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Lego Mindstorms: Inspiring a generation of programmers

We all know Lego can be a lot of fun and a good stimulator for young minds, but how far can it go in an educational sense?

Well, if the Lego stand at the tech education expo Bett 2013 was anything to go by – very far indeed. The Lego Education group showed off an impressive array of robotic innovation at the ExCel Centre in London, with products targeting primary school children all the way up to university students.

At the heart of its offering was the Lego Mindstorms EV3 platform, the latest generation of robot-building kits that are due to be released midway through 2013.

The marriage of the iconic Lego bricks and high-end programming technology is a winning formula, with the accessibility to appeal to the young, but the complexity to engage the older user. As if to prove these robots really are more than just toys, the first bot I reached for flew out and snapped at my hand like a Venus flytrap. My fingertips only narrowly escaped punishment for their careless dangle beneath the robot’s finely-tuned sensors.

Machines like this could be programmed by those as young as eight, a Lego representative said, though the company’s WeDo platform is typically the first stepping stone for introducing children to robotics. The more complex EV3 software with the Mindstorms range can then take young programmers through their teens and into university, while the robots’ compatibility with mainstream languages like Java aids the transition to a broader understanding of computer science. The Java-based leJos software, for example, supports GPS, speech recognition and mapping technology, enabling students to take programming the robots to an advanced level.

Determined not to be perturbed by the antics of a robot an eight year old can apparently master, I switched my attention to a more sophisticated beast - sauntering across a Connect 4 board, no less (image below). Red coins ready to drop, I could tell he was angling for a game and I was happy to humour him. The Lego representative told me it had been programmed to a fairly high standard - but he hadn’t watched me play Connect 4 before - and was surprised to see me build a promising upwards diagonal so early in the game.

I sniggered as the clearly shaken robot fumbled a red coin and missed the board, but was impressed to see its sensors recognise it hadn’t registered and it successfully popped another in. I continued to rip through the board nevertheless, soon rounding off a victory to the visible disappointment of the Lego programmer, who sheepishly mumbled excuses for the robot’s failure to match my prowess.

He added that its motors and sensors could ultimately be programmed to such a high level that it would become impossible to beat, something that was probably necessary if it was to stand any chance of defeating a player of my calibre.

Putting my Connect 4 abilities aside, you couldn’t help but be impressed by the Mindstorm models and it wasn’t surprising to hear they’re proving extremely popular in schools and universities. Most of the technology on show at Bett 2013 involved what were essentially educational programmes or devices that included a twist to add the child-friendly fun factor. But, crucially, and much to Lego Education’s advantage, its creations worked in reverse - with products that were essentially fun, but having the educational twist to make them beneficial learning tools.