Junior FIRST Lego League

Child's play

E&T discovers how educational charity FIRST is using Lego to inspire the next generation to follow a career path into science and technology.

How do you get children interested in science and technology? By making it fun and interesting. There can be no doubt that learning to build robots can be educational and fun, and one company has cornered the market. 

Who would have thought that Lego would still have such wide appeal in the age of the computer game? The company is now leading a robot revolution in children as young as six with Mindstorms.

It all started when Lego first put an electric motor in its train sets in 1966. However, users had to wait until 1982 before the Technic series was launched, which finally gained computer control in 1985.

The first retail version of Lego Mindstorms was released in 1998 and was marketed as the Robotics Invention System (RIS) with the current version released in 2006 as Lego Mindstorms NXT.

The kit consists of 519 Technic pieces, three servo motors, four sensors (ultrasonic, sound, touch and light), seven wires, a USB cable, and the NXT brick. It also includes NXT-G, a graphical programming environment that enables the creation and downloading of programs to the NXT, which is the 'brain' of a Mindstorms robot. The graphical user interface (GUI) uses National Instruments' LabVIEW as an engine.

Lego is continuing to evolve the product with the latest addition being an RFID sensor that will allow users to protect their programs, so they can only be started with an individual key transponder. Alternative programs can also be run using different transponders.

The company is also encouraging people to make videos of their Mindstorms creations, with no limits on the amount of NXT sensors, motors, NXT programmable bricks, HiTechnic sensors, Codatex RFID sensors, or Bluetooth communication you can use on the robot starring in the video.

First thirst for inspiration

One of the highlights of the success of Lego has been its adoption by charities such as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which was founded in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology.

Dean Kamen, inventor and entrepreneur, founded the not-for-profit public charity which designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and maths, while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

The charity runs a number of programmes which started with the Junior FIRST Lego League for six to nine-year-olds and the FIRST Lego League for nine to 14-year-olds. For secondary school students, there are the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition.

The FIRST programme attracts big sponsors such as Rockwell Automation, National Instruments, Vestas, 3M and, of course, Lego and also looks at some big issues. These include the theme climate connections - building a global game plan in 2008, where participants were invited to discover the links between science, people, resources and communities and unearth how we learn about past climates and delve into current and future climatic conditions.

This year's theme is transforming transportation. The charity states that the key to the 2009 'Smart Move' Challenge is accessing people, places, goods and services in the safest, most efficient way possible.

Lego and children in industry

Samuel Majors is a good example of what can be achieved when parents get children interested in science and technology. Samuel didn't go down the Mindstorms route, but went straight for the underlying programming tool LabView to control his train set. National Instruments were so impressed they invited him to present his school project at NI Week in 2007, when he was ten years old.

"The train project was his project for the fourth-grade Gifted Education program (FIND - Furthering Interests Nurturing Development)," explains Samuel's father Patrick Majors, advanced engineer at the Advanced Technology Group, Cooper Tire and Rubber Company.

Professor Chris Barkan, director of the Railroad Engineering Program at the University of Illinois, was also impressed with Samuel's abilities and invited him to the university to hear students present their research. "The University of Illinois is on Samuel's short list of colleges to apply to, when the time comes."

For his fifth-grade FIND project, Samuel used LabView and MultiSim (from NI) to design a music-mixing system. "He also simulated various aspects of music production - such as noise cancellation performed by some sorts of music cables, using LabView," explains Majors. "He continues to use LabView as a design, investigation and simulation tool whenever he has a need."

Samuel is now 12 years old and is a sixth-grade student at Donnell Middle School in Findlay, Ohio.

"The experience with Labview and Lego programming proved to us that relatively inexpensive computer tools can open significant doors to learning," explains Majors.

"As a fifth grader, Samuel took two ninth-grade courses, one being Honors Physical Science, which is half physics and half chemistry."

Continuing in the same vein, Majors went on to buy the student edition of Spartan (an ab initio quantum chemistry code) and Odyssey (a physical chemistry 'virtual experiment' code), both from Wavefunction Inc. "Samuel used the programs extensively, and learned far more about chemistry than he could have learned by any other means of which I am aware," says Majors. 

This year, and a sixth grader, Samuel is taking science (molecular biology) outside of the regular classroom with a mentor. He continues to use Spartan and Odyssey quite extensively for this class and is learning things that only a simulation can teach, shy of experiments that are not possible for them.

Hands on

Majors is keen to point out that the 'hands-on' aspect of education has not been neglected as Samuel solders his own circuits, does MIG welding and does quite a bit of chemistry in the house.

"The cost of a soldering station and the chemistry equipment is probably less than the cost of an X-Box or a Wii. I mention these activities because it further illustrates that children can learn a lot, and gain confidence, from activities that would not typically be considered 'child activities', just like programming was 'not for kids' just a few years ago."

Majors' wife, Patty, who is the third-grade FIND teacher for the Findlay District, is working hard to introduce interested third, fourth and fifth graders to engineering concepts, using Lego.

"Patty's ultimate goal is to include Lego NXT programming into her curriculum.

"We have seen how much of an impact these tools had on Samuel, and we would like to give more kids the same opportunity."

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