Over the past year Lego Dacta has continued to add modules based on its popular Control Lab system. First to arrive was the First Computer Control (Let's Go!) system for key stage 2. Now the Intelligent House has been launched. This system offers a complete, self-contained introduction to feedback control at lower key stage 3. Its software features computer graphics that represent the actual model. Students are challenged to build an accurate model and make it work.
The approach is very structured with seven, sequential projects based on controlling aspects of a Lego model house, culminating with an additional five projects based around the optional temperatureangle sensor set. With the Intelligent House, pupils use Lego bricks, sensors and easy-to-understand computer programs to replicate the conveniences and security systems found in today's modern homes, thus providing a familiar environmental framework.
The projects include: controlling a garage door, burglar alarm, door lock system (plus keypad code), ceiling fan and satellite system. The temperature and angle sensors are available separately (included in the starter pack) and these can be used in the aforementioned projects to provide additionalalternative feedback. These projects help solve problems such as how to design a house that automatically turns off the lights when the room is empty and turns on the fan when it gets too hot.
Not unexpectedly, the control language is LCSI Logo but with a very handy, on-screen, control panel to help writing and editing. This certainly helps to eliminate the need to learn the syntax associated with Logo. The support materials have a very transatlantic feel to them and aspects such as assessment are not linked in any way with the national curriculum.
Past criticisms of the Lego Control Lab system being totally closed and unable to offer pupils "real" controlmonitoring experiences are, to some extent, laid to rest as the interface can read cheap digital sensors from Maplins or relative values from analogue lighttemperature sensors - you just have to solder them to Lego leads. For the construction part, Lego Technic can always be integrated with other materials. Similarly, the LCSI Logo language which is not, in my opinion, suitable for developing control programs, is largely circumvented by the new control panel. By presenting a menu of all the main commands, it certainly helps making procedures easier to write and edit.
Like First Computer Control, the Intelligent House has been especially designed for classroom use; it's easy to get into, encourages co-operative learning, affords almost instant success, and both boys and girls find it appealing. For the teacher, the plus points are easy classroom management and the fact that no previous experience is needed. It is that simple.
Those already using Control Lab, can benefit from using the Intelligent House as an extension activity to that system. The Intelligent House system can be put together via its various components but the most cost-effective means is to purchase the workstation pack, which contains all the elements required for two children to work collaboratively at the computer. But do shop around: I found the discounted price of Pounds 335.
For the non-specialist teacher in particular, the Intelligent House offers a well-designed, safe and self-contained solution to control activities at key stage 3, and is a very good system for introducing feedback control.