Lego blocks help build careers in engineering, programming

By admin
27 August 2013

If you thought Lego blocks are just a way for bored kids to pass the time, think again. Thanks to a clever project from Unisa the blocks are used as a tool to help kids learn basic programming and engineering skills.

I-SET, an acronym for Inspired towards Sciences, Engineering and Technology, is a community project of Unisa’s College for Science, Engineering and Technology which promotes an interest in these areas among South African learners. I-SET helps schools to establish robotics clubs where children can build and program mini robots after school using a set of Lego blocks and basic parts. You won’t believe what children come up with in an afternoon using these sets.

“The aim is to expose children to robotics in a fun way from a young age and to motivate them to one day study robotics,” says Doctor Patricia Gouws, a lecturer at Unisa’s school of computing.

In 2012 I-SET trained 30 Unisa students in robotics. These students, called I-SET buddies, now teach robotics to other learners and teachers.

Professor Gouws and four of her I-SET buddies presented a workshop at the College of Cape Town’s Gugulethu campus this month. About 50 students were introduced to robotics for the first time – and they loved it.

“I enjoyed it tremendously. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” says Siyabonga Nicholas Ndimeni, a second-year electrical engineering student who attended the workshop. He now wants to learn more about robotics.

The students were divided into teams – one half of the team had to build a robot car and the other half had to program it to follow a specific route. The final test was when the car could follow a route on a map.

LEFT: One of the robot cars navigate the map that will test the students' skills.
RIGHT: Siyabonga Nicholas Ndimeni and his team assemble their robot car.

“You have to be as accurate as possible. Team-mates must also learn to communicate and work together so their robot works,” says Zolile Bolani, one of the I-SET buddies workshop presenters.

The first time a team managed to get their robot car to drive along the route on the map, turn and go back to the start there was much cheering, laughter and backslapping.

“It’s incredible to see how quickly students learn a new skill,” Professor Gouws says. “It’s actually really easy. And to think they only learnt about programming for the first time this morning!”

Professor Gouws’ dream is to establish robotics clubs throughout South Africa. “If only one of the students attending the workshop starts a club in their community it’s worth the effort.”

If you’d like to start a robotics club at your school or in your community contact I-SET on its Facebook page. To see all the things kids have built with Lego blocks go to

Shané Barnard

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