Kids

Kids, robots and code: using LEGO to learn coding

“It is good for kids that are exposed to the STEM things at this young age”

Ethan, left, coded on the app. His grandfather John, right, watched how kids programmed.   Sixian Zuo

As computer programming becomes more accessible, more children are learning to code, including a dozen children on Sunday at the Halifax Central Library.

They got the chance to help code a LEGO robot.

John Burke took his eight-year-old grandson, Ethan, to the event for the first time. Burke took his first computer programming course in 1971 when he was at university.

“I learnt FORTRAN (formula translator) as a beginning, which is for engineering people,” said Burke. “And then I taught myself Pascal and Visual Basic and those programming modalities, so knowing the amount of logic which is involved, I think it would be beyond a student of this age.

“But coding now is starting to become common in schools, so I was just wondering how do they teach kids code at this age.”

Even though he questions how kids are taught code, he still thinks they should enjoy it.

“Kids need to have fun, not practice logic,” Burke said while smiling.

Ethan was in Tony Yang’s workshop.

“I would say the computer programming language is more efficient than our human language. When kids (are) learning this, it gives them a hint how to delivery efficient language by pure logic,” said Yang, who has a computer science degree, in an interview.

Yang shows how to build the LEGO robot.   Sixian Zuo

Yang had the children build the LEGO robot car brick by brick. Then he got them to connect the car with a computer by using an app called LEGO Education

Yang walked around to make sure kids grabbed the correct gear, like motion sensors and Bluetooth hubs, and put them on the robot cars the right way. The Bluetooth receiver on the robot connects the robot and programming.

Unlike other types of code, the LEGO Education interface doesn’t have complex sentences with numbers and letters. There are just a series of buttons on the bottom of the screen. Each button contains a different programming order, such as “start” and “motor that way,” to order the robot to move and stop. Kids dragged or clicked the buttons and put them together, instead of typing in code by themselves.

“The icon-based buttons make the coding friendly to kids at this age,” said Yang. “But the logic flow is the same as the higher level of computer science coding, like C and Java.”

Burke said Ethan loves LEGO and the family wants to encourage him to explore new ideas. 

“At this age, they all need to be exposed to as much as possible,” said Burke. “Cooperation, communication, problem-solving and seeing different things they have here, that is the thing Ethan can learn from this.” 

A child programming at the event.   Sixian Zuo

Yang said he believes the children are able to build and program their LEGO models while developing their skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It is good for kids that are exposed to the STEM things at this young age,” he said.

Yang said he hopes to hold a workshop like this once a month.