A new STEM-friendly Lego set teaches kids how to construct their own robots and learn computer coding while they do it.
Playing with Lego has always been seen as a positive thing by most parents, as it stimulates imagination and encourages formative engineering skills. But sometimes Lego creates more purposefully educational toys and it often does so through the medium of robots.
Lego has been experimenting with robots since the mid-80s, leading up to the use of the Mindstorms brand to teach kids not only how to construct their own robots but how to program them as well.
The new Lego Mindstorms Robot Inventor set is intended as a reboot of the concept, with five official robot designs to make but enough bricks and pieces to construct almost anything kids can imagine.
The five designs are all for different kinds of robots, of not only varying complexity but also different personalities. The simplest is a cute little WALL-E style robot called Charlie, who’s easy to build and can be programmed to move, wave hello, and pick things up with an app that uses a simple drag ‘n’ drop interface.
Programming is already taught in a similar way in schools and it allows kids to quickly move onto more complex models such as the Blast robot, that can be made to patrol a kid’s bedroom and has a grasping claw and a replaceable arm that can shoot rubber projectiles.
The set comes with two different sensors, one that detects colour and brightness and the other distance, which makes sure Blast doesn’t walk into walls but also enables the more vehicle-like M.V.P. and Tricky to pick up objects, use a moveable crane, and even dunk basketball.
The most complex design is Gelo, who’s based on the idea of a robotic dog, with four independently moving legs that can run at a surprisingly fast pace.
Metro was able to talk to Mindstorms creative lead Dan Meehan about the new set, and he revealed that although Robot Inventor is specifically designed to encourage STEM skills that’s not how it’s being pitched to kids or parents.
‘STEM wasn’t the focus, the priority is fun’, says Meehan. ‘And I think that’s because there are so many STEM toys that aren’t fun’.
‘We took the approach that kids love robotics and to make a robot you need to have motors and inputs and sensors and code. So the question for us was how do we make that fun? So we tried to make those STEM things something kids would want to do, not something they have to be made to do’.
‘As a dad myself I see this as a tool that will help my girls improve their coding, improve their understanding of mechanics and engineering and physics and mathematics and… creativity.’
Meehan consulted with the Scratch Foundation at MIT in order to design the software behind the robots and while some older fans may be worried about the drag ‘n’ drop interface being too restrictive it’s still possible to use the Python programming language to program the robots by hand.
Previous robot sets from Lego have been customised beyond anything that could have originally been imagined, both at school and at home, and that’s the future Meehan hopes lies ahead for Robot Inventor.
‘What we learned from the Scratch Foundation is don’t give kids a blank canvas, give them a finished thing and tell them how to tweak it’, he said.
‘We want them to have that initial pride of creation so it gives them the confidence to then come back and say, ‘I can make it better!’ I can take that bit off and rebuild it. Or I can take that code and I can make it better.’
‘Kids have said to us, ‘We really love robots!’ Well, we love robots too, so we let them play with them and the learning comes from that.’
The Lego Mindstorms Robot Inventor (51515) set is available now for £329.99 from Lego.com and Lego stores.
The set comes with 949 pieces, including four motors, two sensors, and the ‘Intelligent Hub’ that is the heart of each robot and includes a LED display, Bluetooth connectivity, and 6-axis gyro/accelerometer.
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