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Mindstorms for Schools (LEGO)

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  Afterschool Expert   Science Expert  

Review Synopsis: by science content expert Leif Asper

Having used these materials for years, I think LEGO Mindstorms offers a unique and ingenious means of teaching robotics and computer programming to students of various ages. There are, however, many pitfalls to using these materials—chiefly cost, required computer workstations, and necessary instructor training—and it is extremely important that educators be aware of the underlying limitations before they make such a large purchase.
Full Review:
I have used these materials for more than 3 years to teach robotics classes with various age groups in afterschool settings. Using LEGO Mindstorms materials, with the included ROBOLAB software, is one of the few robotic-programming curricula. The design and programming components of LEGO's robotics projects promote science, engineering, and basic computer programming skills. It is important to note both the potential of this educational resource as well as its inherent problems.

The primary component of the LEGO Mindstorms curriculum is the RCX brick—a small computer brain built into a LEGO-compatible brick. Each RCX brick communicates via infrared sensor with a single computer (Mac or PC) and lets users download simple programs to LEGO-based vehicles and machines. Motors and sensors attached to the RCX brick are activated through the downloadable programs. For example, if students build a four-wheel vehicle around an RCX brick, they can create programs using ROBOLAB software to make their vehicle drive forward and backwards or turn right and left. In addition, by adding touch, light, or temperature sensors to this vehicle, students can create robotic vehicles that "sense" obstacles like the edge of a table or a wall and change course when those obstacles are detected.

The ROBOLAB software incorporates three different levels of programming designated as Pilot, Inventor, and Investigator. The software also includes computer-based "Training Missions" that serve as a guide to the RCX brick and Pilot-level programming. Once students complete the Training Missions and are familiar with the programming process, they move on to the Inventor level which lets them develop their own programs. For more experienced programmers, the Investigator level has graphing and data analysis components.

Having used these materials for years, I can honestly say that LEGO Mindstorms offers a unique and ingenious means of teaching robotics and computer programming to students of various ages. There are, however, two important issues to consider before deciding to purchase the Mindstorms materials: LEGO is a popular brand name with kids and as a result, immediately engages many students of all ages. While the LEGO components maintain that engagement factor, the ROBOLAB programming software does not. The students I work with describe ROBOLAB as "frustrating" and are frequently confused by the iconic, drag-and-click system. Not only does this significantly diminish their engagement with the LEGO materials, it also means that the instructor must constantly troubleshoot the programming process and must be very familiar with the ins and outs of the ROBOLAB software. This is especially true for younger builders (third through fifth grade) who easily follow the scripted "Training Missions" but get stuck as they begin creating their own programs. Older builders in middle or high school seem to handle the quirks of the ROBOLAB software with more patience but still require significant time and teacher support in order to feel successful with the programming component of the LEGO Mindstorms curriculum.

I think that most afterschool instructors will find that the LEGO Mindstorms materials are difficult to manage without time, training, and experience. The cost of these materials is considerable, as each kit runs around $200 and provides only enough materials for the construction of one robot (LEGO suggests that four or five students should work as a team on each project). To use these materials with larger groups therefore requires close to $1000 of materials and multiple computer workstations. Even then, there's no guarantee that the students you are working with will be capable of handling the inherent programming frustrations.

Note:

A new version of Mindstorms materials, the LEGO Mindstorms NXT, will appear in August 2006. The newer model makes it "quicker and easier for robot creators to build and program a working robot in just 30 minutes. Simultaneously, new technologies and expanded sensor capabilities add a level of sophistication to excite and challenge more experienced robot creators." So, if you do have the resources for equipment and training, you might consider waiting until the release of these new and improved materials.