Saving a Lego® Man from a Burning Building


Evan Boucher

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

University of North Dakota


The students’ concentration is palpable in Tom Stokke’s cScibot Lego® Intro Robotics Camp, where children ages 9-14 come and solve Lego robotic problems through intricate programming. On Friday, June 24, the students attempted to save a Lego man from a burning building, navigating their robot through a maze to retrieve and return the figurine back to safely.

Director of the program, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Tom Stokke, believes “it's an opportunity to educate kids while they think they're 'playing.'” He knows that this alternative style of camp has its place among the many options for youth today, even if it’s just out of curiosity. “If they just want to work with a robot that’s fine, but if they come out thinking science is OK, that’s fine.”

The tools for the camp, Lego Mindstorms, are packages of robotic interfaces for Lego pieces, giving them life through motors, computer programming and, even, elaborate light and sound sensors. The advantage of the kits is their infinite ability to accommodate different approaches to similar problems. Released in the early 2000s, the kits have become more programmable and are being used widely around the country to teach computer programming, engineering and robotics.

The camp’s challenges range from saving a burning man to navigating an intricate ply-wood maze. Overall, Stokke hopes to teach “some of the goals of problem solving and critical thinking skills.”

Participants are highly focused on programming and concentrate in a non-competitive environment. One of the kids, Kendrick Wilde, claimed, “it’s more trial and error. You just have to keep trying and trying until you get it right. I’m trying to get one turn right, which I just can’t get. It was supposed to turn diagonal but it just goes into the wall.”

Stokke argues that these problems are all part of the learning process. “Right and wrong isn’t necessarily binary.” He continued “Ok, it didn’t get to the end-point, but even though it did something wrong, it should have done a lot of things right. Can we see what was right and apply that to what we try next to get closer to a solution?”

Participants in the camp hail from all over the country. One is from Mississippi, others from as far as Nairobi, Kenya. Josh Knapp, of Syracuse, NY, claimed “we’re trying to rescue our person. We’re doing our own thing. It’s not really a competition but everyone is trying to do it first.”

“I’m planning on buying a Mindstorm kit,” stated Nate Hopkins of Nairobi. “Since I want to be a robotic engineer, my mom is going to help me by putting in for half of a kit.”

“It’s not a game. You don’t have a joystick,” said Stokke. Describing the participants’ ages, he said, “They don’t come with any pre-conceived notions. They’re just playing. You hope they learn some things that can be applied.”

An advanced camp begins the week of June 26 and continues for the entire week. Participants in the camp will solve more complex mechanical and programming problems.