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Mindstorms for Schools (LEGO)

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Emilio De Torre

Mindstorms for Schools is a comprehensive, well-designed, professional, and engaging curriculum that explores mechanics, engineering, robotics, and programming. The curriculum is science-focused and filled with sequentially ordered activities designed to educate. The combination of Mindstorms for Schools (LEGO) sets and computer software will give small groups of young adults (especially accelerated learners, middle to high school) the experience of a hands-on curriculum which, if it is facilitated properly, they will talk about excitedly for years to come. This program will need to be studied carefully by the instructors beforehand, as it is a science-education curriculum foremost and a fun LEGOs-and-robots activity secondarily. If your afterschool center has the resources and the student interest, I heartily recommend this program.
Full Review:
Wow! What an exciting way to teach physics, mechanics, engineering, math, robotics and computers all at once! Anyone exploring Mindstorms for Schools will be impressed by the hundreds of uniquely designed LEGO pieces, professionally designed manual, ROBOLAB software and the instructor/user guide.

LEGO is familiar all over the world. This robotics curriculum contains the usual high-quality pieces such as gears, cogs, and bricks—and special components such as the RCX programmable brick, wires, infrared transmitters with USB cable, touch sensors, motors, a storage unit, and others that students can use and reuse to complete the many challenges presented in this curriculum. The guide leads students through basic programming levels to progressively more challenging ones.

There is a Quick Start guide in addition to the main guide, and the background information and activities are explained well. Each phase contains an introduction, detailed parts lists, well-illustrated diagrams of the "end product," activity instructions, and programming instructions. The projects are sequenced from easier to more difficult. The guide is organized logically and presents many useful sections grouped by similarity, including an overview, getting started, detailed explanations pertaining to the computer and software interfaces, activities, glossary and troubleshooting sections, as well as how-to areas.

Mindstorms is divided into two phases (Pilot and Inventor), and each phase is subdivided into four levels. Each level is based on knowledge gained from the preceding levels. These materials and even the activities themselves are in no way limited; they can be modified almost infinitely to create variations or to invent new activities. The Mindstorms for Schools kit contains 828 pieces and must be used in conjunction with a PC or Mac to operate the ROBOLAB software. Six AA batteries are also needed for each kit.

The activities themselves are detailed and adult level. They create an integrated learning experience designed to familiarize young adults with engineering and programming. The activities are guided by the instructor and the software while encouraging the young people to solve problems and invent as a group. This is a professionally designed curriculum with detailed support materials that can seem almost “text-bookish” at times. It reinforces problem-solving skills, mechanics, math, computers and small-group dynamics, while encouraging exploration and building.

Potential Obstacles

Although a high-quality program, Mindstorms for Schools poses obstacles for an afterschool setting.

The program requires a large amount of initial set up, prep time, and prerequisite knowledge for instructors. The program, components, and tasks will need lengthy explanations and set up before they are implemented. The instructors will need to study the guide, vocabulary, concepts, icons, computer interfaces, and activities before they introduce this program to their population.

Most staff in afterschool settings will not be comfortable with the volume and specificity of the science concepts involved in these activities. The program covers aspects of mechanics, programming, and engineering. Although the guide discusses these at length, they are not topics that most afterschool staff will have experience with. Staff will need to read and investigate many of these concepts ahead of time, and dry run the projects in order to better assist in "real time" troubleshooting.

A program of this complexity will require at least a 1- or 2-day staff workshop to assist instructors in the effective implementation of this curriculum. The training should include program design and layout, familiarization with activities, practice implementations, examination of support materials, the relationship between Mindstorms Robotics pieces and software, and a thorough examination of the software itself.

Some of the activities are quite complex and high level. It may take quite a while for the young people, as well as the instructors, to understand and do the activities effectively. Although the activities are for ages 11 and older, they seem better suited for small groups of teens or academically accelerated middle school students. This is a high-level and science-intensive program.

There are many curriculum-specific vocabulary words as well as icons, computer screens, and schematics that the users must familiarize themselves with in order to successfully navigate the software and activities. Place an icon out of sequence while programming and you may spend 15 minutes determining where you went wrong. Even with the glossary, there is a great deal of study needed.

Prereading and prepracticing activities, strong group-management/motivation skills, and an ability to modify or adapt these activities to suit youth emotional/social needs are a must prior to implementation.

There are no "fun icebreakers" or activities geared for developmentally disabled young people. This is very much a science curriculum and is designed for teaching elements of mechanics, robotics and programming.

Activities must be run in small groups, and each group must have simultaneous access to a computer and a Mindstorms box. Although there are over 800 pieces in the box, there is only one controller and it is essential to every task. Additionally, all activities must be read from the computer or book and then programmed on the computer and uploaded to the controller. This limits the number of children involved on a project due to the amount of resources—especially since this is so hands-on and every young person will want to be directly involved.

Mindstorms for Schools may be too expensive for your site. The Web site recommends a Robotics Education Start Up Pack that would serve eight students working in pairs. This costs $1,250 without computer costs. It may be possible to use these with groups of four or five students depending on resources. The RCX programmable brick (necessary for every project) is listed at $125 each.