Inspiring the next generation

As a child of the 1970's Lego was a name never very far from my lips. “Can I play with my Lego Mum?” was arguably one of the questions asked most frequently in our household and who could blame us? Here, within the mix of brightly coloured bricks our imaginations could come alive, building all sorts of mechanical goodies, including cars, planes, boats and spaceships. Thus occupied, the hours would merrily fly by.

Fast forward towards our early teenage years and our interest waned just as the next development of Lego – the 'Technical' range, was launched. Combining more advanced pieces with complicated designs, mastering this range this was the toy equivalent of joining the Venture Scouts, being something that we all aspired to but few would actually achieve.

And there, in a pile of abandoned designs, my – and many others – my involvement ended.

'So what' you might say. But, looking back, 'playing' with Lego did teach me a thing or two regarding the basics of mechanical design, something that still interests me as an adult. Today, child psychologists would categorise this as 'analytical cognitive mechanical behavioural learning in a non-threatening environment' but for us it was simple, good, clean fun.

Fast forward to today and Lego has just unveiled its new MINDSTORMS NXT 2.0 range at NI week in Austin, Texas. To the uninitiated, whereas we had 'mechanical' Lego, MINDSTORMS is Lego with electronics.

And how. For 289 euros you get a comprehensive kit with 612 pieces, servo motors, ultrasonic sensors, touch sensors and a colour sensor. Crucially you also receive the NXT Lego brick which features a 32 bit processor, 4 input and 3 output ports, plus Bluetooth and USB links.

From this kit of parts you can build four robots using the supplied plans and mighty impressive they look too, being able to walk, bite and sort / shoot coloured balls. You can add your own voice, your own image and make your robot follow a coloured path. Easy to use software and the Bluetooth links enable users to command their robots from their lap top and experience the 'real world' satisfaction of seeing their creations come to life.

Suddenly I yearn to be 13 again, which set me thinking that whilst the textbooks have a central place at secondary school, for electronics, the kind of hands-on experience that Lego MINDSTORMS offers provides such a valuable way in. Indeed, I can't think of a better showcase of what the analog electronics industry is all about. Who would want to take media studies when you could build a robot instead?

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