from: Forbes Magazine
by Simon Chandler
Play is serious business. Through play children (and adults) learn how to use their imaginations, to experiment with different ways of doing things. This might seem like it has relevance only for their self-development, but it’s also through imagination and experimentation that the human race as a collective arrives at the solutions to its problems.
As such, it’s vital that we encourage children and people more generally to use their imaginations and to experiment, and it’s to this end that LEGO, of all things, has an important role to play in nurturing the next generation of engineers, scientists and problem solvers. And we’re not just talking about informal play with LEGO here, since one organization in particular has taken it upon itself to incorporate the famous Danish toy in competitions and workshops, all of which aim to instil a love for science and engineering in children.
This organization is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit public charity based in New Hampshire that works to inspire young people to pursue careers and education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Beginning in 1999, it partnered with the LEGO Group itself to launch the FIRST LEGO League, tapping into the LEGO brand to bring children to science.
The FIRST LEGO League provides an opportunity for teams of children, based throughout the United States and in 49 other countries, to use LEGO to solve STEM-related problems. This month, for instance, around 250 students from throughout New Jersey assembled at Upper Elementary School, where they showcased their attempts to build LEGO-based autonomous robots. Some had created LEGO robots designed to drive forwards autonomously so as to flip a switch, while others had developed robots capable of pushing a LEGO character on a swing.
Regardless of the specific task being confronted, the use of something as familiar as LEGO can help draw children into the world of robotics and engineering, which can understandably seem dauntingly complex to adults, let alone children. And unsurprisingly enough, the example set by FIRST has encouraged other organizations to follow suit, including the LEGO Group itself, which has capitalized on a growing interest in science among children by producing a range of robotics kits.
For instance, in the U.K., the government spearheaded a Year of Engineering campaign in 2018. As part of this initiative, it partnered and collaborated with LEGO on a separate Engineers of the Future roadshow, which gave primary school students (aged between five and 11) the opportunity to learn basic engineering skills through the prism afforded by LEGO robotics toys. The roadshow also introduced these same students to the FIRST LEGO League, inviting them to take part in the league and also to enter a competition that would see its finalists present their projects at the Houses of Parliament.
And it’s not only governments getting in on the act. This October, Amazon announced that it was also teaming up with LEGO. In its case, it organized a competition inviting students (and anyone else interested) to use the LEGO MINDSTORMS Education EV3 kit to design a system that could respond to commands from Amazon’s Alexa. The winner, who will be announced on January 17, will receive Amazon gift cards worth $20,000, as well as a trip to LEGO HQ in Copenhagen.
If ever there was a testimony to the power of play to achieve genuine learning and knowledge, it would be the existence of such partnerships and campaigns. LEGO has obviously been pushing its utility for STEM education quite hard in recent years, what with its growing roster of robotics kits and its LEGO Education program. But the fact that schools, universities, governments and companies have also taken to the toy should confirm its potential.
That said, there’s nothing particularly special about LEGO in itself that has led to the popularity of the FIRST LEGO League. It’s just that play really is a potent tool when it comes to education. Given the scope for fun, creativity and self-determination that’s inherent to play, it’s a powerful way of drawing people deeper into whatever is being taught.
This is why it has been used in other areas besides STEM subjects. For instance, this is why so many children’s toys have an educational bent nowadays, while to take a less innocent example, it has long been argued that the U.S. military has used video games for recruitment. So the rise of LEGO as an educational aid shouldn’t be particularly surprising, since it fits into a long and enduring tradition.