Erin Cejka

CD 145/ED182

Prof. Marina Bers

Tufts University

April 7, 2004


Robotics in Kindergarten and LEGO Bricks for Graduate School: ROBOLAB for K-College Education

To download this paper as a word document, click here.



The story of the development of ROBOLAB, a graphically based programming language for data acquisition and robotic automation, is presented along with its constructionist theoretical background. The LEGO Company, National Instruments, and Tufts University’s College of Engineering collaborate to create and refine this innovative educational technology. The work of Tufts University Professor Chris Rogers is highlighted for his efforts to extend the capabilities of this software and promote its use in schools. ROBOLAB’s features, described within this paper, have made it popular with users from preschool to professional levels.



Lindsey[1] proudly shows off her creation to the crowd. “It’s a remote control car,” she tells us, a little intimidated by the large number of peers, parents, professors, and graduate students who have arrived for the presentation. “I programmed the remote so that I can control its motion in all directions with touch sensors. I built the car so it would be sturdy and fast and be able to turn,” she explains, as she demonstrates. As the crowd applauds and pictures are taken, it is amazing to think that this is only one of several creations she has built during her ten hours at this after school program. It is more amazing because Lindsey is in the fourth grade.


Advanced robotic creations and sophisticated computer programming environments may sound like the domain of university engineering students in basement laboratories, but ROBOLAB, a graphical programming language, and the LEGO RCX, a computer-embedded brick, make these complex projects available to much younger students in a variety of settings. From small cars and voting booths, to fax machines and fluid dynamics experiments, ROBOLAB is part of valuable educational experiences for a growing number of students in kindergarten to graduate-level classrooms worldwide.


ROBOLAB, an Overview

ROBOLAB is a graphic based programming language created as a partnership between the LEGO Company’s Education Division (formerly LEGO Dacta), National Instruments (NI), and Tufts University. Powered by NI’s LabVIEW software, ROBOLAB was written at Tufts as an educational software for programmable robotics and data acquisition applications. ROBOLAB is commercially available and is used in over 30,000 schools worldwide. The ROBOLAB software has won multiple awards for its innovation, capabilities, and overall design (LEGO, 2004a). It works with both PC and Macintosh platforms and is on its third major release – version 2.5.

The Opening Screen of ROBOLAB


Theoretical Framework

The insights into engineering and design learned by Lindsey and her peers came from engaging hands-on in a project that tied together their math and science knowledge with their creative abilities, aesthetic sensibilities, and new ROBOLAB programming skills. Learning by doing is an educational approach with it roots in the theory of Jean Piaget, who claimed that knowledge is not transmitted to children, but is constructed in the children’s minds (Siegler, 1986).  This theory, known as constructivism, is extended by the work of Seymour Papert of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory. Constructionism, Papert’s theory, purports that not only do we learn by doing, but we learn best when we are engaged in building some type of external artifact, be it a robot, a theory, or a story (Papert & Harel, 1991). He breaks with Piaget by ascribing a larger role to the surrounding culture in providing the student with materials with which he or she constructs. 


In the late 1970s Papert saw the development of a new element in society that he believed would revolutionize learning – the computer.  Papert believes that by programming the computer a child “establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building” (Papert, 1980: p. 5).   Programming allows, or compels, children to think about their own thinking. They must make processes explicit to teach the computer how to perform some task. In doing so, they come to know a lot about learning. The computer is powerful in its universal application; it allows for experiences that can be personalized to each student. Papert’s Constructionist theory has been adopted by the creators of ROBOLAB, and is espoused by LEGO in its own learning philosophy (LEGO, 2004c). In fact, LEGO was so taken with the theories of Papert, that it named its robotics construction kits Mindstorms after Papert’s groundbreaking book.


LEGO Education Division puts forward a four-step learning process that its products are designed to champion. First, LEGO claims that students need to connect with the new material they are presented with. They should be able to link their previous knowledge to the new situations they are being presented with. The LEGO bricks are exceptional as a learning tool because of their familiarity to most students. Secondly, the learning by making philosophy is shown in the construct phase, where students learn by “constructing things in the real world and piecing knowledge together in the mind”(LEGO, 2004b).  Next, in the contemplate phase, students reflect on and discuss their experience. Finally, students enter the continue phase, which is marked by a desire to learn more(LEGO, 2004b). Lifelong learning and promoting natural curiosity should be among the goals of any educational technology.


The Major Players

How did LEGO, National Instruments, and Tufts University’s College of Engineering come to collaborate on such a project? The LEGO Company has both products children are quite familiar with, and a dedication to education. Most importantly, however, these familiar products are quite durable, inexpensive, readily available, and contain a number of real engineering elements besides the traditional brick – motors, lamps, sensors, etc. National Instruments (NI) is also a company committed to education. They produce LabVIEW, a popular data acquisition and automation software among scientists and engineers.  NI is devoted to engineering education, both in its local community in Austin, Texas, and around the world (NI, 2004). Tufts University, a small, prestigious liberal arts college in New England, also happens to be home to a unique engineering program, with faculty who share a dedication to educational outreach. Ten years ago it created a center, the appropriately named Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, with a mission to increase the general population’s knowledge of engineering, with a focus on K-12 students (CEEO, 2004). But how did these three powerful players come together to create ROBOLAB? Through the vision of a man whose goal is for life to be more like kindergarten, Professor Chris Rogers.


History of Robolab

Aeronautics in Kindergarten

In the early 1990s, Chris Rogers received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Air and Space Administration (NASA) to bring engineering into the elementary school through teaching aeronautics, the design and construction of aircraft. Through a series of demonstrations, group discussions, and hands-on experiments, students, as young as kindergarten, were introduced to the concepts of force, torque, and the basics of fluid dynamics.  Rogers and his colleagues began using LEGO bricks during their work with elementary students to build model airplanes, and soon began to desire a computer interface for controlling and testing the students’ designs. (Capozzoli & Rogers, 1996)


Rogers began to explore similar themes in a course he was teaching at Tufts University. In this course, students used the LEGO Control Lab interface to power motors and lamps and collect data from a limited number of sensors. The Control Lab was an inexpensive (roughly $250 a unit) and easy to use interface for data acquisition, but it needed improved capabilities and greater portability in order to be used for the advanced functions Rogers began to envision. (Capozzoli & Rogers, 1996)


The Control Lab Interface


Rogers and his students developed a LabVIEW software interface in order to answer some of these concerns. The original interface, designed through a NASA grant, was part of a project known as LDAPS, or the LEGO Data Acquisition and Prototyping System. Rogers chose LabVIEW for “two reasons: it is easy to use and easy to learn” (Capozzoli & Rogers, 1996: p. 5).  The graphical interface also made the software more accessible to young users. As Capozolli and Rogers (1996) explain, “Since it has essentially no syntax, students can program by pattern recognition without knowing how to read and write” (p. 5). They began using this interface with the K-12 students who were studying their aeronautics curriculum, and the seeds for ROBOLAB were born.


The Logo connection

The graphical basis of ROBOLAB breaks with most other programming languages used with students, in particular with Logo. Logo, developed by Seymour Papert, originally allowed students to program a ‘turtle’. The turtle could be either a character on screen used to draw shapes, or an actual robot controlled to move on the floor. Papert had developed the Logo language in the late 1960s and it has repeatedly proven to be a valuable learning tool for students (Papert, 1980). Since its creation Logo has continued to evolve and has also led to other programming languages, with much greater capabilities StarLogo , for example, explores decentralized systems using multiple turtles and programmable environmental elements called ‘patches’ (Resnick, 1996).


Programmable Bricks

Meanwhile at the Media Lab, programmable bricks were being developed to make lower cost, durable robotics components. The goal was to allow students to engage in “ubiquitous computing”, having portable computer elements integrated into everyday activities (Resnick, Martin, Sargent, & Silverman, 1996) (p443). Key design points for the programmable bricks included portability, making creating easy, and supporting multiple activities.  Another version of Logo, called Brick Logo, was developed to program these bricks, which communicate with a computer via infrared transmitters (Resnick et al., 1996). From the Media Lab’s programmable bricks, LEGO created the RCX, a LEGO brick embedded with a microprocessor that has three outputs, three inputs, an LCD display, and an infrared transmitter (Portsmore, 1999).  Today, the Media Lab has continued to refine the concept of programmable bricks with the Cricket, a much smaller, cheaper brick that behaves much like its predecessors (Resnick, Berg, & Eisenberg, 2000).




LEGO released the RCX in the fall of 1998 with two software options for controlling it. MINDSTORMS is the commercially sold software, developed as a toy for young adults. MINDSTORMS includes both text and graphical components, and can only perform a limited number of functions. ROBOLAB was released as its educational counterpart. ROBOLAB is a low-entry, high ceiling software that continues to evolve to expand its range to include both beginner and advanced programmers (Portsmore, 1999). While ROBOLAB and LOGO are conceptually similar, and have comparable capacities for programming bricks with embedded microprocessors, the ROBOLAB software can be accessible to children who are not proficient in reading or writing, or are not native English speakers. The graphical interface of ROBOLAB makes it easier and often more intuitive for young students to use (Portsmore, 1999). One can develop a knowledge of computer programming structure and logic without getting lost in complicated syntax. New versions of LOGO have employed similar designs with the creations of buttons with words that can be manipulated and ordered to program Crickets.


First Release - ROBOLAB 1.0

The first version of ROBOLAB only had robotic programming capabilities. Motors and sensors can be controlled by stringing together the graphic icons in sequence. The icons resemble the LEGO pieces with which they are associated, which makes learning the commands easier. Each icon is the equivalent of a small LabVIEW program, or a few lines of code in a text-based programming language.  ROBOLAB’s programming section (in all versions) is divided into Pilot and Inventor levels, each of which is divided into levels that increase in complexity as they increase in freedom to create and explore. In Pilot, users are given a limited number of commands from a menu to modify an existing programming sequence. This eliminates the need to string icons together, making this section more accessible to young students or those with limited motor skills.  Inventor levels have an increased number of functions available; however, users must string together their icons by hand (Portsmore, 1999).

A Pilot Program in ROBOLAB 1.0


Introducing Data Acquisition – Version 2.0

When Chris Rogers began he envisioned controlling bricks for data acquisition, and these capabilities were added in the second version of ROBOLAB. In a section called Investigator, students can program their RCX to take data, upload that data back to the computer, manipulate and perform calculation with the data, and create a presentation for sharing their findings. Additionally, the ability to share data and programs over the internet was introduced to encourage global collaboration.

ROBOLAB’s Investigator


Current State of the Art – ROBOLAB 2.5

In its current version, ROBOLAB 2.5 has expanded to include RCX to RCX communication, improved internet communication, control of a LEGO digital camera, and image and audio processing capabilities. These functions have pushed the abilities of ROBOLAB even farther, so that it can be of greater use to older students in college and beyond. Also, a series of tutorials and an expanded help session were added, making it more accessible to beginner programmers as well. Additionally, the Inventor program levels now include a smart auto-wiring feature that helps when stringing together icons.


The Inventor Programming Environment


In Use - ROBOLAB in schools and universities worldwide

Today, ROBOLAB is increasingly becoming a part of children’s learning experiences worldwide. Students across the US, as well as Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brazil, and many other locations throughout the world are engaging in robotics projects and personal investigations using ROBOLAB (LEGO, 2004d). An abundance of information is available on the internet for teachers, students, and parents to access – including tips & tricks, project ideas, and collections of projects that have been completed. Initially the engineering projects made possible by ROBOLAB were special, one time experiments for students as a break from their usual work, but now full units of curriculum based around ROBOLAB have been developed for and implemented with elementary and middle school students. ROBOLAB has grown so popular, that plans are in the works for a users’ conference this August as a part of National Instruments’ NI week in Austin, Texas. Camps for students as well as professional development workshops for educators are frequently offered, so the number of ROBOLAB users continues to grow (CEEO, 2004).


Future Directions

What’s next for ROBOLAB? Work is being conducted to test ROBOLAB on other platforms including LINUX and Palm Pilots. Specifically the work with Palms and other hand held devices is aimed at increasing the portability of the entire system. Not only would your RCX be remotely operable, but you could take all of ROBOLAB’s programming capabilities with you. Additionally, a new version of the RCX is under development that would run faster and increase the data storage capacity. The possibility of having wirelessly controlled motors and sensors is also being explored. A larger LCD display is being designed that would function as an output, connecting to the brick so that the next RCX can display data in real time without communicating with the computer. At Tufts University, graduate engineering students are creating Ultimate ROBOLAB, a language that directly controls the RCX’s microprocessor to increase its speed for improved data acquisition, extending the usefulness of ROBOLAB to graduate level research projects. 



ROBOLAB is a powerful educational tool, and its range of applications continues to increase. With a national drive for standards based education due to No Child Left Behind, and a call for increased (and improved) math, science and technology to be included throughout the pre-college curriculum (AAAS, 1993), ROBOLAB provides another innovative tool for teachers to engage their students and improve their learning. In Massachusetts, technology/engineering standards have been added to the state curriculum frameworks (Massachusetts, 2001) thanks in part to a dedication to engineering education from those involved with the creation of ROBOLAB. Meeting the demands of these standards, and bettering the students’ education, is a challenge that can be met by including ROBOLAB in the curriculum. However, school systems are faced with tight budgets and a demand for teacher education. These obstacles stand in the way of expanding the usage of ROBOLAB in schools, so every effort must continue to be made on the part of the developers to reduce cost and increase the availability of training.  The range of possibilities for learners of all ages enabled by ROBOLAB is already quite impressive. Continued development will ensure that it remains a tool for constructionist exploration and learning throughout the life of its users.



I would like to thank Merredith Portsmore for all her help in gathering old versions of the software, presentations, and journal articles. Thanks also to Chris Rogers for his continued support, answering my endless stream of emails, and paying me to play with LEGOs for all these years. Additionally, the help of Matthew Dombach was greatly appreciated in exploring the future directions for ROBOLAB.



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[1] All student names are pseudonyms.