Since before the days of Lincoln Logs, technical toys have helped kids develop spatial abilities and construction knowledge. From Lego bricks in the 1930s to Raspberry Pi single-board computers today, such toys have been laying an educational foundation for millions of lucky children.
Though it's difficult to prove there is a link between the availability of these toys and a desire to join the engineering profession, we suspect there is one. We've pulled together a small sample of tech toys, starting from early in the last century up though today. From Tinker Toys and Erector sets to LeapPads and littleBits, we offer a short history of some of the best toys for aspiring engineers.
The Lego Mindstorms EV3, for builders 10 and older, consists of software and hardware that lets young users build 17 different programmable robots. A programmable brick controls the system, which includes modular sensors, motors, and Lego parts. Lego says the EV3 version, an enhancement of the original Lego Mindstorms concept, includes "expanded on-brick programming," as well as Android and iOS smart device integration. The programmable brick concept was created at the MIT Media Lab. (Source: The Lego Group)
I loved Meccano as a kid and Heathkit as a teenager. When I was an Electrical Engineering University student in the '60s in Canada, I noticed pieces of Meccano in my classmates' homes. So I did a survey and found that 100% of engineering students at the time loved Meccano, except of course those from the Third World who didn't know which way to tighten a screw. In the science students it was about 50% who loved Meccano. In the Arts, those few who knew what Meccano was, hated it. In my electrical engineering class, only those of us who loved Heathkits ended up in lifelong design careers. The majority drifted to other careers like programmers, teachers, lawyers and even a C.E.O. of a large corporation.
With my own kids, exposure to snap easy Lego robbed them of the patience to play with Meccano. Meccano shot themselves in the foot in their newer sets by making smaller and smaller pieces to save money, but making it impossible for dads to assemble with their big hands. Of course Heathkit was long gone. I did get Mindstorms, which my older son found too much like work and my younger son found programming boring. My younger son blows me away with his programming ability. I've watched him do a programming assignment of a couple of hundred lines of code. He just sits down at the keyboard, types away, and without even checking, his code, runs perfectly every time. He finds programming boring. He's the go to guy in his engineering class for programming. We keep telling him, stay at it. It's like being fluent in another language and think of all the things you can do with it, especially these days when everything is programmed. I must admit that his programming ability comes from his mother's side. All her teachers and employers tried to push her into programming because of her abilities but she hated it because she found it boring and stayed in hardware design. She's spent most of her career in management.
They say happiness is doing what you love. My younger son's dream is to design Cameros.
I, too, had experience with many of the toys in the slideshow, naperlou. Some were with my kids and a few were toys I played with as a kid. One of my favorites was the Kenner Girder & Panel Building Set, which came out around 1960. A few years ago, I was pleased to hear the set was brought back to the market by a husband-wife engineering team under the company name of Bridge Street Toys.
In the US, the equivalent was the Erector set. Very similar in concept, design, and possibilities, and invented by A. C. Gilbert in 1913. The higher-end sets had electric motors (plug into mains lines) with an attached multispeed reversible gearbox! Using that as the prime mover for a construction crane made it actually usable for real. They have been re-introduced (relabeled Meccano sets I believe) and are readily available online and in stores. Go to yoyo.com/p/erector-anniversary-case for an example. Motor is now 6VDC..... and likely much less powerful! There's a good Wikipedia article under "erector set."
Before you commit to the EV3 I suggest you look into Vex Robotics newest product Vex IQ. It is more powerful than the EV3 and has a lower price point. I've been working with this new system for a few months and I'm really impressed with the whole system.
It also has a free classroom ciriculum and 3D modelling software from Autodesk.
Any "Tinker-Toy" or "LEGO" of that time were lousy compared to a real, made in England MECCANO set!
Meccano is a model construction system invented in England by Frank Hornby. It consists of re-usable metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears, pulleys, with nuts and bolts to connect the pieces. It enables the building of working models and mechanical devices.
The ideas for Meccano were first conceived by Hornby in 1898 and he developed and patented the construction kit as "Mechanics Made Easy" in 1901. The name was later changed to "Meccano" and manufactured by the British company, Meccano Ltd, between 1908 and 1980.
My two sets were bought by my father in 1962 and 1964 here in Mexico City, and were expensive because those were imported from England. Both were painted in the "for export" colors: dark green strips, Burgundy red plates.
Original LEGO was for building static buildings and little more... But MECCANO was to build mechanical things that were fully operable, like cranes, bridges and construction vehicles like Bulldozers and road graders... I was able to build one with a 12" wide blade, that operated exactly like the big ones down to the front tilting wheels!... Playing with it at the backyard of my parents house was thrilling, and I remember those days quite clearly, even when more than 50 years have passed!
MECCANO was a magnificent mechanical construction set; I was able to build many operable mechanisms, like a fully working gearbox like the manual transmissions on cars and trucks; simple by necessity, it was limited to two forward gears plus reverse, but it worked exactly like the one in my dad's car! Other projects that I was able to build, that were devised by me and not part of the set's project book, included an offroad race car with a fully independent suspension and steering. Because Radio-Control was quite expensive in the 1960's, I resorted to using an electrical umbilical cable, so that I had to run behind the vehicle carrying the battery pack and control box on my hands. The living room and dinning room of our home was used as a tough rally course full of obstacles (the goal was to put the working independent suspension to hard work!). Between the two sets that my loving father bought for me (numbers 7 and 8), I was able to build huge projects, like a more than a 3 feet tall fully operating crane. Other childs had to ask their parents to buy them the ever present Caterpillar construction vehicles... But I was able to BUILD mine by myself routinely thanks to my MECCANOS!
MECCANO gave me the best manual dexterity among all my friends, before reaching 10 years old. The parts were made from top quality materials, with the best enamel paint on the steel strips, real brass scews and nuts, all kind of pulleys, gears, you name it. A small screwdriver plus a couple of "spanners" (wrenches) were all you needed, plus a bit of imagination and persistence, but I am grateful and indebted to the people that designed and produced those magnificent building sets, and specially to my late loving father that bought me such expensive and marvelous toys. I'm shure he had to save a lot to be able to pay for them, and would be very proud of his wise decision if he could see me becoming a true engineer. More that 50 years after I played with my MECCANO sets, I am still doing mechanical assembly and disassembly, but now use my cars instead, which, by the way never have been at any repair shop, since I make all the repairs and maintenance, plus some heavy modifying at home by myself; and I'm keeping my two sets for my son, now only 4 years old, waiting for him to be at least 7 years old, to introduce him to that marvelous, much more than a toy.
If any of you want to see how it looks, or read the history of the company, go to english Wikipedia and find it. Amclaussen, Mexico City.
Girls like the LEGO Mindstorms and are quite the engineers when designing and building their bots. Little bits along with the Arduino Lilypad allow girls to make plushable interactive toys using sensors. LEDs and small piezo-buzzers provide audible feedback and provide for wonderful effects for the interactive toys. There are some boys who have participated in the MIT wearable tech workshops interested in the Arduino Lilypad for creating interactive toys which flips the coin on gender base gadgets for girls versus boys debate.
The Vex robotics is definitely a sophisticated robot development platform. I believe the microcontrollers of choice inside of the programmable devices are Microchip and TI Stellaris components. The price is quite steep but the capabilities are endless.
Ok. I'm going to poke around their website for further information. Yes, National Instruments is definitely supportive of such education initiatives: they've developed the software used to program the LEGO computers. To program the computers is by dragging instruction icons and connecting them together like LEGOs.
MrDon, I believe I heard that MIT was using the Mindstorms technology in an introductory class for freshman. National INstruments has been pushing that idea to universities and probably knows of similar programs elsewhere.
Design engineers need to prepare for a future in which their electronic products will use not just one or two, but possibly many user interfaces that involve touch, vision, gestures, and even eye movements.
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