LEGO calls its line of robotics products Mindstorms for a reason. As a pioneer of versatility in play systems, the company was well poised to develop a unique platform for educational robotics projects. The hardware allows students to mix elements from the LEGO they played with as a toddler with modern Bionicles, Technics, or Hero Factory lines with all of the parts required for NXT robot building. When the Y.A.L.E. School’s students build with LEGO, it looks like all fun, but there is a science behind LEGO in the classroom. Since September, Y.A.L.E. has added LEGO-related initiatives into the curriculum.
What makes LEGO Therapy work is that access to the extremely motivating LEGO materials is limited to teamwork. Students may not work in isolation, but instead must work successfully with others to negotiate, divide labor, share, take turns, listen, and assist. Students develop technical robotics, engineering, building, and programming skills as they are learning and using effective social interaction and communication strategies.
Y.A.L.E. now has 12 NXT robot kits and more LEGO bricks than most people have seen in a lifetime. With the help of techie teachers, students have been building, programming, and hacking their way to robot expertise—and increased social competencies.
Using a computer processor with interchangeable motors and sensors, students can build a functional autonomous robot whose form—dinosaur, speedboat, airplane, submarine, humanoid, or butterfly—is limited only by imagination: Once they have enabled their creation with the equipment necessary to sense and react to the world, students learn and program the Mindstorms software which dictates the robot’s behavior. Initially, they may simply have it follow a dark line on the floor to a destination, but before long students assign their robotic creations other, more practical functions. They may have their robot watch for the lights to go off before it starts roving around and barking like a guard dog, or program it to sit by the stove and call its master when the kettle starts to boil. Ambitious students can even take some tips from the hacker community and empower it as a drone—taking advantage of Bluetooth, GPS, cameras and the accelerometer in a cell phone.
The Y.A.L.E. School’s NXT Robotics Club met for the first time this winter and is forming teams to build robots to compete with each other in obstacle courses and other scenarios, and eventually against teams from other schools. In early spring, Y.A.L.E. sent a delegation to the New Jersey Robotics FIRST competition in Trenton. Staff have been coordinating efforts with an experienced robotics team from nearby Moorestown Friends School, which has been mentoring the team as they learn the ropes in competitive robot building and programming. The Y.A.L.E team hopes to eventually compete in league competitions, potentially at a national level!