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It wasn't just college professors and robot enthusiasts who recently launched a set of robots into Earth's atmosphere to collect data, but middle school students as well! The High Altitude LEGO Extravaganza was part of the 10th anniversary of LEGO Mindstorms, sets of programmable bricks fit with sensors and motors. Though they were first envisioned as educational toys that would allow children to design, build, and program robots, they proved to be powerful and popular among robotics enthusiasts, able to model real-life systems like elevators and industrial robots. And now they're going into space!
But at their heart, Mindstorms are still fantastic educational tools. Not only are they a great way to introduce students to computer programming (you can even use popular languages like C++ and Java, giving them the building blocks for advanced placement computer science courses), but they're great for teaching all sorts of scientific concepts, especially in physics. LEGO even sells activity packs by age group and subject area, explaining how to use Mindstorms to teach everything from solar energy to levers and pulleys. There are even Mindstorms intended for 3-5 year olds, where preschoolers learn to build their own toys.
Many middle schools around the country have held LEGO camps, designed to get kids interested in science and engineering. Mindstorms are a great introduction to the more complicated mechanisms that they would be working with in high school robotics teams, or if they go on to study computer science or engineering in college. By the end of some Mindstorms instruction, even an eight year old can build a robot that can maneuver its way through an obstacle course. Imagine how impressed the parents of your third graders would be if they saw that!
LEGOs are so popular among kids already (especially with the new LEGO-based videogames) that many would be thrilled to have Mindstorms show up in a science class. After all, some of the best learning takes place when you can convince your students that they're playing. And who knows--maybe someday they'll build something that goes into space!