Lego bricks are cool fun toys, but beyond the simple allure of a brick there's an education focus that could bring out the next great wave of games developers.
I'm staring at a Lego Elephant, and I can't help but form the opinion that just maybe, it's staring back at me.
That's not such a far-fetched notion; this isn't just a collection of parts put together for aesthetic appeal, but a working Lego robot elephant. I suddenly want one, and what's more, I'm highly concerned about what would happen if it accidentally walked off the table it's sitting upon.
Thankfully there's more than a few Lego representatives standing around to make sure that doesn't happen, noting ruefully that they've had to rebuilt it more than once. This all took place a few weeks ago on the grounds of Sydney's Macquarie University, where I went along to check out Lego's latest Mindstorms robotics offering, the EV3 kit, alongside the Open FIRST LEGO LEAGUE Championships being held there.
30 international teams, including a number from Australia were present to compete in a variety of timed challenges, getting their choice of robot designs to perform a tricky set of tasks against an ever-ticking clock. These are also, I've no doubt, exactly the same kinds of kids who'd be spending serious amounts of time playing Minecraft, Skylanders and any other bit of gaming IP you'd care to name as well.
For many of them, I suspect, there's not much difference between the play of Minecraft and the play of designing a multi-purpose modular Lego robot. Every few minutes another noisy happy team bumps past me carrying the kinds of boxes that you'd normally expect grizzled roadies to carry — except that these have that distinctive internal thunking sound that suggests they're heavily loaded with brightly coloured Lego parts.
I chatted to Sandra Googan, Lego's Senior Regional Manager for the Lego Education arm of the plastic model company, ostensibly there to show off the latest iteration in the company's long running Mindstorms Lego Robotics goods.
The EV3 brick will launch in Australia on August 1st for education customers. Some time later in the year a slightly less featured EV3 set will be available at a retail level for kids and big kids alike. EV3 is the basis for Lego Education's big push, which is why they're showing it off against the backdrop of the Open FIRST LEGO LEAGUE Championships. Undeniably, Lego wants to sell bricks, as it's done for the eighty or so years of its existence, but Sandra's enthusiasm for the potential of Lego to educate around games and play is quite infectious.
"It's what you do with the brick" is her constant refrain, built around the sensor capabilities of the NX3 system, which includes gyroscopes and data logging features for teachers to track kids as they build their robots. It's the kind of thinking that's gone into the robots that surround us as we talk, and I'm all of a sudden overcome with the urge to build something with some Lego. I would say it's in the air, but Lego doesn't evaporate that way; it simply gets stuck under your feet if you're not careful.
Lego seems to last forever, and the same is true of Mindstorms. "In 1998, we released the first Mindstorms, the yellow brick, the RCX." says Googan. "That is still being used; the one that is current now, the NX2, it will still be used; it's also backwards compatible. So if a school bought the software, it's backwards compatible. All the sensors are still used. The next season you'll see the NX3, NX2 and some RCX. It's not perhaps that consumer path where you buy something and it quickly becomes redundant; it's a long term investment."
The key thing here is education, and making it fun for kids to learn robotics, and along the way, programming skills. "There's so much fun in it." says Googan. "And we know that the kids think that they're not learning. They think they're playing and just having fun, and it's not 'school'. "
It's Googan's job to sell the Lego Education vision — not that amidst a crowd of happily chattering and smiling kids that it needs much selling. Lego's been offering Mindstorms since 1998, at first in the closed source RCX brick ("that was quickly hacked anyway", a Lego representative told me), and then through the more open interfaces that use a variant of Labview for object oriented programming.
I also had the chance to chat to Macquarie University's Manager of its ICT Innovations Centre Cathie Howe. Howe's particular job focuses around Game Design courses run through the ICT Centre at Macquarie University, and she's particularly keen about the potential for robotics within that learning framework.
"What I feel with robotics, it's so strong as a cross-curriculum activity. Critical creative thinking is a cross-curriculum activity. It's not purely the programming, it's not purely the build; it's your thinking skills. There's a number of literacy skills that are required of students that go beyond just reading a text. It's very powerful."
That's power that extends not only to students — and as we chat and chaos erupts around us as teams rush their robotics designs over to another building where competition is fierce, the sense of power is palpable — but also to teachers.
"We've had teachers come to our training days, one in tears because she was so overcome with what her students were doing throughout the day and the way they responded. When the new technology curriculum comes in, that has an engineering strand in it. That engineering strand, I just think that a logical choice with that is going to be robotics. We work with other robots too, not so much now, but we always keep coming back to Lego because you can build your own robots to suit your design specifications."
One area that Howe sees as particularly valuable with the kinds of hands-on experiences that Lego's Mindstorms offers is the ability to attract female students, an area that's been an ongoing struggle for any kind of IT course. There's all sorts of educational programming tools out there, from Kodu to the Raspberry Pi, but Howe reckons Lego has a particular and special power.
"What we find with this, as opposed to an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi is the engagement with girls. The girls — and it is changing — give them something physical, or the same with Kodu or Scratch; the girls are equally as engaged with the whole design process. If I put a Pi or Arduino it does not attract the same level of interest."
From there, I wandered over to the main competition area, where an Australian team, the all-female Mindstormians (echoing Howe's comments, of course) are competing in two and a half minute challenges. These kids are having serious fun building really quite complex robots to perform what are essentially menial tasks, and later, as I watch them compete, there's a mix of frustration as a build goes wrong or a program mis-fires, tinged with giggles as robots do unexpectedly wacky things.
The thing is, what these kids are doing is programming, and it's not dissimilar in many ways to simple games development. Design documents. Stated goals — some of which are fun. Even the aesthetics of the robots have been carefully chosen, with teams adorning their chosen designs in mostly patriotic colours. While not every competitor may move into games design in the future, it's a rather solid — and fun — bootcamp way of doing so.
In the end, teams from India, Brazil and China walked away with a victory… and I walked away without my Lego Robot Elephant. For now, at least.