from Technology & Learning

A robot's mind is a terrible thing to waste!

Children take to LEGO building blocks like markers to a whiteboard. Teachers have been quick to see the value of these toys for education, integrating the bricks in standards-based activities that teach mechanical engineering, renewable energy, math, physics, simple machines, and computer programming.

Company:LEGO Systems, Inc.

System Requirements: Windows: 800 MHz or faster processor, WinXP SP2; Macintosh: 600 MHz or faster PowerPC G3, G4, G5, or IntelMac, OS X (10.3.9 or 10.4x); 256MB RAM (more recommended)

Price/Grade: $250; 6–12.

Pros: Supports open-ended inquiry and standards-based activities.

Cons: Expensive; requires several kits per class.

MINDSTORMS NXT, the latest LEGO initiative, teams robotics science and technology with computers in ways that are sure to engage middle and high school students. Students can create and build all sorts of robots with the MINDSTORMS NXT kit, which combines more than 500 interconnecting LEGO TECHNIC pieces, four sensors, three motors, an NXT Intelligent Brick outfitted with a 32-bit programmable microprocessor, and a colorful floorsize test pad.

National Instruments LabVIEW, which outfits realworld engineers, researchers, and scientists with high-end tools, developed the MINDSTORMS NXT graphical software that lets students build programs that direct their LEGO constructions to move or to respond to light, sound, and touch. The drag-and-drop programming environment features an icon-based palette of tools and commands that students use to write their programs. Completed programs transfer to the controller via USB cable or Bluetooth. The controller, in turn, "talks" directly to the construction. In classes with several NXT bricks, students can use Bluetooth technology to transfer programs from one brick to another. MINDSTORMS NXT also works with certain Bluetooth-enabled Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and BenQSiemens mobile phones, allowing kids to control the NXT remotely.

The kit's user guide has picturebased step-by step instructions for building specific models, and it explains the function of each sensor and motor while providing a basic introduction to the world of robotic engineering. It also includes suggestions for classroom use and testing.

The genius of MINDSTORMS NXT resides in its encouragement of sustained open-ended inquiry and research-based problem solving that no textbook could ever accomplish.

Carol S. Holzberg, PhD, is technology coordinator at Greenfield Public Schools in Massachusetts.