Science

Lego Product Targets Youngsters Interested in Computer Engineering

By Andrew Trotter — September 26, 2008 4 min read
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Second grade is not too soon to start preparing for a career in computer engineering.

That’s the Danish company Lego’s message in introducing a robotics program designed to teach children as young as age 7 how to make simple machines and write software programs to solve problems.

Students from upper elementary grades through high school have flocked to Lego’s Mindstorms robotics system over the past decade, and building and programming that system’s sensor-equipped mobile robots has become the focus of local and national robotics competitions.

The new robotics program, called WeDo, is intended for grades 2-6 and offers tie-ins across elementary curricula.

Controlled by software that children program, WeDo brings the students’ models, like this crocodile, to life. The software was developed by National Instruments Corp., which makes hardware and software for engineering.

Stephen Bannasch, the director of technology at the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research organization in Concord, Mass., welcomes the concept behind the new product.

Bannasch, who is developing physical and computer models for helping students understand heat and temperature, has not yet seen one of the WeDo kits. But he said that giving even young students hands-on experiences “is critical for STEM education,” meaning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Being able to actually construct things,” Bannasch said, “and to engage in the kind of problems that happen when you are designing something in the real world—figuring how all these parts work together as a system—is very difficult to learn in more abstract or limited domains,” such as many classroom exercises.

How WeDo Works

As a science activity, the Lego program aims to form a clear link in children’s minds between the virtual world of computers and programming and the physical world, represented by the models they create, according to officials of the education division of Billund-based Lego.

The problem-solving aspects of the program, and related activities such as measuring, are intended to teach critical thinking in math, company officials say, and the writing, storytelling, and presenting that students are encouraged to do as part of the program incorporate language arts skills.

The WeDo package consists of a collection of plastic Lego bricks and specialized pieces, such as gears and levers, and a hub that connects to a computer’s USB port and receives input from a tilt sensor and a motion sensor that are part of the kit.

The 158-piece kit, which will cost $120, also comes with a motor that draws power from the computer; controlled by software that children program, it brings the students’ models to life by driving their mechanisms.

The software presents a visual programming environment that uses icons to represent different components and functions. Students “write” instructions by dragging icons around the computer screen and arranging them in an appropriate order.

The software was developed by National Instruments Corp., based in Austin, Texas, which makes hardware and software for engineering.

Teachers can present 12 different challenges, with various degrees of difficulty, for students to solve. The activities, which typically take about two hours, follow four themes: amazing mechanisms, wild animals, play soccer, and adventure stories.

Working in teams, the children invent their own solutions by building Lego models and programming them to perform certain tasks.

Texas Pilot Test

The 158-piece WeDo kit, which will cost $120, consists of a collection of plastic Lego bricks and specialized pieces, such as gears and levers, and a hub that connects to a computer’s USB port.

WeDo was pilot-tested during the 2007-08 school year in several elementary schools in the United States, and the finished product will be sold here—and in Brazil—beginning in January.

At Durham Elementary School in South Lake, Texas, 15 classes covering grades 2, 3, and 4 took part in a six-week pilot test of the program beginning in February, according to Debra L. Heath, the science-lab teacher at the 470-student school for prekindergarten to grade 4.

Heath said she met with each class weekly in one-hour sessions and recruited two parent volunteers for each class to help students build and modify their Lego models. “The kids were so focused, so geared up,” she said.

One of the challenges is to build a mechanism that defends a miniature soccer goal from a small ball rolled by a student.

After building a first try, students experimented to make their models more successful at stopping balls, by changing the size or shape of the goalie or by adding more cams, which are wheels that are mounted on a rotating shaft to produce the variable motion that sweeps the goalie across the goal.

At the end of the six weeks of “product testing,” Heath asked all the students to choose a robot to build to demonstrate to their parents at an exhibition at the school.

“They became experts: They did product testing and practiced what they were presenting,” she said. “They were able to talk about what the icons meant, how they could change the program to do different things. They were able to answer questions posed by parents.”

This school year, Heath plans to expand the robotics program, beginning in March, after the school receives its set of WeDo kits. She will introduce the simplest robot, the Kicker, which kicks a ball, with 1st graders.

“Each grade level is going to have a different couple of robots to work with,” Ms. Heath said.

She said the school’s parents, many of whom work for high-tech companies in the area, not far from Austin, have remained enthusiastic about the program.

“They were all over this, saying, ‘This is what we’re raising our kids to do,’ ” she said.

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