Lego may have been around for 60 years but its robotic toy kits are bringing old-fashioned building blocks into the digital age. Etan Smallman explores how the product has taken classrooms by storm
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The Lego brick received its bus pass this year. The plastic cuboid – named after the Danish phrase for “play well” – was invented in the workshop of carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1958.
But for a pensioner, it is surprisingly adept at keeping up to date. While the sets that you might have played with as a child will have been thrillingly analogue, today’s young construction fans are just as likely to be found savouring the convergence of old-fashioned interlocking pieces with cutting-edge computing.
Lego Mindstorms are the robotic toy kits bringing building blocks into the digital age. The system, which blends with the brand’s traditional elements, revolves around a miniature battery-powered computer “brick” that controls a set of motors and colour, touch and infrared sensors.
It means users can build anything from a humanoid to a shooting scorpion, while programming the creatures’ responses, and controlling their behaviour on a smartphone.
The product has taken classrooms by storm since its launch in 1998, teaching millions of children how to code, and last year more than 200,000 competed in the annual First Lego League design contest.
The world’s second-largest toy manufacturer is no doubt hoping that Mindstorms is the answer to its recent financial woes.
In March, it reported its first fall in sales and profits in more than a decade. But could the key to Britain’s skills shortage also lie in a hi-tech toy box? Almost half of British companies face their biggest technical gap in coding and 60 per cent are looking for programming knowledge when hiring for entry-level jobs, according to a study last year. Another report warned that there could be 756,000 unfilled ICT jobs across Europe by 2020.
“Our mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow,” says co-inventor Erik Hansen as he clutches a googly-eyed robot in Paris, where he and his creative partner Gaute Munch were honoured at the European Inventor Award ceremony last month.
“That is something that’s very close to the heart of what Lego is, to not let the products themselves be the limitation of what they can do,” says Munch. “It’s children’s own imagination that is the only limitation.”
The toys, which cost about £5,000 for a classroom package, allow children to enjoy technology without gawping at a screen. They also illustrate the power of play over rigid learning goals and lesson plans.
Munch says that teachers are “getting some ‘Aha!’ moments of how this can actually engage the kids” and are “willing to accept some chaos moments in the process. I think that’s actually really good for the kids as well”.
The duo speak of children so enthused by the system that they are oblivious to the fact they are learning science – and who insist on carrying on through lunch breaks.
Hansen and Munch are also constantly surprised by the creations – everything from automated gerbil feeders and plant waterers to a remote-control loo flusher. The project was born out of research conducted in partnership with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.
When Hansen meets students there, he says: “I hear over and over again, ‘I want you to know I’m here because of your products.’ Even as I talk about it now, it’s really giving me goosebumps.”
Greig Dunbar, 17, has been playing with the kits at Wallace Hall Academy in Thornhill, Scotland, for almost three years.
His team won the Champions’ Award at this year’s First Lego League, run by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
The challenge focused on water – how to find, transport, use or dispose of it – and the pupils triumphed with an ingenious sewage heat recovery system.
This led to the chance to represent the UK at the global contest in Detroit, where they won the World Teamwork Award.
Dunbar says: “It has been the most fulfilling part of my schooling and has probably taken up the most time as well.
“It’s not just about robotics, it’s very much a life skills competition. It’s helped me with securing a university place, it’s helped with my presentation, communication and problem-solving skills.
“I’m hopefully going on to do robotics and autonomous systems engineering at Heriot-Watt University. This has helped me realise that robotics is definitely where my mind’s at.”
His design and technology teacher, Neil Corrigan, tells i: “There’s nothing that I’ve come across in 20 years of teaching that catches the pupils’ imaginations quite as much as this.
“By doing it through competitions, I’ve found that those kids who aren’t necessarily sporty, but still have a bit of competitive edge, find that they actually get quite engaged. Having been seen potentially in the past as nerdy, they find that they’re coming into schools as UK champions and they’ve got a real sense of confidence from it.
“We were told by engineering lecturers that the things that these kids are doing aged 14, basically they could have learnt in the first year of a robotics degree. The kids themselves have no idea they’re doing anything that complicated. They just see it as fun.” Hansen talks of his mission as “continuing to lower the threshold for children” to learn as artificial intelligence begins to dominate.
But the electrical engineer, who has himself built a sustainable heating system for his farmhouse that is controlled by a Lego robot, is adamant: “The brick is still relevant.”
Join the International Hour of Code, a global movement to demystify computer science, starting with 60 minutes of practice. The event will take place as part of the 2018 Computer Science Education Week, starting 3 December, but you can start at any time. Visit hourofcode.com for online tutorials involving Minecraft, Wonder Woman and Star Wars-themed activities.
To find a free coding club in your area, visit codeclub. org.uk. Search through a network of almost 7,000 groups using languages including HTML, Scratch and Python to create websites, games and apps.
Forget Scout or football camp… you can send your kids away to code this summer. FireTech (firetechcamp.com) offers robotics and java courses across England in July and August.
The Raspberry Pi costs about £25, is the size of a credit card and is designed to teach children coding. It is the best-selling British computer in history, having sold almost 20 million units since 2012. Originally embraced by hobbyists, it is now used by pupils to function as anything from a music-maker to a wildlife camera. Visit raspberrypi. org/education for details.