Excite the learning

Chris Rogers is more than just an advocate, he’s a legend of Lego. Here he talks to INTERFACE editor Greg Adams about robotics, developing ROBOLAB and building a new way of teaching.

What’s so good about Lego?
Really, the thing we’re pushing for is not so much Lego, it’s engineering. There are a number of different ways you can take engineering into the classroom. You can do it with popsicle sticks, with Lego, with anything you can imagine. However, Lego has some advantages. It’s reusable – except for parts that you lose! You can prototype and build stuff very quickly – what would take three months with wood can take a day with Lego. And, of course, there’s the brand. Pull out Lego and all the kids recognise it. They get excited.

Is it okay that they probably see it as a toy?
How they want to see it is fine with me. The key is that the teacher doesn’t use it as a toy – but as a vehicle from which she can ask questions that excite the learning in the kid. That’s the important part.

What excites you about robotics?
I’d say the ability to actually impart intelligence into an object. It’s also solving the problem, the puzzle, and seeing if you can actually get the robot to do things.

How did you get involved with Lego?
About 15 years ago, I was looking for something at college level to teach a class on data acquisition – a cheap way. At that time, Lego had the ControlLab interface and I asked them if we could adapt that to LabVIEW. They said ‘no’ because the protocol was confidential, so a student and I reverse engineered it. Then I went back to them and said ‘this is what I was talking about’. They said ‘oooh, does that run on a Mac, too? We’re coming out with RCX and we really need software that runs on a Mac …’

… and a legend was born?
Well, ha, we created a three-way alliance between ourselves, National Instruments (the people who write LabVIEW) and Lego. Through that we developed ROBOLAB and now the new NXT software.

What was it like being a part of the ROBOLAB development?
A lot of fun. What I love most is going into classrooms and seeing kids getting excited. It’s just such a good return on the investment.

Maths and science seem to have obvious applications, but are there other subjects where robotics and Lego can be used?
There is a group in Singapore that’s currently looking at teaching what they call ‘Mother tongue Chinese’ with it. We’ve done a number of exercises where kids read books and then build what they read – so, they read Harry Potter and build Hogwarts and, of course, the train and everything, which is where the robotics comes in. There are a number of people who have done really impressive things with animated sculpture, kinetic sculptures. There are some elementary classrooms that put a paintbrush on the tip of the motor and paint. So, yes, it’s been used for many things

For those who are thinking ‘I’d like to try that’ but don’t think they have the skills – what’s your advice?
The skills they really need have nothing to do with Lego. Lego will teach itself – if you put it down in the classroom, the kids will figure it out. The skills they need are those of going around and ‘coaching’ them, saying ‘why do you think that’s happening?’, ‘what should you do to your design to change it?’, and so on. It’s the teacher facilitating
that’s important.

Where would suggest people go for information?
The Web’s always a good place. Legoengineering.com has got a bunch of stuff. The local Lego rep will certainly help. Our Tufts site (http://www.ceeo.tufts.edu) has the preliminary material that eventually gets packaged nicely and put on the Lego site. They can also check out Stomp, a partnership between college engineering students and K-12 teachers (http://www.stompnetwork.org/tufts/). People are welcome to email me with questions, too (crogers@tufts.edu)!

What’s the biggest challenge facing robotics?
To get people to teach differently from how they were taught. There’s nothing wrong with traditional classrooms, they have a place but they’re not the only way to teach. Everybody learns differently, so we should be presenting the material in as many different ways as we can.

How do teachers react to Lego?
Some just think this is the greatest way to teach and say ‘this is awesome, it’s just changed the way I teach’. But others say ‘I’ve tried and tried but just can’t make it work, I just can’t teach that way’. That’s okay. I’ve had some teachers say they can’t get it to work or they don’t understand what they’re doing, but still do it because the kids get excited and it’s amazing what they can do.

What do you see for the future of robotics in education?
It’s amazing how much it’s taking off. Now countries are looking at making it part of the standards, making it as integral as science. A lot of engineering is about being practical and thinking things through – kids can do this at an early age. My only hope is that when people use it, they will make sure that they extract the maths and science learning from it because that’s really where its power lies.

Thank you.

CHRIS ROGERS IS A PROFESSOR IN THE DEPARTMENT OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING AT TUFTS UNIVERSITY, AND WAS KEYNOTE SPEAKER AT THE RECENT LEGO CONFERENCE IN AUCKLAND.
http://www.ceeo.tufts.edu and http://www.tufts.edu/~crogers/

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