Lego is, first and foremost, fun. Building with those small plastic blocks also teaches some fundamentals of engineering: how to build a structure that won’t topple over—that is, one stable enough to survive getting trampled by the family dog. A new robotic toy on Kickstarter can also make playing with Lego a lesson in computer programming. So you can hedge your bets by steering your kid toward two lucrative careers at once, under the guise of unstructured playtime.
Edison, as the robot is called, is essentially a battery-operated toy car equipped with sensors that allow it to see and hear. It can detect obstacles, move along a path, and respond to changes in light levels and sound commands such as clapping. Brenton O’Brien, founder of Australian company Microbric, says he developed Edison as an affordable teaching tool for schools: At about $36, it’s cheaper than most textbooks.
Edison comes loaded with some pre-programmed functions, such as the ability to follow commands from an ordinary TV or DVD remote, activated when the car drives over corresponding bar codes that can be downloaded online. Kids can also build their own features with Edware, an open-source programming language that uses drag-and-drop graphic icons to make the process intuitively easy. (The gadget connects to a computer with a standard USB.) “It’s as though [students] start learning science, technology, engineering and maths by stealth—they don’t even know they’re doing it,” says O’Brien, an electronics engineer with an MBA from the Australian Institute of Business.
Kids can program Edison to respond to simple environmental cues like beeping when it gets dark. But they can also get more creative by throwing Lego into the mix to invent such things as an automatic drawbridge for a Lego castle. Two robots could be combined to create a bulldozer, for instance, with one serving as the drive and the other controlling a bucket used to pick up additional Lego pieces.
O’Brien offers consolation to parents and teachers who might hesitate to place even a modestly priced, high-tech toy in the hands of a child bent on destroying everything in sight. Drive a truck over Edison, he says, and it will still work.