Mind-building blocks

20th November 1998 at 00:00
Programming robots is fun. It is a creative activity that develops problem-solving and teamwork skills. And now you can do it at home, writes Roger Frost

Computer control is one bit of education that has yet to get to the home in earnest. It is about learning robotics, problem-solving, teamwork and the great technology paradigm that assesses needs, designs solutions, evaluates and spins around to start again.

First seen this summer at the Legoland Windsor theme park, Lego has now launched its Robotics Invention System, a computer control kit for home. It is a kit that turns "control", a fun and creative part of the technology curriculum, into child's play. It lets children build themselves "robots" - Lego models that move around choosing what to avoid, where to go and what to do. Using software with built-in tutorials, children write programs at the computer, send them to their robot and assess how well it works.

This system is the first in a series called Lego Mindstorms. Years in development, it now has the most respected names behind it, including Seymour Papert, a long time exponent of teaching the Logo programming language. When you see Nick Negroponte and the Massachussets Institute of Technology in the team, you know it's time to ignore the hype and see exactly what it is for yourself.

Most familiar is the box of bricks, wheels, motors, sensors and caterpillar track - they seem to mate easily with Lego's Technic lineage. Push sensors will act as bumper switches to trigger a change in a buggy's direction, while a light measuring sensor will get a buggy to follow a path around the kitchen tiles.

Motors aside, it is the software that does the driving. It motivates and sets out projects to try: a cart that travels fast and flips over, one that turns and another that walks. There are many, but first you follow a tutorial that takes you through setting up a device that will transmit the programs to your robots as infra-red signals. A hand-size box picks these up, powers the motors and receives signals from sensors. The tutorial is very good - it is a deep male voice on this retail pack, serious and humorous, somehow, all at the same time. When you get it right, he says "Great" or "Way to go". The overall tone has male appeal, though the school pack could be different.

When you've made your model, it's time to program it. You pull and fit commands like jigsaw pieces into a sequence. The commands turn a motor or sound a beep, while "sensor watchers" perform a decision-making role.

There is a lot of the best from past control program languages here. For example, there are neat ways to create programs using sub-programs. It merits a discussion, but there is no argument that it is a joy to see used at home.

The funny thing is that while the kit is meant for children aged 12, this really is conservative. With teacher-type support, (which kids might not have at home) it is quite feasible that seven-year-olds could dabble with the software here. If you wonder why the pragmatic age, the clue is that the new toy provides an environment that kids will explore rather than be spoiled by over-helping. While the software help is good, the paper manual only gives advice on building a few models and some construction principles.

Time will tell if this works, but the immediate issue is that the system needs a multimedia computer, preferably with access to an Internet site where kids can exchange ideas. That it is twice the price of any other Lego kit means it is for those who already have more than bicycles.

You should be wary that when the first batch of kids use this, they'll be up and running by Boxing Day. The software will have set them a challenge, got them to build, program, evaluate and document their project. I would look out for these kids when they start back at school in January and remember to ask them: "What did you learn in the holidays?" Lego Mindstorms Pounds 160

Lego Pictures www.legomindstorms.com

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