Secret life of bricks;Summertime

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Behind Legoland Windsor's plastic toys, Roger Frost finds an educational experience in computer control Dizziness, daring rides in life-size Lego models and getting wet (well, fairly) - it's no wonder Legoland Windsor is a popular summer-time destination. But if you pay a visit to this youngsters' paradise, take a break and pop indoors for some computer fun. It may spark howls of protest from the kids, but you must - the Windsor park showcases how computers and learning can come together.

New to the theme park this year are workshops for families and schools based around Lego's hi-tech, "intelligent brick". Called Lego Mindstorms, this product is possibly the first to make computer control (and the most tricky topic on the school curriculum) into something anyone can try their hand at. The brick is the result of developments in the tuition of computer control and although widely associated with work in the United States, British minds can claim credit for much pioneering activity, spurred on by a curriculum that insisted computer control should be taught.

What is unusual about the product is that it is deemed ready to be sold to the public - and that means it is ready for schools, too.

The brick, called the RCX, is about the size of a pocket camera, but has the power of a pocket computer. You build a Lego model around it, adding motors, lights and push switches.

For once, the building is the hard part. Far easier is the stage where you instruct a regular computer to tell the model how it should behave. So were your model a robot, you would tell the computer when the motors should turn, when its eyes might flash and how it should move when it bumps into something. Then like a TV remote control, you send the instructions to the brick using an invisible infrared signal.

No longer tethered by wires, robots appear to think for themselves, hinting at clever, more credible projects that will tax the minds of our younger people.

Unseen in this blur of Lego creatures are 60 Apple iMacs that allow classes to get their hands on the system. One workshop, which also runs on PCs, is called Robosports and is based on kits available in shops. Here, within 45 minutes, you decorate and program a buggy to follow a track to a football goal. The buggy detects track markings using its electric eye, senses when it arrives at the goal and then scores with a cargo of sponge balls.

The other workshop is based on Robolab, the kit you might get for schools and which uses different software. Getting to grips with Lego's branding takes a little time, but what you get here is essentially LabVIEW, the state-of-the-art software NASA uses to monitor its space buggies. To make this good educational software, the computer's power is made accessible to eight or nine-year-olds through a series of levels.

At level one, you can turn on a single motor to, say, work a model roundabout for as long as a ride should last. At each higher level, you are able to control more motor outputs, determine how quickly they operate and sense more external stimuli.

As you head towards the top tier of the Robolab software, you take more and more control as the soft wrapping is removed. Eventually, you can gain full control of the underlying LabVIEW program and can perform the sort of impressive stuff undertaken in industry test labs - though, thankfully, not in the theme park's workshop.

With new-found knowledge about computer control, the Lego world outside takes on a new significance. You begin to suspect the degree of computer activity at work there. On the ride to the log flume, for example, computers trigger sound effects, take photographs and ensure you are squirted with water. I would heap praise on the child that spots technology doing such crucial work.

If there's time, a visit to the park's shop provides a chance to view Lego's recent but late entry into software. The company's titles cover chess, train sets and making music - once here, those who can usually see no good in computer games may acknowledge a few benefits from hours sat in front of a computer.

As one of three new rides to appear this year, The Dragon's Apprentice "minicoaster" will keep the smallest children entertained until they graduate to The Dragon, Legoland's easy, but still scary roller coaster. Also new is a roundabout styled as a hot air balloon. Older kids in search of a real scare will not find it here, however.

With Legoland Windsor so easily rated as a special outing for the under-10s, it's easy to overlook this. And since they can take advantage of group rates, schools that organise a visit can earn applause from parents, if only for saving them the fortune it costs to take the family. Legoland is a neat, sweet place where even the under-fives get a good deal and get educated.

* Legoland Windsor is open from 10am to 6pm but schools should pre-book their workshops - the best time to arrange might be around midday when the rides are at their busiest. For school bookings call 01753 626100. Family visitors need to book when they arrive at the park. Call 0990 040404 or visit the park's website at The Lego Mindstorms kit costs about pound;160 from retail outlets. The Robolab kit for schools costs pound;219.99 and isavailable through education suppliers such as Commotion (01732 773399).

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