Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Chirp, Chirp! Here come the crickets...

The latest offering to emerge from research at the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, has once again got proponents of “hands-on”, creative learning excited in eager anticipation. The PICO Cricket kit, due to be released in the coming weeks presents some thrilling possibilities for informal learning spaces. As someone who volunteered for the workshops at MIT Museum in 2003 during the ‘Playful Invention & Exploration’ (PIE) research project, I have a personal connection as well with this product.

Sidhanth at a PIE Workshop
PIE Workshops at the MIT Museum - Pictures of my (then) 6-year old son at the 'e-Insect Invasion' workshop in April 2003

Simply put, PicoCricket is “a LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Kit meets a Klutz Craft Kit” i.e. LEGO pieces + ‘Electronic Thingees’ + Craft materials, where ‘Electronic Thingees’ = a microcomputer (the legendary MIT Media Lab “cricket” encased in a plastic body, much like the LEGO RCX brick), LEDs, sensors & motors. The colorful craft materials range from foam balls to pipe cleaners to straws, beads and buttons. [In the hands of a resourceful, creative individual, the kit could be “enhanced” by any number of “craft materials” from all around us - there is no dearth of plastic and metal knick-knacks that could be recycled to find a new home - and use.]

What differentiates this product from the Mindstorms, is, of course, the emphasis on creativity and craft, which as I see, will serve to bridge the technology gender divide (I speak from first-hand experience – boys have outnumbered girls by far in the after-school Robotics Club I have run for high-schoolers for the past 3 years). It is not only the inclusion of craft materials that sets this apart from the Mindstorms, but also the exclusion of the vast numbers of wheels, axles, tires, treads and hubs, that account for a large percentage of the Mindstorms kit. Kids take one look at the Mindstorms kit and “roving bots on wheels” is probably the first "robot" idea that strikes them. One look at the Crickets kit and kids could think of a zillion different exciting, colorful artifacts. "Arts & Crafts for the Digital Age", is how NYT has described it.

At $250, this kit seems quite pricey (more so for the Indian market), especially given that the LEGO Mindstorms NXT seems to have a lot more (in terms of sheer size of the kit) for the same price; but that has not deterred critics from giving this product a thumbs-up. (I queried Mitch Resnick at the Media Lab about this when he showed me the Cricket kit this past spring; he thinks that bulk production - driven by demand, will hopefully bring down the price some time in the future).

I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on one of these ...

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