Mindstorms in Education08/04/2000
Also this week:
Open Source Roundtable: Where's That Lizard?!
Lego Mindstorms robots have found their way into a lot of classrooms, from primary schools to universities. There are several reasons for the popularity of Lego robots as teaching tools. Most importantly, Lego robots are fun. Secondly, the robot kits are very flexible, in terms of building and programming. There are programming environments readily available for any level of programmer. Finally, Lego robots are surprisingly inexpensive.
Building and programming Lego robots is fun. While you're having fun, you can learn about mechanical design and computer programming. Lego robots scurrying around in a public space are sure to attract attention, as John Lorenz found out at Western Washington University (WWU). "The class put on a robotics expo in Red Square, the center of the WWU campus," he said. "We showed off all our interesting projects, and I was personally surprised at the size of the crowd we gathered."
In the classroom, "Every day of robotics class was also show and tell day," Lorenz said. Students showed remarkable creativity: "Wall following, line following, experiments with range finding, collection of Coke cans and ping pong balls: At one time or another, we saw it all. One group created a device that focused an IR (infrared) beam on a wall by moving a couple of lenses back and forth until the illumination was the brightest." Finally, there was a contest in the class: "Each robot would travel toward a wall and stop before hitting the wall. The winning entry stopped with the shortest distance to the wall. The professor was pleasantly surprised with how much variation and creativity he saw."
Previously in Lego Mindstorms:
Lego MindStorms: An Introduction (01/31/2000)
Lego MindStorms: RCX Programming (01/31/2000)
Lego MindStorms: Programming with NQC (02/25/2000)
Tools to Save Your MindStorm Models (03/29/2000)
The Straight and Narrow (05/22/2000)
Lego robots are fun to watch, and even more fun to build and program. Never mind textbooks and tests; this is learning by doing. Jeff Abramson, who teaches 8-13 year olds at the Computer Street Academy in Oakland, CA, says "I decided to use Mindstorms because it looked to be fun and would give students a chance for individual exploration in a problem-solving setting." A highlight of the class was participating in the First Lego League (FLL) competition. This competition is held every year; a challenge is announced in the fall and students rush to create a solution. Teams from all over the U.S. create a robot to solve a specific problem. Local competitions allow students to showcase their solutions to the challenge.
Axel Schreiner uses Lego robots to teach a class on low-level and real-time programming at the Universität Osnabrück in Germany. He likes to bring robots to class to "pass them around, run them, show movies of running robots, show programs, explain, explain design principles ..."
There are few things that will teach you more about mechanical design than actually building something, finding out whether it stays together or falls apart, and observing how it moves. The best way to find out how gears, pulleys, and wheels work is to play around with them. Similarly, you can learn a lot about writing software by writing robot programs and seeing how they behave. Making a robot drive across the floor is a lot more exciting than watching a computer monitor.
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