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Toys that do just what they're told

A new type of programmable Lego is a hit with students, finds Maureen McTaggart

Danish toy manufacturer Lego has produced an "intelligent" little yellow brick packed with sophisticated computer technology for use with its construction kits.

Any Lego model containing one of these bricks can download programs from a computer to carry out various functions. For example, children can instruct a buggy to pick up and drop objects along a set route; create a light-sensitive intruder alarm, or even build a device to switch on the television to their favourite show.

The new bricks and associated Lego sets, Mindstorms and Technic CyberMaster, with their infrared beams, sensors and motors, have been designed to appeal to children, as well as make things easier for teachers in the difficult area of control technology.

The products are the results of 13 years of research and collaboration with the creator of the LOGO educational computer language, Seymour Papert, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Torben Sorensen, Lego Dacta's product manager, says many toys rely on children pressing a button or pulling a string.

"Our products enable children to understand and think more critically about technology and not just become addicted users of other people's inventions. They can build new toys, programme behaviour into them and let them interact. The best way to teach children is to engage their curiosity."

The products got the thumbs-up from the Berkshire students who spent two weeks testing them in schools.

Stephen Chambers and Aaron Rennie, two of the 13-year-old testers from the Brakenhale School, say their teacher often had to push them out of the classroom at the end of their hour-long sessions with the Lego Mindstorm "I have got Lego at home, but this is better," Stephen says. "The only trouble is the girls like this just as much as us boys, so it's not easy to get on the computer."

The new products cross the divide between school and home. In class, children's inventions can be pre-programmed to fulfil the technology curriculum.

At home, the building and programming can take more familiar forms such as instructing Crusher, a computer-controlled talking robot gladiator, to annihilate its hand-held rival, Stinger.

Liz Tait, head of design and technology at Brakenhale, says the software is user-friendly , and enables students to work in teams sharing ideas and solving problems.

"Control technology is an important part of the curriculum but it is really quite a difficult thing to teach, so the programming aspect is useful for children because they are in control," she says.

"Intellectually, the challenge of getting the models to do what they want has been good for both boys and girls."

Mindstorms and Technic CyberMaster, with the control software for Windows PCs, touch sensors, an infra-red transmitter to send the program to the brick, and a range of Lego bricks, gears, wheels, motors and other building materials, will cost about Pounds 150, but the range is not likely to be available in Britain until August.

Further details from Lego Web site at:

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