Hands on

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Teaching children computer control has just got much easier. Roger Frost takes a look at a range of LEGO robots which help build up confidence as well as being good fun

One of the ironies of school is that computer control, arguably the trickiest bit of the IT curriculum, is one of the most fun topics to teach. With its roots in robots and machines, children need no goading to learn about control. But if like many schools you don't have the gear, welcome an unexpected helping hand this year as children are sure to have had their own robotics kit from parents at Christmas.

Ironically again, they will pretty much do your job for you. Robotics is the hot new topic that youngsters crave to know more about. The LEGO company's new Robotics Discovery System will certainly satisfy that appetite and what's more it doesn't need a computer.

So there's no irony here, just coloured plastic bricks, wheels, gears, cams and axles. This package will let you build amazing robots - from a bug that will explore dark corners of the house to an intruder alarm that will launch a rocket.

You get good instructions to make these together with another - called a Hoop-o-Bot - where it throws a ball back when you dunk a ball in its hoop. As well as all the familiar LEGO bits there are cool extras like insect wings and eyes.

Cooler still is the Scout, a microcomputer that controls what your robot will do. It is a stage on from LEGO's intelligent brick, known as the RCX, which put challenging robot projects within the grasp of kids last year. The new Scout brick has built-in light sensors as well as sockets for touch sesors and motors. What is really new is a button-controlled menu on a tiny LCD screen. Almost anyone can use this to assemble basic actions into what makes a robot tick. For example, you can make your buggy move forwards and take a side step if it bumps into something. Yet more controls allow you to set how fast the bug runs or make it move in zig-zags and circles, or add insect-like sounds to robot actions.

Just watching it is an education: you see how two motors can make a loop, or take avoiding action, or trace out a circle (one moves a bit, then the other). In fact, learning by example is a great way to get started on other projects. For example, you could recycle the insect robot as a solar collector that tracks the sun through the day. Likewise, the zigzag action might flap wings, or make a robot walk.

While the Scout has plenty of tricks for starters, you can also program it from a remote handset accessory or an expansion set planned for next year. It should work today using LEGO's current Robolab and Robotics Invention System systems. We clearly have moved on: what used to be a computer, sensor box and befuddling control box for schools, now fits into your hand. What's more it is sold in the high street and does the curriculum before break. Maybe things are going too fast to keep up. Any body remember learning to swim by lying on your classroom desk? Teaching control today could feel just like that.

LEGO Robotics Discovery System including the Hoop-o-Bot and Scout brick. Price: pound;124.99Robolab and Robotics Invention System. Price: pound;160 Tel: 0845 708 0070 or visit: www.mindstorms.com

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