Graphical Programming Gets Ready To Enter Grade School

Sept. 11, 2008
NI Week has always been one of my favorite industry conferences. National Instruments does such a great job presenting its latest innovations as well as those of others in the LabVIEW community. This year was no exception. One of the announcements at

NI Week has always been one of my favorite industry conferences. National Instruments does such a great job presenting its latest innovations as well as those of others in the LabVIEW community. This year was no exception.

One of the announcements at this year’s show was a product called WeDo, a classroom robotics platform from the LEGO Group ( It puts the power of graphical programming into the hands of students as young as 7 years old.

WeDo combines typical LEGO blocks with electronic components such as motors and sensors. These devices attach to a PC via a USB cable and can be programmed via simple graphical programming software. I saw a demo of WeDo on the show floor and thought it nicely integrated elements of toys, electronics, programming, and storytelling.

However, I was really impressed by a demonstration by 11-year-old Sarah Almgren at one of the keynotes. Sarah is the daughter of Ray Almgren, vice president of product marketing and academic relations at NI. Watching Sarah skillfully arrange programming blocks on the screen brought a new dimension of understanding to me of how powerful graphical programming can be in the hands of youngsters.

You can watch her performance at The video is called LEGO and the WeDo. WeDo will be available initially to elementary schools starting in January 2009.

THE POWER OF NETWORTWORKS I’m not one who can take advantage of the in-depth technical sessions at NI Week. But I do make it my business to attend all of the keynotes at the conference. This year the invited speaker was Andrew Hargadon, who spoke on Discovering Innovation Through the Network.

His presentation outlined his thoughts on how innovation takes place, especially in the engineering community. Essentially, he gives short shrift to the theory of the lone inventor and instead advances the concepts of re-combination and networking as the keys to delivering engineering and other innovations to the masses.

One of his examples of the power of networking concerned LEGO itself. He said that LEGO almost went broke in the late 1990s, but then the company started to build out its network. First, LEGO licensed the Star Wars franchise. Then, it decided to develop its own characters called Bionicles and added story lines and other support. A few years ago, LEGO teamed up with National Instruments to develop Mindstorms.

“They’ve created a better network around their toys to give kids the opportunity to engage in so many different ways than they had done previously. What we see with FIRST Robotics, LEGO Mindstorms, and now WeDo is a wonderful set of new networks being built that include all the suppliers who are providing all the equipment and materials for these contests and these games,” Hargadon said.

Just as interesting, Hargadon explained that the typical LEGO block costs about $0.016 each. After LEGO made the Star Wars deal, the value of a brick increased to $0.13. With Mindstorms, the value of a brick increased to $0.51. You can view his entire keynote at the page referenced above. Hargadon is also the author of a book called How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate.

THE ENGINEERING FUTURE All this talk about engineering education got me wondering about children, specifically the offspring of today’s engineers. I have two grown children, but neither one showed an interest in engineering. At dinner on the last night of NI Week, I asked editors Lou Frenzel and Bill Wong about their children.

Lou has four kids, and although a couple of them have technical careers, none have an engineering degree. Bill Wong’s answer really blew me away, though. Bill’s wife is an engineer, and all three of his children, including two daughters, are engineers. What’s more, each of them majored in a different engineering discipline! I offer that up as a world record. I’d be happy to hear from anyone who could match that.

VIDEO INTERVIEWS FROMROM NI WEEK I did something at NI Week that I’ve never done before—video interviews. I interviewed the product managers of all the new products NI announced at the show. These videos should give you additional insights into LabVIEW version 8.6, new products for remote wireless data acquisition, products for wireless test, single-board additions to NI’s reconfigurable I/O (RIO) platform, and LEGO WeDo.

I also interviewed Dr. James Truchard, which was a big thrill for me. Dr. Truchard is, of course, the president, CEO, and cofounder of National Instruments. You can watch all the videos at

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About the Author

Joe Desposito | Editor-in-Chief

Joe is Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Design magazine.


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