LEGO Mindstorms mix fun and learning

LEGO Mindstorms programming

During the Christmas holidays our family has been staying with my parents in central Florida. We’ve had a great vacation, and the weather in Florida during the winter certainly has been fantastic!

The other day we took a day trip to LEGOLAND Florida, on the site of the old Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven. The LEGO group did a pretty good job of keeping some of the old charm of the former Cypress Gardens theme park, the most popular tourist attraction in central Florida during the 1950s and 1960s; while LEGO rides and exhibits certainly dominate the theme park, the gazebo and banyan tree planted by Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope, Sr. in 1936 are still in the park and well maintained, and tourists can still ride the Island in the Sky to get a view of the surrounding area. Perhaps the highlight of the trip was that our daughter was chosen to flip the big LEGO switch to “turn on the park” by Buddy (the LEGO guy) himself, and got to wear a badge proclaiming her as Buddy’s BFF (Best Friend Forever) for the day!

One of the things that I liked the best at LEGOLAND Florida was the LEGO Mindstorms exhibit, located in the TECHNIC area of the park. Within the LEGO Mindstorms section there were three possible workshops that children could participate in; one a beginner’s workshop involving creation and programming of a LEGO Mindstorms alligator that could open and snap shut its mouth, and two more advanced workshops involving the coding of robots to complete certain activities. our son Callum participated in two workshops; the alligator workshop and the programming of a robot called the Dr. Heartbeat. The alligator workshop was a bit simple for him (we have the LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 set at home in France, so he already knew how to build and program simple robot) but the Dr. Heartbeat workshop was quite a bit more challenging and fun to complete. Basically, participants had to use several commands to get Dr. Heartbeat to complete various activities – pick up a variety of different colored balls (the bad cells), fix a blood vessel, and deposit medicine (little green balls) into a specific location.

LEGO Mindstorms workshop

While the LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 set is not cheap, it does make for a great educational tool at home or in the classroom. I have always felt that LEGO is a great tool that combines both analytical and creative teaching and learning, and LEGO Mindstorms takes that to the next level. Learning to perform analytical tasks in a creative manner is something that my kids will carry with them as they move from elementary school into secondary school, through college, and eventually to the workplace. The more that children feel that they can tackle complicated mathematical problems in a creative and colorful way, the better suited they will be to approach and solve the problems they will face as adults. LEGO Mindstorms and other such toys take complicated and potentially intimidating activities such as computer programming and robotics and make them fun and approachable. My son naturally gravitates to such things – he loves creative games such as LEGO, Minecraft, puzzle games and certain computer-based simulators – so I’m really looking forward to seeing how he takes these interests to the next level.

If you have an opportunity to get your children or students involved with learning robotics, I highly recommend it!

Your Imagination is the Ingredient

My son and his LEGO Minecraft mineBrian writes: As a kid growing up in Toronto, playing with LEGO was my favorite thing to do. Back then, LEGO sets were not as specialized as they are now – these days it’s hard to buy a set that isn’t associated with Harry Potter, Star Wars, or some other overarching theme (though now that I’ve said that, I have just heard that they’re going to be releasing Lord of the Rings LEGO sets, and that excites me a great deal!). Granted, there did exist themed sets back then as well… police stations, fire stations, spaceships, construction vehicles and much more… but there were also large basic sets with less specialized pieces that you could use to construct any sort of model you could imagine. And there were also LEGO idea books filled with examples of different things you might try to build – as a kid I thumbed through my own LEGO idea book so often that by the time I became a teenager its pages were faded and torn. I kept my copy of that book; my kids love it, too.

The glory days of creating LEGO models from your imagination are, for the most part, long gone. And the truth of the matter is, over the past few years, LEGO isn’t the only thing that has moved in this direction. More and more often, kits, sets and crafts are sold in such a way as to dictate how they should be created. Color by numbers, stitch by pattern, snap together by instructions… fewer crafts are being sold in a way that sparks the imagination of children.

Creativity by Instruction

A set of pencil crayonsThe drawback of “Creativity by Instruction” is that children are given the idea that there is a “right” way to create. If you’re painting by numbers and you color the sky purple instead of blue, you’re “wrong”. If you’re building a LEGO set and you put a door where the window should be, you’re “wrong”. Not coloring between the lines? “Wrong!” This is even more prevalent in a classroom setting where all too often the creativity of students is hampered by the idea that students’ output should somehow be gradable. Students are graded not on how creative the output they produce is, but at how closely said output follows “the rules”. Because of this, grading turns out to be a lot more like technical gymnastics and a lot less like ice dancing. In my opinion, creativity should be more like ice dancing… but with no judges!

Throw away the rules

Our children and students deserve to feel that, for them, the sky is the limit – whether it’s purple or blue. True, learning to follow the rules is important – most parents don’t aspire for their kids to grow up to be anarchists. But it’s also important to learn to break the rules, or at least to bend them a little. Give your kids a blank piece of paper and some crayons and tell them to go wild. Take them out into nature and gather up a bunch of leaves, twigs and pine cones – put the stuff you’ve found in a big pile in front of your kids and see what they do with them.

As an example, here’s something my daughter (now six years old) created. It’s a pony. I didn’t give her any of the “ingredients” to create this pony… all by herself she found three empty toilet paper rolls, a paper towel roll, some paper, some crayons, some scissors, some tape and a pastry box from the local bakery (living in France we do tend to have a few of those lying around). She whipped up her pony and asked me what I thought? I thought it was excellent – even though it looks much less like a pony than the sort of pony you might find in a Do-It-Yourself kit.

Giddy-up!  It's a bakery box pony

Set your kids free from boundaries, and see what their imaginations can come up with!