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Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 09:07 GMT
Lego robot challenge aids learning
Girl's team from Heath Primary School
All-girl teams worked differently to the boys
Programmable Lego bricks offer children a way into science and technology that is a little more fun than traditional lessons as BBC News Online's Jane Wakefield found out.

Playing with Lego was once limited to building a tower of brightly coloured bricks but that was far from the case during a day of robot building at BT's research lab in Ipswich.

Teams from 22 schools in East Anglia were set the task of designing, building and programming robots out of smart Lego.

The robots came in all shapes and sizes and negotiated a tough obstacle course, picking up objects along the way.

Unlike the more war-like robots of Robot Wars, these creatures were designed with a rather more constructive purpose as the theme of the day was how robots could help in cities with environmental problems.

The children came up with ideas such as a robot that could clean up the streets of London by picking up litter.

Or a giant robot with long legs to stride over the traffic-bound streets of New York to provide emergency aid in the event of crashes.

Cool tech

Boys showing off robot skills
The robots had to follow a tricky course
The day was sponsored by the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), a transatlantic partnership between BT's research arm BTexact and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, US.

CMI created the programmable Lego brick which is at the heart of the robot kit given to schools.

The project is designed to change the geeky image of technology and show how it can be both educational and fun.

Around 30,000 children from nine countries have taken part in the competition.

Other UK Lego League heats were held at venues in Birmingham and Manchester.

The UK final will be held in Birmingham in 4 December.

"A lot of kids think of robots and they think of Robot Wars but this is constructive rather than destructive," said Andrew Mitchell, business development manager at CMI.

"Kids interested in this have gained the respect of fellow students. It is helping make science and technology cool rather than geeky," he added.

Interactive bricks

During the day, the schools were joined via video link to Mitchel Resnick, Lego Associate Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab.

Programmable lego and laptops
The lego is linked to laptops
He is working on transforming the humble Lego brick into an altogether more interactive toy.

"We want to expand what is possible, beyond building houses and learning about structure to things that interact and communicate," he said.

Lego bricks that change colour, respond to voice recognition and play music are all possible, he said.

He believes that the toys of the future will be radically different to today's electronic offerings.

"Lots of toys use electronics but all the activity is in the toy. The challenge is to make toys that allow kids to create, experiment and explore," he said.

Gender differences

During the eight-week period in which schools had to build their robots, BT technologists were on hand to assist.


Girls prefer to learn about technology in a social context, making it part of a story,

Mitchel Resnick, MIT
It was interesting to note different ways boys and girls responded to the challenge, said organiser Mr Mitchell.

In male teams there was typically one person who dominated, while the all-girl teams were more democratic.

A mixed-sex group from St Mary's Primary School in Hadleigh admitted that the tasks for their presentation had been divided between girls and boys.

"The boys did the programming and the girls wrote the script," said one girl.

MIT's Professor Resnick agreed there is work to be done to persuade girls that programming is for them.

Experiments conducted by MIT revealed that girls building a Lego amusement park were only prepared to start programming the rides after they had built refreshment huts and people for the park.

"They prefer to learn about technology in a social context, making it part of a story," he said.

See also:

03 Oct 02 | Health
03 Oct 02 | Technology
08 Aug 02 | Breakfast
29 Jul 02 | dot life
26 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
22 May 02 | Science/Nature
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