Falling for technology

Do Lego, old radios and microscopes help form tomorrow's engineers? E&T reviews a book which argues that they do.

I never cared much for Stickle Bricks as a child. Their gaudy colours and inevitably chewed corners were never part of our family tradition, and looking at them I couldn't see any reason why they should be. Instead, I wrangled my father's Meccano set, learning that galvanised steel makes your fingers smell funny, that fish-plates are useful for structural rigidity but not for serving food, and that if you don't use lock-nuts, your machines will shake themselves apart.

Meccano was fine, but it was Lego that caught my imagination, that I asked for at Christmas and birthdays, and which I hoarded in a big cardboard box in the attic. I still remember the pleasing sound that Lego makes when you paw through it looking for that final brick of exactly the right size, shape and colour.

Lego offered fast results, infinite flexibility, a way to create an ordered world to your liking. There was rigour to it as well, since walls fell down if they weren't built properly with offsets like real bricks and mortar, and arches would collapse if over-extended. There was maths too, as certain lengths of wall demanded certain multiples of standard brick lengths, and resources had to be strictly allocated to ensure projects never ran out of the right pieces.

I loved Lego for its ability to make what I saw in my head real in the world. But my interest in making things soon outstripped the capabilities of Lego - where, in the late 1970s Lego sets, were the radio coils, diodes and variable resistors that I needed? So I moved from putting thaings together to taking things apart, cadging broken valve TVs from the local repair shop so that, with a friend, we could explore their innards and strip them for parts. Through rigorous programmes of experimentation, we soon found out what happens when you play volleyball with a radio valve, connect a train-set transformer to a 30-year-old paper capacitor, or throw a brick at the back of a CRT. (The answer to that is, of course, a terrifyingly dangerous but very satisfying whuumph followed by a shower of very thick broken glass.)

Eventually it was time to grow up, get an engineering degree, work on early electronic messaging systems and find a way into technical journalism.

I am not convinced that I ever truly put aside childish things. My early practice with Lego, Meccano, improvised circuits and borrowed tools had a profound impact on how I think now: things work best if they respect implicit rules; symmetry and patterns are usually a clue to success; if you force a solution, it will never satisfy.

Science and love

In her book 'Falling for Science: Objects in Mind', Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies and Science and Technology at MIT, and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, explores these themes. How do the things that we play with as children lead us into careers in science and technology, and shape our habits of mind?

The book draws on contributions by MIT students from the last 25 years, as well as from leading scientists and innovators such as Alan Kay and Donald Norman. Turkle provides an introductory essay and an epilogue, as well as grouping the contributed essays by the kind of interaction that is described: what we see; what we sense; what we model; what we build. It is, she says in her opening line "a book about science, technology and love", exploring how a child's love of objects leads them to an adult love of science.

A surprising number of the student essays focus on Lego, that universal metaphor for 'made stuff'. In a section on 'what we build', Justin Marble, now a software engineer in the Boston area, describes how he created miniature worlds using combinations of Lego blocks and scavenged electronic components. He gave different coloured blocks different functions, and built objects, and later hierarchies of objects, within this structured framework. He now uses similar ideas of hierarchy to manage the complexity of large programming projects.

Sandie Eltringham describes the pleasure she derived from sorting her Lego blocks so that everything was to hand when she started a new project: today she works in strategic planning and new product development at a Boston company.

Andrew Chu used basic Lego blocks to build structures that he would then smash into those built by his friends. As they tested their designs to destruction, they also explored ideas of friction and the laws of motion. When Chu was later given Lego with specialist parts to build a space station, he realised that although it produced richer objects, it probably created poorer learning experiences.

Does what we play with as kids really matter? Turkle rehearses two theories of child development to explore the issue. In the constructivist description of child development, children build theories based on the objects they meet in the world. In the constructionist model (and note the subtle distinction here) children develop their minds by building things. The first model takes the world as a given; the second suggests that children will develop by looking for new objects and new ideas. In both models, however, the things that children have to hand have a profound impact on their development.

Turkle takes this idea a step further, in a reflection on what has been gained and lost as children spend more leisure time in the virtual worlds of computers. She writes: "The generations of students who've grown up in the post-analogue world… experience the trade-off between the kind of transparent understanding offered by the world of mechanism and a heightened sense of control offered by the increasingly complex and opaque digital realm. In digital culture, you may not have a traditional understanding of how things work, but you have enormous power to make things happen. Control and understanding begin as competing parameters, but a certain point, control begins to feel like a kind of understanding."

If you're interested in what makes people scientists and technologists, Turkle's book provides a useful insight into current thinking about the importance of objects in that process. If you're happy to accept that we are what we are, then it at least provides some interesting insights into the childhood fascinations of a group of leading technologists, as well as plenty of chances to say "Me too!".

Did toys make you the engineer you are today? Why not email us about the objects that sparked your interest in the profession, at engtechletters@theiet.org, including your address.

'Falling for Science: Objects in Mind' (ISBN: 9780262201728) is one of three books that Turkle has edited on the relationships between things and thinking, based on seminars held at MIT. She writes for E&T in this issue's 'If you ask me' column on page 16.

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