How Lego Is Constructing the Next Generation of Engineers

With programmable robots and student competitions, Lego is making “tinkering with machines cool again”

Lego’s new Mindstorms EV3 kit lets users build 17 different robots and program them directly through an “intelligent brick.” (Ian Allen)
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A teenage girl on another team—her pinkish tresses braided with Chinese finger traps—pops her head into the Carbonaut huddle and cracks, “You’d be surprised.”

A buzzer sounds. Egged on in the stands by cheering sections and hyperventilating parents, the teams set their folklift-like robots in motion on the course. The object: to snatch rubber rings from a vertical heap and deposit them on horizontal spokes. The Carbonaut bot grabs, drops, stalls, rams into walls and yet somehow...wins the heat.

Like a worn-down stock car, the triumphant bot is rolled back to the “pits,” where the Carbonauts monkey with the algorithm, changing speed and direction variables. Asked if he has ever participated in a tournament tarnished by a robotic doping scandal, teammate C.J. Geering deadpans, “The judges occasionally ask us for samples of electricity, but so far none of ours have been tainted. The last thing we want is to have to appear on a TV special with Oprah.”

Across a partition, Austin Hwa and Thomas McClure, clad in crimson cravats, toques and chef’s jackets, lounge beside a pyramid of Lego bricks. They’re members of Chef-Bot-Ardees, a mostly middle school contingent from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

This year’s Lego League Challenge is to solve issues faced by the elderly. The chefs have whipped up a robotic walker fitted with a magnetic tray.

“The tray is magnetized to keep knives and forks from falling off,” explains Hwa.

“And spoons,” adds McClure, helpfully.

Thirteen-year-old Hwa says Lego robotics have put him on the tech track. McClure, who’s 10, isn’t so sure engineering is in his future. “Not to go off topic,” he says, “but I don’t think I’ll necessarily go into that line of work.”

He contemplates the Lego pyra- mid through the lattice of his fingers. “I’m in the fifth-grade band, the percussion section,” he says. “There’s a really high chance I’ll grow up to be a rock drummer.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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