LEGO makes a big announcement at CES 2016

Do engineering toys really help kids learn?

Kids have it pretty good. Increasingly text books are being replaced with cool gadgets designed to teach skills like programming, robotics, and engineering. When I was in elementary school we did a lot of finger painting.

My finger painting childhood aside, it's no wonder STEM education is being touted with some urgency. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2020 the U.S. will create 1.4 million jobs in computer science-related fields. If current trends continue, U.S. citizens with the necessary skills and experience will fill only 30% of those jobs.

Today, like a reconfigurable horse to the rescue, LEGO Education announced its new robot-based learning system, which it hopes teachers will incorporate into their curricula. Motorized LEGOs in school? Dude ...

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Cool factor aside, using gadgets in the classroom is not without controversy. One commonly cited issue with any new education technology is that it requires a significant time investment from teachers just to get to the level of competence needed to gauge whether a gadget or program is a good fit for a particular set of students and educational outcomes. Teachers are stretched thin as it is and time is in short supply.

A vocal faction of parent and teacher advocacy groups have also charged tech companies like Apple with lobbying for lucrative education contracts without due consideration of the educational effectiveness of their products in the classroom. Technology often moves quicker than education research, and the efficacy of technology-based learning to foster deeper STEM skills is a matter of some dispute.

To its credit, LEGO education has been around for 35 years and has an excellent reputation with teachers. Nor is the company a newbie to robotics. The block-maker's Mindstorms sets are a popular gateway drug for would-be bot enthusiasts. With WeDo 2.0 the company hopes to expand its reach in schools, an attractive and highly profitable market for technology providers.

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Origin Kit from RobotTerra

The new kit combines a LEGO brick set with servos and classroom-friendly software. Through a series of collaborative challenges, students engage with science, engineering, technology, and coding, which LEGO hopes will spark a love for experimentation and investigation. Teachers receive more than 40 hours of curriculum, along with assessment tools.

Another company, RoboTerra, will use CES to show off its Origin Kit, which contains an array of sensors, actuators, and software for high schoolers to build functional robots.

In my opinion, robotics is an excellent way to provide hands-on STEM education that engages kids. But to the class of 2025 I offer a warning: enjoy the cool toys, but don't forget to do some finger painting along the way.

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