LEGOs turn teens into technological masterminds

Published on Wed, Mar 5, 2014 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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After a mom asked Blaine Public Library manager, Debby Farmer, what’s there to do in Blaine for kids who aren’t interested in sports or music, it got Debby thinking about what the library could offer in terms of education and social engagement.

The library already offered activities for a wide range of ages, from Toddler Time to language acquisition classes, but Debby felt there could be something more. 

“There’s a big emphasis right now on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs in schools, so I started 
looking for ways that the library could focus in on those things and tap into that realm,” she said. What she found was LEGOs. 

While the seemingly innocuous blocks may not be your first go-to for technological development, kits like Lego Mindstorms offer the opportunity for purposeful creation. The Lego Mindstorms kits contain software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robots and include an intelligent “brick” computer that controls the system, a set of modular sensors and motors, and LEGO parts from the Technics line to create the mechanical systems.

Debby turned to her husband, Neil Farmer, who is a former robotics engineer for Eastman Kodak, to help lead the class. 

“The beauty of the Mindstorms sets is that you get to create a half dozen robots from their instructions and they are fully programmable, and then you can branch out from there,” Neil said. “You get kids learning code and working together to build a complex robot.”

Neil said it takes a couple of weeks to complete each robot, and then program the attached “brick.” 

“It’s a really powerful little computer,” Neil said. “You can tell it what you want the robot to do and it can do it.”

Mindstorms robots have been programmed to accomplish all sorts of tasks, from carrying items to solving Rubik cube puzzles. “I like this kind of stuff,” Neil said. 

Debby said classes like the LEGO Mindstorms groups are becoming more common in the library field.

“Libraries are becoming places where things are created, as opposed to just consumed,” Debby said, referring to what are called “makerspaces.” While library communities have long fostered group activities where patrons and experts have come together to learn such skills as knitting or quilting, makerspaces take the concept a few steps further. The new tools are a lot flashier, and certainly more expensive than a needle and thread. The cost factor is what makes a makerspace so appealing to library visitors – what one person cannot afford to purchase for occasional use, the library can buy and share with the community.

“Each of these kits costs around $350,” she said. “It’s more than a lot of families can afford, so we’re here as a resource for them.” 

Debby said the Friends of the Blaine Library purchased two LEGO Mindstorms kits for the group, along with the cases and other odds and ends needed for the project. The class, which is open to kids and adults ages 12 and older has been popular, Debby said. 

The group meets on the second and fourth Thursday of the month at the library, located at 610 3rd Street in Blaine. For more information, visit wcls.org.