Sunday, January 30, 2005

The power of tools

I know it's been awhile... I apologize for that.

The thing I've been thinking about today is "the power of modern tools when we put them in the hands of kids." I've been watching a really interesting example of that over the last couple of months with my son.

You may have heard of a product that lego released several years ago called Lego Mindstorms. You buy the "Robotic invention system" and what you get are two motors, a few simple sensors (push switches, light sensors, etc.) and a small computer called the RCX that you can program to read the sensors and control the motors. Then you also get a big assorment of lego pieces including beams, plates and gears so that you can build things.

This is one of the simplest "robots" that you can build:



It has two motors geared down through a pair of worm gears to drive the two treads. [David has another kit called "Vision command" that includes a camera. Normally this robot would have the camera up front, and you can program the robot to track objects by color or motion.]

So here is the thing that is interesting to me. What this kit gives to a kid is a way to easily hook motors up to gears and then control the motors with sensors. Putting everything together is easy because you are just snapping legos together.

The other day we were painting his pinewood derby car for cub scouts. It is winter, so it was about 20 degrees outside and 45 degrees in the garage. These are not ideal conditions for spray paint, obviously. So we had decided you use a little electric space heater in the garage to warm the car up while it was drying. However, David was worried about the fact that only one side of the car would be facing the heat.

Since he has these Lego tools easily available, he comes up with an idea that would have never occured to me. In 10 minutes he has built a little motorized turntable built out of Legos. It has a worm gear to slow the turntable down. He gets it running and it is turning too fast for his taste. So he writes a little program that reduces the speed of the motor even more. Then we put a paper plate on the turntable, put the car on the plate and set it in front of the heater. It works perfectly, and the car is evenly heated.

David is seven years old... In his little brain he is already putting together motors, worm geats and little computer programs to create things. All because he has easy-to-use tools at his disposal that make the whole process simple. It is much easier for a kid today to turn imagination into reality.

As we create more and more sophisticated technologies, all we have to do is make those technologies accessible to kids and amazing things will happen. The kids (and adults) will put them together in ways that we have never imagined. The original Napster was a perfect example of that -- a system programmed by a single teenager that changed an entire industry. It is just amazing when you think about it...

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