constructionism

For those that are unaware, the Mindstorms software was modeled after Seymour Papert’s Logo turtle, and the first wave was created by a team at MIT (including Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch). Papert’s theory being that children learn the best by playing and messing around and building new knowledge out of the stuff they already know. This became the constructionist learning approach.

Constructionism was built off the constructivist learning theory which asserts that if given the right tools and age-appropriate resources, kids (and adults) will teach themselves the knowledge that they need. Papert was especially strong on his feelings that computers should be used in schools, but not just as a tool to complete a typed paper, but rather as a discovery instrument.

Nowadays, the visual Labview computer language is the basis for the EV3 Mindstorms software.

icon-based programming

Screenshot of the EV3 Mindstorms software

EV3 Mindstorms Software

With minimal instruction and guidance, it’s easy for kids to get started with icon-based software. I see the same thing happening with my summer coding camps, where I use the icon-based programming language Scratch. I give a little instruction and let them playfully discover how the software works. However, learning without a mentor takes a lot of time (and frustration). It happens. It’s very beneficial. But, it takes a lot of time. Our society values “well-roundness” and we don’t always provide enough time for deep learning.

But, I think a skilled facilitator is invaluable at this early stage of learning and can get kids started on the path to deep learning, while still offering them a lot of self-discovery. A good teacher will ask questions to help their students to delve deeper into the materials, such as “I wonder what would happen if you changed the number of steps?” or “Is there a way to make your sprite stop at the end of the screen?” Yes, these are leading questions, but they also help children to retain their creativity, love for problem-solving and give them some direction so they don’t become overwhelmed.

Many of the kids need a little bit of – just in time guidance – to make those deep learning connections. The depth of a multilayered language, such as the EV3 Mindstorms, benefits from a good facilitator standing nearby. This mentor should not be interfering, but should step in when a child is getting frustrated because there is not enough feedback in their learning loop. I also want to be quick to point out that the facilitator does not have to be an adult. It can be the more advanced kids teaching the inexperienced ones (and vice versa).

I think the Mindstorms EV3 Discovery book provides enough free choice and challenges to keep an interested student involved, without being stifled or overwhelmed.  There are numerous colorful pictures and a lot of mini-lessons. Some of the lessons include the programming (or at least a guide to what needs to occur), and there are a lot of chances to get some direct instruction. Thankfully, there’s also a chance to play around with the code, and be able to see how their “author-facilitator” did it.

You could work through the book in order. There are nineteen chapters and they teach a number of programming concepts. Valk also provides a lot of sample programs so that you can understand how some of the sensors work. Since I have an educational set, my sensors are a little different than the ones from the retail set, but the concepts are very similar and you can apply the knowledge to those as well.

I tend to veer toward the “work in order” theory of learning, but I have a visual-spatial learner who learns best when he has a lot of control and can follow his interests. So, after the first few lessons on movement, I gave him free reign to choose whatever he wanted to work on next. We started with the ultrasonic sensor and he made a “roomba” like robot that moved away from the wall.

Later, he decided that he wanted to learn more about the color sensors and flipped to chapter seven. He then proceeded to pick and choose random programs to test with the color sensor. This required a little bit of help from mom (to remind him to pay attention to the details of the sensor), but after realizing it was very similar to our line reading Ozobots, he was off and running. He tried a little experimentation – with black markers and hand-drawn lines – which surprisingly didn’t work.

hand-drawn circle for ev3 robot

But, we remembered that we had some black electrical tape and he proceeded to try out his color-sensing robot.

A picture of a black line made from electrical tape and a lego EV3 line-following robot

R tested out the robot’s line-following abilities – using the color sensor.

After his success, I (strongly) suggested that we delve deeply into the color sensor and truly get to know it well before moving on to other programming and parts. He reluctantly agreed and we perused other ideas and opportunities from Valk’s book. We printed out the pre-made circle track and my son wrote the program to make it stay within the lines.

printed circle from book, Mindstorms EV3 Discovery book.

All told, we love this book. He loves the colorful pictures and I love the creative challenges that require a deeper understanding of content.


A project from the book where the robot has to push out the pieces, but stay within the confines of the circle.