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MIT Brings Brains to Play


I'll never forget a Christmas present I received when I was about 12 years old. It was a big box with all sorts of electronic parts within it and came with instructions to build 101 different things that lit up, made noise, and ate through batteries. Notwithstanding the expenses incurred for numerous packages of double-As, this gift started an interest in electronics that I have never forgotten.


Today the toy stores are packed with playthings deemed to be "educational." Yet this description is often misleading and toys are usually driven more by popular culture than learning potential. Fortunately MIT -- one of the greatest brain centers of the country -- also likes toys and has had an earlier impact on your child's playtime. Now they are releasing yet another ingenious idea.


The MIT Media Lab is a huge group of graduate researchers working on an amazingly divergent list of media related projects and studies. They represent the leading edge of technological know-how, and have played a part in many of the things we use in our society. If your kids have used Lego Mindstorms at home or school, they have had a brush with the advanced thinking at MIT.


While Mindstorms have taken a hold on the marketplace as a great way to introduce young minds (and some older ones!) to robotics, a new "toy" is appearing from this incubator of intelligent play. Called the Pico Cricket, it allows inquiring minds to design "artistic creations" (quoting the Pico Cricket's designer, Dr. Mitch Resnick, from the MIT Media Lab) that respond to light, touch and sound.


Sold much like Lego, the main kit comes in a box with a variety of bits and pieces that include a motor, sound box, a couple of lights, a digital display and a selection of sensors. It's these sensors that allow the items your child puts together to interact with the real world. With the ability to detect light, sound, touch and resistance (an electrical property that allows for the detection of moisture or other elements) the items these little devices are embedded into can begin to interact in novel ways. There is also a selection of craft materials and Lego bricks included that allows motion projects to be built.


All of these items connect into yet another little box holding the main "brains" of the operation. Kids can program this central computer by running software on their family PC or Mac that uses an easy to understand graphical programming language called "PicoBlocks" where they put commands together in a building block format. According to Dr. Resnick, most kids get the hang of this elementary programming language in just a few minutes. He also assures that the parts in the kit are "very durable" and says they have had "very few problems with parts breaking or not working."


To give you an idea of what can be designed, this page offers a selection of project suggestions (printouts of these sheets are included with the kit). For instance, a simple cat can be made from fabric and a light sensor attached to its collar that can detect when someone is petting it (a hand would block the light). This sets off a program that causes the cat to meow.


The price of admission into this creative center isn't cheap. The kit sells for $250. However, compare that to a week or two at a computer camp or similar educational experience, and this purchase may look more feasible. Dr. Resnick also states he has found a wide variety of ages, from kindergarten to university students, who take an interest in creating designs.


This is true nerdiness at its best, but there is a serious side to this as well. Our children and teens are surrounded by electronics that, for the most part, are a one-way experience. Whether it's a television, music player, or even a video game, they essentially turn on the device and sit back. A computer offers somewhat more interactivity, but the user still isn't learning anything about how the device itself works.


I decided to not pursue a career in electronics technology, but the things I learned from my electronics kit set me on a path where I'm still very much "technologically aware" as an adult. Considering how much money you have spent or will spend on other toys or games over the years, true learning items like the Pico Cricket may be a far better investment. And, thankfully, the latest rechargeable batteries will keep the expendable costs of purchasing this kit under control.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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