LEGO plays role in college engineering education

The latest versions of mechanized LEGO sets are can spur on young users' interest in STEM subjects, but they are not just for children. Dr. Ethan Danahy, engineering research program director at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) at Tufts University, makes use of LEGO in first year courses at the Tufts School of Engineering.

Speaking at the NIDays Boston event last week, Danahy described a typical semester as including video lectures, daily updates on relevant robotics topics, in-class mini challenges, use of a collaborative software platform to document ideas and work, and weekly at-home projects coupled with in-class demonstrations.

He said the courses provide an introduction to robot construction and programming for students who may have no prior programming background. Using the LEGO MINDSTORMS platform, students learn about engineering (including design process, creative thinking, and problem solving), mechanics (including structural integrity and basic control theory), electronics (including sensors, motors, and communications protocols) and computer science (including program flow, functions, data types, data, structures, loops, and parallel processing).

Specific topics covered in first year courses have included bridge engineering, global product design, chemical and biological engineering, music and the art of engineering, structural art, and simple robotics. Goals include addressing engineering ethics and the societal context of the subject matter.

He presented an example of a midterm exam, which reads in part as follows: “Professor Danahy's grandmother needs to pass through one door in her house in order to get from the living room to the kitchen. Because she isn't as mobile as she used to be, design a robotic device using the LEGO MINDSTORMS kit (and any additional parts, pieces, and extra materials you feel are necessary) in order to assist her in opening the door….”

In his dual role as assistant professor for educational technologies at the Tufts Department of Computer Science, Danahy conducts research into educational technologies (including hardware and software for teaching and learning) with a focus on STEM subjects from K through primary and secondary education and on to the university level. He said his special emphasis is on creativity, documentation of student work, and collaboration.

Danahy described an “education continuum” that extends from elementary school through industry, with LEGO software extending from NXT-G (writtin in NI LabVIEW) for children to full professional versions of LabVIEW for practicing professionals.

During a question and answer session, Danahy was asked how LEGO compares with Arduino as an educational platform. Arduino, he said, is cheaper, but beginning students can quickly run into roadblocks.

For more information visit www.ceeo.tufts.edu.

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