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November 22, 2001 MagicBlocks game teaches engineering students serious concepts



by Anna Bratulic

Many an engineer got his or her start by building things out of Lego blocks. Take Professor Nawwaf Kharma, of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He still has a set he tinkers with at home — just because it’s a toy doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.

Kharma hopes that aspiring engineers will also want to play with MagicBlocks, a game he and some students are developing that exercises basic concepts in digital logic, the foundation for any career in digital design.

While still very much in its developmental stage, the game consists of six “logic blocks” — literally, small boxes that can be stuck onto a board, similar to Lego, and which contain simple circuitry enabling each block to carry out one fundamental computing concept such as input, repetition, arithmetic or other logic operations.

The blocks can then be wired together and configured in different ways to create devices such as PIN detectors, decoders/encoders, simple calculators, and counters.

Augments logic

“I’m thinking of this MagicBlocks game as something to augment, either in a lab or independently at home, a course that’s taught to all pre-university students, or at least to clever students who have an interest or affinity towards digital logic or programming,” said Kharma, who teaches programming methodology and software engineering.

“Our focus is on introducing building non-trivial digital circuitry from basic blocks, so it’s more like hardware design. Somebody that uses this would probably catch stuff that that would be useful in digital logic.

“For example, the concept of discrete states; the concept of regular clock; the concept of control. What does control [in the engineering sense] mean? Concepts from programming that involve counting and repetition [are also covered], so this is very useful.

“What we did is not one-tenth as much fun as this,” said Kharma, pointing to the Lego MindStorms Web site, “but [the Lego robotics kit] has been optimized for fun.

“To tell you the truth, if I was going to teach a robotics course, I would want students to [build their own play robot] five years earlier.”

Kharma would like prospective engineering students to play with educational digital design “toys” before enrolling in university. Many seem to have only the most basic knowledge of digital logic, if any, and some have hardly done any programming, he said. Given the amount of information they will have to pick up rapidly in the four-year program, it would be useful to be able to start them off on a more advanced footing.

“It’s like riding a bicycle,” he said. “If you know how to ride a bicycle, you can go and try a motorcycle. But imagine you come here and we have to train you to ride a bicycle and, in a week, move you on to a motorcycle. That’s what we have to do with some students, exactly that.”

Hands-on engineering

At the same time, he says, games such as MagicBlocks would introduce the essential hands-on aspect of engineering at an earlier stage. University labs with limited resources may not be successful in cultivating that side of the student engineer from scratch.

“Engineering is about building things. If somebody goes into engineering and they’re interested in the spirit of engineering, what he or she would want to do is to build things that work.

“The more stimulating the projects [done in labs] are, the better, so why not try to introduce some of this earlier so that they come ready and eager? The basic motivation is to make engineering, generally, a more exciting discipline. Very carefully built and tested games can help you do this.”

The idea for MagicBlocks came from a graduate project that Kharma was supervising. He provided the specs for the project — the idea for the blocks and what he wanted each one of them to do, and student Leon Caro has the challenge of physically getting it to work. Student Vivek Venkatesh of the Education Department is also in on the development. They are now trying to secure patent rights.