A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 29, 2017

Young Coders Can Now Program Legos To Life

People should perhaps fear their children's skills more than those of robots...JL

Geoffrey Fowler reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Amid lackluster apps with rote learning and shoot-em-up games, Lego Boost stands out  because children build both the objects and the code to make them come alive. Lego executives say Boost isn’t goal-oriented like educational programs, though children come away with coding fundamentals like sequencing and looping. The Lego app communicates how to use it without any text or tutorials. It does provide motor and sensor controls for the type of children who go to Harvard at 14.
Learning programming is awesome when you’re making Lego robots fart.
“Usually Legos cannot fart, so we made these Legos fart a lot,” says Eleanor, 9 years old, who helped me code dance moves, jokes and simulated bodily functions into Lego Boost, a new take on the iconic bricks. “Also burp. Don’t forget the burping,” she adds.
Making Lego bricks come to life is a big deal for children aged 7 to 12—as well as for parents who want to teach them the basics of programming.
The Lego Boost kit, which arrives in stores for $160 on Aug. 1, updates the beloved plastic bricks with simple motors and sensors that connect wirelessly to a tablet. In the box, you get the pieces that can make a rolling robot named Vernie, a cat, a rover, a factory or an electric guitar. (Just not all at once.) You create basic programs by dragging and dropping icons, little blocks of code, in a companion tablet app.
With the assistance of junior reviewers Eleanor, Wes and Andrew, I found Lego Boost to be a hefty project for young children—but a remarkably fun way to learn how to think like a programmer. It’s an early contender for best toy of 2017.
Andrew, 10, had Vernie built and zipping around the house in about four hours, with little assistance from me. “Even though it is complicated, it’s very cool how you get to build all these things,” he says.
From Plastic Blocks to Code Blocks
Building the robot with Andrew began like all Lego projects: ripping open a box and then desperately attempting to not lose little bricks in the carpet. While most of the 847 pieces resemble the billions out there in the wild, Boost kits include a Move Hub. Inside is a computer, a Bluetooth wireless chip, motors and motion sensors. There’s also a piece containing a color and distance sensor, and an additional motor piece.
Andrew, 10, builds Vernie, a Lego Boost robot with motors to move his tracks, head and eyebrows.
From Plastic Blocks to Code Blocks
The other new part is an app for iPads and Android tablets. (Alas, it doesn’t work on phones.) You start in an introductory lesson, building a simple truck. That teaches you the basics, including how to install six AAA batteries (not included) and how to make programs. Andrew assembled Vernie by following on-screen diagrams that look a lot like Lego’s printed instruction books.
About halfway through, the app paused the build and asked Andrew to assemble code to make Vernie come alive. “My neck is sore,” said the robot, to Andrew’s delight.
Once Andrew gave Vernie his tank-tread legs, the app shifted more to coding, presenting a series of challenges. Andrew made the robot say “Hello” when he shook its hand by combining two bits of code, an input from Vernie’s tilt sensor and an output to the iPad’s speaker.
Encouraging children to code is a growing preoccupation of many toys and apps. It’s a helpful activity, if done right. “Learning to code when you just follow instructions won’t teach you as much as if you are making something that is uniquely your own,” says Hadi Partovi, a tech investor and CEO of the nonprofit Code.org, which offers courses for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.Amid a sea of lackluster apps with rote learning and thinly veiled shoot-em-up games, Mr. Partovi says Code.org partner apps like Tynker, Lightbot and Box Island encourage children to solve puzzles with code. And robots such as Dash and Dot and Sphero Sprk Edition help move children beyond glowing screens to programming physical objects.
Lego Boost stands out from the pack because children build both the objects and the code to make them come alive, multiplying the opportunities for creativity. Lego executives say they don’t consider Boost to be a “teaching” product. It isn’t goal-oriented like educational programs, though children come away with coding fundamentals like sequencing and looping.Among my test crew, Boost also appealed because it’s classic Lego—a toy kazillions of young people understand intuitively. (A more complicated Lego kit called Mindstorms is often used to teach robotics to older students.) Lego encourages children to use the brainy new Boost components with their other creations. How about a dragon that walks? The app offers to help make one.When Eleanor and her brother Wes, 6, began programming the cat, one of the first exercises was to give it a Lego-brick bottle of milk, which it “drinks,” triggering simulated feline flatulence. Later, Wes had a Eureka moment, figuring out how to make Vernie move forward and shout “OMG” when he clapped his hands.“In regular coding games you look at the screen to see the things happen, but in this coding game you look at the robot to see if you did it right,” Wes says.The Boost coding experience is similar to a visual language called Scratch, developed at MIT. The code blocks are identified by icons and colors, not words. The Lego app communicates how to use it without any text or tutorials. You learn by doing.Lego says it has no plans to sell additional coding blocks as in-app purchases, though it does provide manual motor and sensor controls for the type of children who go to Harvard at 14. My testers were disappointed that the Boost pieces have limited lights and no speakers; noises only come from the tablet. But it didn’t take them long to imagine uses for their robots. One common theme was pranks. “I would get the cat and put it in a bush, and then as my mom or my dad was coming home, I would have the cat screaming,” says Eleanor.
One of my few complaints about the Boost app is that it doesn’t offer any help for parents. There’s no search function for code blocks, and since they don’t come with explanatory text, it can be hard to help when a child gets frustrated. My advice: Take it slow. Lego Boost’s capabilities go wide, and a child could just spend a week working out all the possibilities of one or two bits of code.
Also note: The Move Hub’s AAA batteries can die after a few hours of heavy use.
At $160, Lego Boost is a big purchase. But if this makes you feel any better, a Lego Star Wars Death Star costs $500 and only features pretend droids.
What impressed me most about Lego Boost was how much my testers say they enjoyed the coding aspect. Lego-obsessed Wes, who’s slightly younger than Boost’s advertised age, says coding is better than building because it’s “faster and funner.” I think there are plenty of engineers in Silicon Valley who’d agree.


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