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)
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.
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.
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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