Friday, July 17, 2009

many, many teeny, tiny wee pieces

I am adrift in a world of Lego.

Not, mind you, the respectfully sized ones designed for children under 3, but rather the wee teeny tiny easily lost until underfoot ones. Say it with me: eeeeeyowtch!

Personally, I blame the NSF. They funded the bloody program, you see, which is how my kid ended up learning about robotics while I twitched in corners and did my best to explain that no, early exposure to robotics and engineering was not part of a carefully crafted plan to get the Eldest in to Harvard.

'scuse me, Hahvahd.

My anti-intellectual reflexes aside, it was freakin' fantastic. The kids learned to program, using a pictoral programming language. They learned how to apply that to their intentions, in an NSF variation on the old 'make a peanut butter sandwich' lesson. And oh yes, they built stuff: they built houses with motion-sensing doors, they built drag racers, elevators, bulldozers, a train that automatically stopped at a number of stations, and after we got stuck behind one on a particularly cranky morning, the Eldest built a street-sweeper. He then got caught up in an anti-Lego City cabal, and proudly demonstrated his cell leader's spinning torture devices. Well, okay.

Later that day, he and I would whip out paper and pencils and design three different drawbridges, working out a rough sense of the mechanics for each.  Holy freakin' moly. Holding the Eldest's sketches, I blinked in parental morse code at the Man, who nodded enthusiastically. Later that night, the Man and I would spend a happy half hour contemplating the various bits of used Lego for sale on eBay. Bless those grandmothers, selling their grandsons' unwanted Lego. Best wishes to the feline-lovers, raising money for their pet's chemotherapy. And uber-thanks to the lovely grad student who ran the program, and happily consulted on Lego options. 

No, really: awash. Many, many teeny, tiny wee pieces. A mere seven pounds of the stuff, at last count. And of course, the boys are entranced.

Over the course of the next week or two, the Eldest happily delivered a series of lectures, or possibly monologues on the subject of his week's explorations, which I scribbled down as fast as my oversized grin would allow. Here are some excerpts:

there are 2 things in a tilt sensor. The first is mercury, the second is wires. Put together when you tip it one way, or another way, then you have a full circuit. You have to tip it in every direction to have a full circuit. A half-circuit would be when you tip it one way. Tip is again (the other way), and you have a whole circuit.
about the bump sensor: The machine goes forward until it bumps into something, then boink! stops because it's using the bump sensor. It works by - [pause] I don't know what's in it. But you can't have a "WAIT FOR" bump sensor.
transcriptor's note: I think the "wait for" is one of the programming commands that the children used.

I wish I had made a Lego person robot. Nobody else made that. [thoughtfully] Never got it checked off our list... If there had been more time, I would want to tackle how to make a dragster. 

To have a robot, you have to have Legos, axle rods, gears and, of course, the electronics. Those would be the light sensor, tilt sensor, bump sensor, sound sensor. You always need a motor. Connected to that you need an axle rod and a gear. The motor spins the axle, and it would spin something like a gear...

And we followed his prescription, eBay lot by eBay lot. Gears, wheels, axles, bricks and wierd random things that come in a lot that's measured by pound, rather than by itemized contents. Which was just fine by us.

Eventually, however, I did have to ask about the torture chamber, the tank and what I rather thought were anti-aircraft missile systems. (happily, non-functional ones) The Eldest grinned, and told me:

While the rest of the group had been building Lego City, we were in a multi-universe, another universe, another century and almost like Fred Ward - and we were on another planet, too. The Eldest's grin widened, impossibly, and he went on. We were making vehicles meant to destroy their city, made of the same things as the dragster. I took a moment to appreciate the sense of subversity in his approach, and sat firmly on the lecture about opportunism and armies. But why? I asked, naively. The Eldest favored me with an earnestly patient look, and explained. 

We were attacking the city of one reason: they did not have an army. They would have no way to defend themselves. They're unarmed! We were trying to take over the Legos - in fact, he said, his voice ripe with satisfaction, we did.

Looking around the room, my feet stinging from Lego-edges and Lego-corners, I was hardly in a position to argue.


Anonymous said...


Legos -- the toy of my childhood. Growing up we had onbe of those huge metal coffee cans full of them...

I can't tell you how many times I built houses with mine... I guess that explains my short stint in interior design school. LOL!

dykewife said...

oh, love a duck! i remember the lego years. the worst is when they hide under innocuous looking papers. my poor feet, how they suffered!

i'm glad the kids are enjoying themselves :D it's sounds like you might have an engineer on your hands.

Anonymous said...

That does sound fantastic! I'm jealous.

I miss my Legos.

What is the peanut butter sandwich lesson?

We used to lay down a sheet on the floor to create a surface for playing with Legos, so that it was easier to collect stragglers at cleanup.

On another topic, perhaps you can lend some help here?

Miryam (mama o' the matrices) said...

dw, Lois: I KNOW. Cute, ain't it? And way, way too fun. I'm watching the boys' constructions with fascination... I kind of feel like an anthropologist, observing the behaviors of the Hidden Tribe of Boy.

Anon., the peanut butter sandwich lesson is when your teacher comes in and says, 'write instructions on how to make a peanut butter sandwich.' And then proceeds, ruthlessly, to enact them.

1. Take peanut butter
2. put on bread.

[teacher now demonstrates that you didn't tell the sandwich maker to get a knife, unscrew the cap, take a slice of bread out of the package, etc. You feel silly and learn about specificity the hard way.]

and thanks for the pointer - I followed the link and blathered a bit.

Anonymous said...

That's a great lesson!

Thanks for the thanks. Your so-called blather seems very helpful!

Auntie A said...

Legos are awesome! Eldest nibling in TO has a fantastic lego city on his window sill (which his younger sibs are generally good at keeping intact).

persephone said...

Hi Miryam, thanks so much for your comments. You have a couple of emails from me.

And I freely confess that I bought my kids Lego too early, because *I* was dying to play with it.