Building up to the robo cup

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Building can be serious fun. Now the theme park features bricks with microchips so you can try your hand at robotics. Maureen McTaggart reports

THE plastic world of Legoland is showing the future of model-making at its Lego Mindstorms workshops, where children and parents can combine the 30-year-old building kits with computerised bricks to create sports robots.

The workshops, part of the Pounds 4 million Castleland in the grounds of the toymaker's pleasure park at Windsor, Berkshire, mean fans can get their hands on "intelligent" Lego bricks with built-in microchip before their release in September.

Like many gatherings of complete strangers, our session began as a muted affair. About 12 youngsters and their parents shuffled into a part-darkened room equipped with computer workstations, and boxes of plastic bricks and pieces of wire, which we learned were transmitters. Phil Redhead, one of Legoland's robosports trainers, explained that for 45 minutes we would work together, problem-solving and strategy plotting.

He soon had the group focused on the computer screens, following simple instructions on how to build and programme robots. The object of the exercise was a three-minute challenge to see whose could negotiate the sportsfield using touch and light sensors to get most balls in a net.

Urged on by instructions such as "Give it a beep. Make it go sideways and stop at the light. Download now!", the pace of activity stepped up as Phil started the countdown to the robo cup competition.

At the outset it was obvious who the losers were going to be. The robots built by the adults could initially do no more than rotate like a garden sprinkler, while the children's were scoring thick and fast. But the beauty of Mindstorms, especially for the adults, is that you can go back to the computer and reprogramme your model, ironing out glitches.

"We believe in children learning while they are her- and try our best to make it as interesting as possible," says Phil Redhead. "It is a chance for them to learn how to programme a computer and see the outcome of their work."

Even without the introduction of the Mindstorms workshops, Legoland is more than a pile of bricks and bonsai versions of Europe. The park has been designed with educational opportunities in mind. Every activity is open to questioning, giving students the chance to explore why things work the way they do. Spelling boards and signs explaining how things work are scattered among the attractions.

The park offers education programmes written in collaboration with teachers to complement drama, science, design technology and information technology and help pupils and teachers get to grips with control technology, one of the most difficult areas of the curriculum.

Activities are divided into four types: hands-on, which are 45-minute practical workshops; body-on, rides which operate on the principles of the practical work; eyes-on, seeing control technology at work in the models and attractions; and minds-on, various topic-related activities to work at before and after the visit.

"Lego has a philosophy we call serious fun," says Andrea Ayres, the company's education officer. "Children aged eight and upwards can learn anything from the way gears work to how tall buildings withstand earthquakes. Using a scale model earthquake table they can shake their Lego towers to pieces to simulate the real thing."

Older students can build remote-sensing models and, using Lego's Dacta computer system on Apple Macintosh ma-chines, perform complex simulations of real situations, such as detection of in-truders or a boat's approach to a bridge.

The Dacta workshops are well-equipped - two rooms, each with 16 computers connected to Lego Dacta materials. Children are given all the Lego bricks, wires, control units and motors they need to build a particular model which is then connected to the computer and control box.

"We have various aims with the different workshops, depending on the age of the students," says Andrea Ayres. "For example, Taking Control for key stage 2 allows them to experience basic control technology systems. Once they have learned to command and control a Lego Dacta model, they can see 'real life' computer control in action in the park."

In other workshops students build a walking, talking, fire-breathing dinosaur model or a pirate island while being introduced to sequence control, courtesy of the park's human-sized robot orchestra. These are built entirely of Lego bricks and play different tunes as members of the audience press large pads placed around the bandstand.

Extensive use is made of computer control systems around the park. Even the sounds emanating from the models are digitally processed.

Andrea Ayres would like teachers to see a visit to Legoland as more than an end-of-term treat for students. Emphasising Lego's educative benefits, she says: "We want to encourage schools to come at the beginning of the academic year to start things off and use the workshops as a really good basis for topic work at spring time.

"We are not here to replace teachers, but we do want to help them enhance classroom work".

Legoland Windsor, Winkfield Road, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 4AY, tel 01753 626100; fax 01753 626200. Open 10am to 6pm daily March 14 to September 27. From July 1 to August 31 and on weekends during October, it is open from 10am to 8pm. A special schools price of Pounds 6.50 per head Mondays to Fridays, with free and reduced prices for teachers, includes a resource pack, workshops and a day in the park.

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