A New Challenge



The fourth in a series of the experiences of NOSHA friend Robert Wilfong using the LEGO system of hands on learning as a gateway to more and more complex skills useful in a technocratic world, and an honest assessment of his own limitations that must be overcome to continue advancement; along with some observations on group behavior.





June 7 2021

At the fifth session of the Mali Lego Project in the Belle Tanti Nana school in Bamako, we finally did a demonstration of the LEGO robots, powered sets controlled by a computer program. First the different groups finished assemblies they had started on Thursday. Then everyone gathered in a classroom and Papi, Seydou’s oldest, demonstrated the moteurs and capteurs (motors and sensors), which are the heart of the LEGO SPIKE PRIME robotics set especially designed for middle school students. Then he did a simple robot assembly, the sauterelle (hopper), and launched it from the laptop.

Needless to say, we have stepped into a brave new world. I am not sure how we will develop from here, because the needs of the groups are going to get more and more complex. But we are well on our way.

I asked Papi and Mami (Seydou’s son and daughter) if their new position as LEGO mavens have brought them new prestige. They both said they have lots of new friends since we started the LEGO program. I hope those friendships will flourish.


June 10, 2021

The Mali LEGO Project has already moved beyond my comfort zone. I am completely familiar with the original LEGOS sets. I spent hours and hours assembling them with my children. But that was long ago, pre-robotics, pre-PYTHON, pre-coding. I can teach basic brick stacking well enough, but now I have to get into coding and computer controls as well. This is not easy for me.

I was not good in math. I never got in on the ground floor of the computer age. I have known plenty of slackers and dropouts who did very well in life because computer codes spoke to them. They never spoke to me, at least not in a language I could understand.

And now I am going to try to introduce coding and robotic controls to children in French, (another language I don’t handle very well). Fortunately, the Malian children seem to have no problem adapting to this brave new world. When I first demonstrated the LEGO SPIKE PRIME set I asked Seydou if they understand the concept of Bluetooth. He laughed. “They all know Bluetooth.”

Today we had three groups assembling advanced LEGO Creator 3 in 1 sets, while I took a group of girls to introduce SPIKE PRIME (or in French, SPIKE PRINCIPAL). They got an introduction to the SPIKE Hub, the power source and brain of the robotics system, and the moteurs and capteurs (motors and sensors) which attach to the hub. They could see how the distance sensor, the force sensor and the light sensor could start and stop the motor, as well as control its speed and direction. They assembled the sauterelle (hopper) and made it sauter (hop).

The gender separation in the groups seems to be absolutely essential. In a mixed group the boys will push the girls aside and take over. But at the same time, the boys accept the existence of girls’ groups and I saw no attempt to undermine the girls’ efforts, even though the girls were getting the first shot at the robotics. Gender is very complicated, and I don’t pretend to understand it, even after a lifetime of dealing with it.

As I write this I am thinking back to the LEGO work I did with village children, which was a lot more chaotic. There I was working with larger groups, mixed both by gender and age, with more fever pitch LEGOMANIA. There the boys were much more likely to grab a work in progress from someone else (boy or girl), saying “It doesn’t go like that; it goes like this!” and then not give it back. But the girls were also tougher and more likely to smack the boys and take the piece back, while I would be wailing, “Don’t fight over it! Give it back! Use your words!” All in English, which of course they didn’t understand.

Tomorrow I will take a group of boys and give them the same intro to Spike Principal which I gave the girls today. It will be a bit more challenging, since Seydou has to go to Sikasso for a music awards ceremony, and he is my language lifeline. But if things don’t work perfectly, I am sure they will work well enough. The Mali LEGO Project is marching on.


June 24, 2021

A Mali LEGO Project continues at La Belle Tanti Nana school in Bamako, Mali. The children are assembling ever more complex sets, like the LEGO Creator 3 in 1 sets. I am already getting responses like, “We’ve already done that one!” when I present a set to be assembled. That is part of the great advantage of the 3 in 1 sets. I show them a different assembly book. “We’ve done that one, too.” I show them the third book. “No, we haven’t done that one yet.” OK! There’s your project for today.

I gave the girls the 3 in 1 dinosaur set. I asked which one they wanted to assemble. They unanimously chose the scariest one with the most teeth- the Tyrannosaurus. This is a very complex set, with lots of sub-assemblies and ball and socket connections.

The second boys’ group did the introduction to robotics. Papi demonstrated the base driving vehicle, moving en avant, en arriere, virer a gauche, et virer au droit (forward, backward, turn left, turn right). Each in turn got a chance to change the values of the code—speed, distance and direction. To do this, they had to learn to manipulate the cursor using the mouse pad. It was clear that none of them had done this before, except Seydou’s son, Papi. Eventually, we took it outside and ran the vehicle in the courtyard so that other children could see it and also do a little cursor manipulation and executer le programme (run the program).

Even though neither Seydou nor Madame Dembele (the directrice) were present yesterday, it all worked out well. One of the teachers, M. Diallo (pronounced Jallow) helped the boys assemble the boat from the Sunset Track Racer set.

Everything is going well. I am continually encouraged by the students. American teachers would kill for students like these. They are patient, they work well together, they pay attention, and they don’t forget. They have long attention spans, and there are no behavioral issues.

Parents coming in to pick up their children are starting to come by and thank me. I’m sure their children are telling them about the program. Malian children seem to tell their parents everything that is going on with them.

The next step is to contact the MaliRobots program at the Kabala University across the river.


The Humanist Advocate

June 28, 2021