Our Review of Lego’s Fantastic New Educational Kit
Lego’s latest version of the Mindstorm Robotics Invention System is a superb product that is guaranteed to make amateur robotics fans of all ages extremely happy. Read along as I cover the main features of this breakthrough product.
As opposed to a lot of the gear you buy in the amateur robotics market, the kit comes in a professionally crafted box with eye catching graphics. The 700+ parts are packaged neatly in several sealed plastic bags with a constructapedia; a beautifully illustrated, easy-to-follow guide that shows you how to build your first four robots in a pictorial step by step manner.
The brains of the kit is the RCX, a small fully functional computer embedded in the big yellow Lego style brick. All of the Lego robots that you create are built around the RCX. The RCX is programmed from a Windows PC, which transmits programs to the RCX over an easy to install USB Infrared tower. Once a program has been downloaded into the RCX, it can now completely control the robot on its own.
The kit comes with a CD-ROM that must be installed prior to connecting the Infrared tower. The software installation is fast and painless requiring only a single reboot. After rebooting, you connect the Infrared tower which triggers the usual Windows “Found New Hardware” dialog; a few fast clicks and you are done.
Here is where the kit shines and I mean stunningly. The Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System is a complicated feature rich kit. It could easily have ended up being a confusing product that only appealed to the most dedicated and persistent user; if it wasn’t for the breathtaking job Lego did in creating a truly powerful training system.
I do not say these things lightly. As a veteran software programmer with over 20 years of user interface design experience, I am not easy to impress, and very easy to alienate, when it comes to bad software packages; especially training software. But Lego lovingly crafted one of the most approachable and friendliest training packages I have ever seen, and I am not just talking about educational software; I mean all software.
Version 2.0 of the robotics invention kit comes with a programming environment that puts a lot of professional programming products to shame. It is easy to understand why so many schools are standardizing on the mindstorms kits to teach classes on robotics. It really should be a prerequisite to all programming classes, robotics or not. In a stroke of genius Lego has extended their snap together style of building lego buildings, to programming itself.
When you build a program for your robot to execute, you literally piece it together using programming logic blocks instead of plastic Lego pieces, as shown in the accompanying screenshots of the software. After a quick click of the download button, you are ready to bring your robot to life. With a very intuitive graphical interface, you literally drag, drop, and snap together blocks of logic to form real life programs that your robot will execute. There has never been a better to teach all budding programmers about the control structure and logic flow of writing a modern program. Combine that with the sheer gut level thrill of seeing your program in live physical action as robot executes it, and you have a truly winning and entertaining method of teaching the normally abstract art of programming.
The Training Software
Even with the great programming environment the kit could still have easily been out of reach of a lot of people. But this is where I realized that Lego had decided to go all the way, and not leave any area of the product unfinished. Although there is a good solid static help document for when you want it, Lego created a professionally narrated interactive training series to help you learn the product. It’s the closest I’ve seen to having a real time artificial instructor that I have seen in a training product.
When you start one of the training “missions” you see the exact seem interface that you use to build your own RCX programs. The difference is the embedded guide that takes you through every step of building several simple to complex programs. A professional narrator in full stereo audio tells you what to do and what to expect with each step. In addition, as you can see in the screenshot, helpful arrows pop up and overlay the programming environment, to show you what to click and what to type in, and the program waits for you to complete the correct action. You can pause, rewind, or fast-forward a lesson or step in case you missed something, or feel you understand it. This is vitally important because it allows slow and fast learners to go at their own pace. This keeps fast learners engaged and keeps them from getting frustrated, and allows slow learners to take the time they need without feeling pressured.