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
its a toy doesnt mean it isnt 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,
Im thinking of this MagicBlocks game as something to augment,
either in a lab or independently at home, a course thats 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 its more like hardware design. Somebody that
uses this would probably catch stuff that that would be useful in digital
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.
Its 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. Thats what we have to do with some students,
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 theyre 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
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.