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)
These are great toys for geeks! (I mean "geek" in the best way possible. :)) My friend's son is a Lego freak. I know he would love that Mindstorms EV3. I may have to suggest his mom get it for him for Xmas! In fact I think a lot of these would be great gifts to help inspire young minds into engineering.
The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit is awesome. The programmable brick has 8 ports for input sensors, switches, and motors. Also, you can control the programmable brick based LEGO bot using the LEGO Robot Command App availabe for Apple and Android based smartphones and tablets. I'm having a ball with the my EV3 kit as well as my high school electronics tech students. It will definitely make a great Christmas gift your friend's son as well as the parents.
I definately agree with mrdon on the mindstorms. I had one of the first nxt versions, and that, despite having fewer sensors, motor types, and such was the basis of dozens or hundreds of projects totally beyond the scope of standard LEGOs or almost anything else out there. I haven't gotten to play with an ev3 yet, but based on what I've seen they're a step even further up. They're a bit pricey, but totally worth it to any parent, as I'm sure anyone else who has or had one will attest.
Thanks John for the affirmation. I plan to explore the EV3 in depth as a small universal controller for not only robotics and mechatronics projects but in wearable tech applications as well. Are you still involved with your LED lighting research project and if so what develops have you made?
Not sure what you are referring to as the led lighting research project. My first gadget freak post, the wireless lanterns, was just a home project that I did because of what I initially thought was a problem with the project in MAKE magazine (they just addressed it in a different way).
On the subject of wearables, there's another product, if you haven't already seen it, called the flora, it's an arduino clone by adafruit designed specifically for wearables. I'm not sure if the mindstorms is the best choice, as wearables generally use lights or sounds, which are limited on the mindstorms, compared to most microcontrollers using ad-on boards/circuits. Either way, good luck in your making/playing with Legos.
Oops! I got you confuse with another Gadget Freak author based on your photo and the LED light in your hand. Yes, I'm familiar with the FLORA as I have the kit for future wearable development projects. In regards to the LEGO Mindstorms, LEDs can easily be added to the EV3 using transistor drivers wired to it's output ports. The internal speaker for the EV3 is adequate for emitting sounds programmed on the smart brick. I believe the EV3 can make an adequate platform for wearable prototyping because of ease in programming, flexible I/O ports, and the ability to connect to smartphones using bluetooth or WiFi technology. Thanks for the words of encouragment.
Yeah, LEGO pack quite of bit of tech into this new Mindstorms EV3. One of my goals is to develop a wearables projects for a Gadget Freak article submission. I have a couple of wearable concepts rolling around in my head but haven't finalized on one yet.
Elizabeth, I am curious about what sorts of constructive toys girls play with (and what they played with in the past). Traditionally, girls played with dolls and boys played with constructive (or destructive) toys. What's your experience?
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.
Chuck, that is a great slide show. Between my childhood and my two sons I have had experience with most of the toys in the show.
I was also lucky that when I was young my father worked at an elecronics lab. We had lots of surplus parts that he would bring home (there was a set shelf life, and older parts still worked). I also got a lot of early breadboards. I would play with them a little, then scavenge for parts. Finally, he would bring home trade journals and previous version vendor manuals (such as the Motorola and GE Transistor books). Then, of course, I would also buy Heathkits. I think they are back in business.
My sons, now in late teens and early twenties, were big fans of Lego. We also had a "CAD" package from Lego that would allow the visualization of a project and the creation of a "manual" for building it. We have been to Billund. It is quite impresive. As you get near the town small piles of very large Lego bricks (two or three feet long) appear in the side of the road. The factory is very modern and Legoland is fantastic.
At IBM in the UK there was a lab that had done a neet project using a Mindstorm brick as a part of a vehicle to demonstrate a new software product. It was a real demonstration and the kids loved it at open houses.
One thing I do like in the school today is that the physics classes have extra credit projects where you are constrained to certian specs and parts. One usually involves a mousetrap as locomotive power. Another is usually a bridge building project. These really test the student's (and often, partent's) creatvity. I think my wife and I enjoy them more than the kids did.
What about Heathkits? They were the kings of educational kits in my day. Radio Shack had a good assortment of such kits as well. My first "real" kit was a color organ, you know, the box you put next to your speaker when you blast the music, and all kinds of different lights light up? It actually didn't work on my first attempt and my dad had to help with my sloppy soldering.
Great slideshow and quite timely because I'm using the latest LEGO Mindstorms' kit the EV3 in my Digital Electronics class. I work at the Lawrence County Center of Technology in Moulton, Alabama teaching high school students the wonders of Electronics and Robotics Technology. Currently, I'm having the students become familiar with the EV3 by building small mobile robots. Some of the students are using the LEGO Robot Command App to control their bots via smartphone Bluetooth. It's amazing to see these kids build and test the robots without a lot of instructional training. I'm a firm believer in Project Based Instruction and the immediate results educators can see by students building and exploring technology (LEGO EV3) through creative play. Great Article!!!
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.
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.
When it comes to enjoying these toys, I'm the same way, naperlou. I've helped with bridgebuilding exercises in middle school and Cub Scouts classes, and I loved it. I felt like the biggest kid in the class.
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.
I have about two thirds of those toys packed away in my garage. When my kids were young, I tracked down toys such as Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. Plus, I bought them all of the newer tech toys (Leap Pad, Legos, K'NEX) including some that are not pictured, such as Transformers and various robots. I kept them all for future grandchidren. Until they get consumed by electronics, kids can be very creative with these toys.
I have most of the earlier versions of the LEGO Mindstorms kit that used the yellow programmable brick (the RCX) as well as the NXT and EV3 units. I've used the RCX brick to teach both pre-engineering and mechanical engineering students basic electrical-electronics. I was so thrilled about the education benefits to of using the RCX to explore electrical-electronics, software and mechatronics that I wrote two books listed below for McGraw. I'm contemplating on writing another book with projects based on the latest Mindstorms kit the EV3.
Meccano. Thats what kids in the UK had, and thats what taught them engineering and fun (that, Hornby trains, Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox cars).
I don't think you could sell Meccano today in its' original format. Health and safety regulations would be all over you, shouting "small parts" and "sharp edges" and "translate instructions into 38 European languages" etc.
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.
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."
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've always been lusting after the Vex line of products. The Lego Mindstorms have looked interesting, but after programming systems with 64 to 256 I/O ports, the limitations on the Mindstorm brick is too much for me. The Vex controller is more my speed, but not my budget.
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.
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.
Using wireless chips and accessories, engineers can now extract data from the unlikeliest of places -- pumps, motors, bridges, conveyors, refineries, cooling towers, parking garages, down-hole drills and just about anything else that can benefit from monitoring.
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