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.
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
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.
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.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
Television Council -
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