Lego Education is launching a new line to teach engineering and robotics concepts to kids in a celebration of sorts for the STEAM-focused toy division's 40th anniversary.
Called Spike Prime, the new education system is aimed at students ages 10 and up, from sixth to eighth grade. Lego Education, an education-focused division of the iconic building toy manufacturer, first announced the system last April and is rolling it out today (Jan. 14).
"Essentially, it is a Lego kit," Sid Muthyala, a senior concept designer for Spike Prime, told Space.com. "It's a tool box with a lot of Lego elements, a lot of bricks to build with. What we're adding to the set, along with the physical tools, is the hardware."
That means these aren't Lego kits you'll find at your local toy shop or department store. They're aimed at educators looking to incorporate hands-on STEAM concepts in the classroom.
Each Spike Prime kit sells for $329.95 and can be used by two or three kids in a class setting to solve engineering, programming and other challenges from one of 32 different lesson plans. Those lesson plans are organized in four teaching units with names like Kickstarter Business or Invention Squad, and are included in a free Spike Prime app. Programming commands are set using the Scratch coding language.
"The themes we're choosing, we're trying to be relevant to kids today," Muthyala said. "So it's not just 'Hey, learn about motions and forces,' but let's try and use inventions, and then try and teach them motions and mechanics."
The set comes with 528 pieces in range of shapes and vibrant colors, three motors, three sensors, a series of data cables and a yellow multi-port Hub that serves as the brain of the set. The Hub can carry multiple programs and be commanded to light up and play sounds.
Spike Prime also includes 11 completely new Lego elements, including a Technic base plate that allows building in all directions, new wheel designs and an odd, purple 3x3 Technic brick called a "biscuit" to allow more connections for challenges.
Those challenges can range from building a "Weather Guy" robot, complete with sunglasses and an umbrella, and linking it with weather data from different cities, to programming a robot to dance on command using colored bricks. There are also sensors that can track color, distance and pressure to allow kids to design robots with different functions.
Some building challenges include a handheld grabber tool, a grasshopper-like insect, a rhino-like pressure sensor bot and — my personal favorite — a breakdancing robot that can move its hips, legs and arms separately depending on how students program it. But each of the lesson plans is designed to take about 45 minutes, including time for cleaning up.
I took one Spike Prime challenge to design a robot capable of moving itself forward for two seconds. Muthyala programmed that action in the Spike Prime app using scratch, and it was up to me to add pieces to a hub equipped with two motors to make the robot.
Once my robot was moving, Muthyala shared a student-design creation that used arms instead of wheels to pull itself along.
"So the idea is, we both used the exact same thing, a hub and two motors, but now we have two different ways of moving your creatures," he said. "Now imagine that in a classroom with 20 sets and 20 students. We've done this several time and there's 20 different ways of moving, just by trial and error."
Spike Prime fills a middle-school niche for Lego STEAM robotics, falling between the Lego Education's WeDo 2.0 system for elementary school students and the more advanced Mindstorms system for secondary and high school students. Lego Education has also released an expansion set with more pieces for Spike Prime and has a Competition Ready teaching unit for use with the FIRST Lego League and World Robot Olympiad competitions.
"As an educator who is always trying to find new ways to teach STEAM topics, I'm excited about Lego Education Spike Prime because it fits in with the maker mindset and creative elements that help get students at all levels involved and hands-on in the classroom," Jon Bishop, a K-12 STEM coordinator for Canton Public School District in Connecticut and a Lego Master Educator, said in a statement.
And that's the point, Muthyala said.
Lego Education stands apart from Lego's entertainment toy division precisely because it aims to engage kids in the world around them. That was true in 1980, when Lego Education was founded, and the mission has evolved over the last four decades.
The first STEAM and robotics elements arose 20 years ago with Mindstorms, Muthyala said. The challenge today is to prepare kids for the technologies and concepts they'll need once they leave school.
"I think for us, we've always been an education company," he said. "For 40 years now, we've been doing hands-on learning."
- The Best Lego Deals for Space Fans
- Stellar Deals on Telescopes and Binoculars
- The Best Gifts and Deals for Space Fans