Lego Education unveiled the latest evolution of its Mindstorms range last night in London, in the form of a Linux-powered ARM 9 programmable brick which, for the first time in Lego Education's history, comes with the option of running any software educators wish rather than just a proprietary Lego OS.
Mindstorms EV3 seems to have taken a cue from the successful Raspberry Pi project with this 300MHz ARM 9 offering. With four input ports for data acquisition from a number of sources and sensors, and four output ports for executing commands, the EV3's central control brick has 16MB Flash memory on board, and a further 64MB of RAM.
The brick is also equipped with an iOS chip which, said a Lego spokesman, should see "independent applications" appearing on Apple's App Store very soon.
Utilising motors and sensors that read ultrasonic, primary colour, touch and infrared inputs, students will be able to build models such as stair-climbing buggies, or elephants that can react to their environment, changing direction and gait as they encounter inanimate - and human - obstacles.
Denmark's ambassador to the UK, Anne Hedensted Steffensen, used the product launch as an opportunity to reflect on Lego's success, while at the same time offering what sounded almost like a warning to a UK still struggling to successfully position ICT and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) school teaching since education secretary Michael Gove scrapped the curriculum in January 2012.
"We are a very small country which has no raw materials, so to survive and compete internationally we have to educate ourselves to be creative and innovative in order to stay competitive in the world," said Steffensen.
"Denmark has positions of commercial strength in fields such as fashion, furniture, architecture and design, as well as in small plastic bricks, which can now also move," she quipped.
"But we are also recognised nowadays for technology, biosciences, software development. We have a lot of good export articles. All of this from a country which is roughly the size of South London."
Chris Carver, head of technology at Kingsbury High School, London, spoke about his status as a certified Lego teacher.
"In ICT, we teach programming. Logo, Scratch and Java as well. But alongside that we also teach with Lego Mindstorms. What we find is that not everyone is going to be a coder - some are going to be engineers. Some are going to take a product - because code is only part of a product - and [use it to] engineer something that's real."
Carver gave a Lego Segue as an example - the miniature two-wheeled electronic transport able to stand independently for several minutes by adhering to the physical principles of its real-life counterpart.
"It's about letting [students] have a go," said Carver. "They might not follow it as a career, but it's about giving them a taste."
While Raspberry Pi continues to fly off the shelves in the hobbyist market, with December's launch of the Pi's own store likely to see an increased uptake in eduction, Lego's latest offering seems to offer a product tailor-made for teaching students about coding and engineering.
The reprogrammable brick could theoretically be adapted to accommodate Windows as well as any number of bespoke Linux builds.
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