Constructing the next generation of engineers with LEGO

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Every journey starts with a single step, and every creation starts with a single brick. What, then, can we use to begin today’s learners on the step to becoming engineers, scientists and programmers? And where do we start to create these much-needed individuals in South Africa and the rest of the world?

If you ask someone at Hands on Tech, the answer is simple: LEGO.

Started in 2002, the Olivedale-based company is the sole distributor of LEGO Education products in South Africa.

Invent the future of play

LEGO Education at Hands on Tech starts off with the Soft Brick. Not sold in stores, the Soft Bricks are several times bigger than regular LEGO bricks and are designed for children of any age.

“We don’t just sell the product, we also support our customers, which are normally educational institutions. We then train the teachers who run the extra mural robotics clubs. Those we train then go on to teach not only the students, but other teachers too. There are a group of schools that have taken the products into their classes at grades 4, 5 and 6,” explains Danie Heymans, from LEGO Robotics at Hands on Tech.

With the same interlocking system present in the smaller versions of the toy, Soft Bricks are intended to teach very young children gross motor skills. These bricks, as their names suggests, are also pliable so they can be squished and squashed by fumbling hands.

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Soft Bricks are several times bigger than regular LEGO and are designed for children of any age.

Even from this young age, LEGO Education sets are designed to explain systems and principles core to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But with LEGO it adds an extra dimension: imagination, to create what they call STEMI.

At Hands on Tech, you also can find LEGO Duplo sets which come with gear and pulley systems that you won’t see in the shops, but they’re still as colourful and fun to play with as the toys you’d gladly buy as a birthday gift.

Even the way educational sets are packaged is with learning in mind.

While retail LEGO sets usually focus on one specific model, educational sets have packaging that facilitates taking the models apart and leaving it ready for the next classroom of kids to come and learn with.

Hands on Tech is even working to get their educational sets integrated into the National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) and, while it isn’t part of it yet, the company even has their own curricula to help educators make the most of LEGO Education.

“The vision for the future is to integrate robotics into the education system to teach 21st century skills. First of all: mechanical skills which are the principles of technology and two: programming. In a practical sense, these products are wonderful as they bring together a lot of the subjects that the kids do at school, while encouraging participation, motivation and interest in science, technology, innovation etc,” says Heyman.

[su_quote]Did you know? The LEGO name is made from the first two letters of the Danish words LEG GODT, meaning “play well”.[/su_quote]

From Soft Bricks to Duplo, the students then graduate onto System and Technic.

System is what most people think of when they imagine LEGO: coloured bricks and plates with studs and holes that can be pressed together. Technic, on the other hand, incorporates parts such as axles, pins and gears to replicate complicated machinery. As per LEGO standards, System and Technic can be integrated together and really push what you can do with what seems like a simple toy.

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LEGO creations demonstrating everything from a rack-and-pinion system to gear ratios.

One of the most prominent examples of this is the robotics that are made by LEGO, usually designed under the Mindstorms theme.

Mindstorms sets cleverly build robotics right into LEGO bricks which are then compatible with other, regular LEGO. Bricks incorporating full computers, motors, and sensors are available for budding creators to use.

But, while building robots for the sake of building robots is great (as any mad scientist and engineering undergrad will tell you), it goes much deeper than that:

Once the robots are built they need to be programmed. In lieu of the more complex written programming languages, LEGO robots are programmed with a visual system that uses blocks of pre-written code that can be joined and altered by changing simple variables.

Join up enough of these blocks and you can program almost anything.

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A simple programme made in the Mindstorms software.

With these LEGO Education sets teaching motor skills, imagination, STEM (or should we say STEMI) principles and even programming, you may think that would be sufficient for something billed as “educational”, but it goes further.

The World Robot Olympiad (WRO) is a worldwide competition, which takes place in a different country every year, and includes students from age six in an Elementary category all the way up to 25 in the University category.

South African learners have repeatedly made it to the top 20 entrants in the world.

WRO challenges the competitors to create robots that are able to solve various tasks while following a guide on a mat marked with specific symbols and colours. The age groups determine the complexity of the challenges.

Hands on Tech is the official custodian of the WRO in South Africa.

The journey to the international contest starts with a regional challenge which takes place in Gauteng, Western Cape, and KZN in August of every year. Qualifying teams of two or three will advance to nationals in mid-August to September, and finally to the international arena.

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Scenes from this year’s National Competition which took place at the Tshwane University of Technology on Saturday, September 5th – 85 teams competed on the day.

This year, of the 211 teams entered into the regional competitions, 85 qualified for nationals. From those, eight teams will be going to the International WRO in Doha, Qatar this November. And while a South African team has never cracked the top 16 in the world for the Regular Category, this year may be different.

Giving back

What started as a project by the LEGO Foundation to see the effects of LEGO Educational products in primary schools in underprivileged areas, over the course of five years 25 schools received educational toys that ranged from pre-school all the way up to the serious mechanics and robotics sets.

After the project was declared a success, the non-profit organisation Care For Education (CFE) was established. CFE operates in conjunction with Hands on Tech, and the two are in the same business estate.

CFE not only donates to worthy causes and disadvantaged schools, but it manages the Township Robotics, a programme which works to get kids who don’t have access to the requisite materials a chance to participate in a simplified version of the WRO.

One of the initiative’s strongest products was a team named The Crazy Divas. The team, composed entirely of female learners from Bathokwa Primary in Atteridgeville, finished second in the national leg of the WRO, and went on to compete in Malaysia in 2012.

“We potentially lead the continent,” adds Heymans. “Next year I see a real balloon in growth as more schools see the benefits of our products, and we have a new large sponsor, and they want to be part of expanding the competition and robotics into Africa. Lots of countries know about South Africa.”

The team didn’t stop at just competing though, as when they returned from their trip they sought out to return the favour by helping out as assistants to teach others in the same way they were. The team was also sponsored with their own educational LEGO products so they could carry on teaching, thus completing the cycle of the system that helped them on their journey out of the country.

A big thanks to Danie Heymans and the rest of the Hands on Tech team for showing us around. This story is part of a special series focusing on IT in Education, brought to you in association with Intel. See the complete collection (so far) by clicking here.

Clinton Matos

Clinton Matos

Clinton has been a programmer, engineering student, project manager, asset controller and even a farrier. Now he handles the maker side of htxt.africa.

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