Lego’s interlocking plastic bricks made their first appearance in 1949 being sold as “automatic binding bricks”. The potential to reuse the same pieces to construct different structures and inventions has been present from the very beginning. The world of Lego has expanded significantly from the early days and now includes theme parks, video games, board games, movies, clothing and more. The construction sets made their way into education in 1996.
There’s a whole line of robotics themed Legos that were released into the market in 1999. The roots of these products originate from a programmable brick developed at the MIT Media Lab named ‘Mindstorms.’ The name was inspired by Seymour Papert, a computer scientist and educator who developed the educational theory of constructionism and whose research was at times funded by the Lego Group.
Constructionism is a learning theory that has taken off in the digital age, especially as it relates to STEAM learning techniques. Students learn by constructing mental models that help them understand the world around them. The theory advocates student-centered, discovery learning where students use information they already know to acquire more knowledge. It also posits that students learn best by making tangible objects through authentic, real life learning opportunities that allow for guided collaborative process and peer feedback.
Pairing constructionist theory with the concept of tangible computing – which dates back to at least the 1970s – brings you to the trend of programmable building blocks. Being able to bring the complexities of coding into something familiar like building blocks has helped introduce kids as young as three years old to programming. Cubetto is a little wooden robot who pairs with a map to teach coding without screens to children. It doesn’t matter if the child is a boy or girl, has a learning disability, is non-sighted or non-literate – the combination of movement, touch and sound make it an inclusive product that helps children learn.
As they age, they can switch to other products like Koov by Sony, which are a slightly elevated version of the same thing. Koov includes small blocks that snap together like Legos to create interactive robot penguins, trucks and other cool things. There are blueprints to guide kids through the process, as well as a companion app that teaches programming concepts like looping and “if-then” logic. Robo Wunderkind has a similar product that also includes apps that help control student creations and provides cross-disciplinary curriculum. Even Google has joined the game with Project Bloks.
The benefit of tangible computing is that it changes programming from a solitary activity to a social one. These products help make coding and programming as accessible as traditional building blocks like Lego and help to demystify this 21st century literacy skill.
Have you experimented with programmable building blocks in the classroom? What are some other companies that make good products in this category?