When I was a kid, none of my classroom teachers did much to help me learn how to think clearly. Playing at programming in BASIC did. It was an accessible programming language, but complex enough that I could have a great deal of fun with it, especially considering the relatively limited technological scope of 1980s home computers. I thought it was spiffy, with lots of potential, and that was what supplied me with the motivation to try applying BASIC programming to express many of the ideas I had at the time.
Using BASIC, I had to learn how to understand my own ideas, and plan them out step by step. Programming with BASIC taught me to look deeper, beyond the typical, short explanations for what was going on.
Where is BASIC now, and how much appeal could it have for today’s children, who view dazzling computer technology as more of an entitlement than a remarkable opportunity? What can we do for our children, to provide them with an opportunity for fun learning of clear thinking skills?
Last year, Jim suggested software simulations of programmable robots fighting: Robocode and Incredibots. Those are good suggestions, but why not have children work with real robots, and in fact build them?
That’s what the First LEGO League does. Kids of a couple of different age groups build robots using kits created by LEGO. The robots are then programmable by computer, with a Bluetooth uplink. The First LEGO League presents scenarios with points that can be earned by the accomplishment of a wide variety of goals, within a small arena, by the robots that the child teams have constructed and trained with.
There are several levels of thinking that go into playing with a competitive robot: There’s programming, but also robot design, and the strategy of choosing which tasks are worth accomplishing. The goals are also wide open, leaving it up to the teams of children to devise a variety of possible solutions, rather than just one model that was declared to be the best by the children ahead of time. There’s teamwork required too, with real social networking skills coming into a play.
Unlike archaic, top-down groups like the Boy Scouts, the First LEGO League is co-ed, and doesn’t discriminate against children on the basis of things like religion or sexual orientation. Parents who want their children to learn more than how to wear a goofy uniform and stick two fingers to their forehead might want to consider starting up a LEGO robotics team of their own.