IT is the children’s toy that has provided the building blocks for many a happy childhood.
Now Lego is being used to inspire the next generation of engineers and technicians as part of an international schools’ competition that is proving increasingly popular among pupils north of the border.
The final Scottish heats of the First Lego League (FLL) will take place over the next three weekends in Edinburgh, St Andrews and Dundee with a place in the UK finals up for grabs.
Working in teams, more than 1,000 pupils aged nine to 16 have spent three months designing, building and programming robots – using advanced Lego Minestorm kits – which are capable of tackling a variety of set missions.
“I think most children are familiar with Lego from a young age – they find it very inspiring they can build anything they want,” said Scottish organiser Laura Meikle.
“I did robotics at the University of Edinburgh and some of the tasks these kids are completing are more difficult. I’ve seen them build machines from scratch that can pick up a ball and throw it in a net.”
The Lego League was established in 1999 by American entrepreneur Dean Kamen and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, former president of Lego, with the intention of encouraging more children to taken an interest in science and technology.
Teams build robots which can tackle real-world problems to a set theme – with 2015 entrants expected to create innovative ways in which rubbish can be recycled.
Meikle, from Lauder in the Borders, arranged the first FLL heats to be held in Scotland in 2013.
“It is a really inspiring programme that makes kids want to invent,” she said. “It helps them understand that science and technology can help their communities and the wider world, and hopefully inspires them to consider future careers in these areas.
“It’s no secret there’s a chronic shortage of people with suitable engineering and IT skills in Scotland and the UK.”
Meikle believes there is a complex range of factors involved, which the FLL can help tackle.
“Children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly girls, are not always encouraged into such fields,” she said. “They presume these are not jobs for them. We need to change attitudes among kids as well as teachers and parents. Science and technology subjects can be fun – but they can be taught in a very dry way.”
The winners of each regional FLL tournament will also go on to the UK national finals hosted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
A team will be selected at this event to represent the UK at the world final in St Louis, Missouri.
Although the competition is open to pupils of primary and high school age, Meilke insists the younger entrants are not at a disadvantage.
“It’s not all about hard skills like computing and maths. We’re also looking at softer skills such as how to communicate and get on with people,” she added. “People wonder how a nine-year-old can compete against a 16-year-old. But you would be surprised – half of the teams that win come from primary schools. We don’t solely judge the robot that is produced. We interview them about the design, why they chose it, how it can be improved, as well as research other projects and deliver a presentation. Younger children have no inhibitions and often deliver the best presentations.”
The Scottish heats are promoted by The Young Academy of Scotland (YAS), an affiliate of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Lambda Jam, a Scottish non-profit company set up to foster problem solving skills in children.
Skills Development Scotland is supporting the programme as part of its Digital World campaign, which aims to change attitudes and promote careers in the digital technology sector.
YAS member and FLL organiser Fiona McNeill said: “We’re really focussed on helping kids to access the amazing possibilities in technology and engineering – industries which are crying out for enthusiastic people and which see thousands of jobs go unfilled.”