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Building engineers, one LEGO brick at a time

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Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The 2011 Youth Business International (YBI) Entrepreneur of the Year competition award went to an Israeli startup that teaches children the fundamentals of engineering and robotics as they play with toy building sets. “Integrating engineering with playing is a new approach,” says Amir Asor, the 26-year-old CEO of the Decade Group, recipient of the prestigious award last November.

The British-based YBI non-profit organization, headed by Prince Charles, chose Asor’s initiative over hundreds of entrants from all over the world “because his business is innovative, unique and perhaps, most importantly, has the potential to expand greatly in the coming years,” according to the YBI website. “The judges loved the fact that his invention is making a contribution to children’s learning.”

“It was a year-long process to reach the competition’s final,” says Asor. “The judges told me they were most impressed by the project’s effectiveness in educational terms. We believe that our product has tremendous potential. We can both stimulate children and teach them.”

Asor has designed a series of programs that use Lego and K’nex construction toys to cultivate young minds’ creativity and skills while they have fun. “The child doesn’t have to concentrate, just to play,” he says, as an instructor shows a group of curious children how to put a conveyor belt together. “They quickly pick up how to visualize a design concept from beginning to finish. Most adults don’t understand what’s going on here, but children can really easily understand it – by playing.”

Amir Asor creating at his office

Emphasis on intuition

Asor cultivated the concept as a student of economics and computer science at Israel’s Open University. “I played around with Lego a lot at home and gradually formulated educational programs for children,” he says.

He found the Israeli educational establishment amenable to his idea. “I met with dozens of school principals. It wasn’t difficult to persuade them to adopt the programs once they’d seen the concept in action. We opened with a pilot project in 2008 in 10 education centers – schools or community centers. The following year we already grew to 1,100 students in 91 education centers, and this year we have 2,500 children playing as they learn in 135 educational centers around the country.”

The weekly extracurricular small-group activity lasts 75 minutes. Big Builders, for ages four to six, uses K’nex to develop motor skills and solve basic engineering problems. In the Lego Challenge, 6- to 12-year-olds build surprisingly complex models by internalizing and integrating mathematical principles. The Galilego course for ages 10-13 investigates machines from an engineer’s point of view, focusing on solution-finding, teamwork and machine dynamics.

It may sound highly technical, but Asor says the emphasis is on intuition. “We use the child’s natural instinct for playing and link it with learning. Establishing this connection will make the child continue to be curious for the rest of his life.”

The Entrepreneur of the Year with one of his employees

On-site tweaking

The concept has been tried before. “In the 1980s and 1990s Lego and the [Israeli] Education Ministry came up with a program that connected playing with learning,” says Asor. “But they encountered all sorts of problems and suffered from low attentiveness and study levels. There was something wrong with the way they were teaching – most importantly, the integration between how the material was transmitted and the playing aspect was less than optimal. The program operated in several schools for a couple of years, but was dropped.”

That Asor’s company has made it this far is in no small part due to the Keren Shemesh Fund for Young Entrepreneurs, which supports small Israeli enterprises. “I don’t have the reserves needed [to make such an investment], and no bank would have taken such a risk,” he says. “Beyond the financial support, they have acted as mentors,” adds Asor.

“We actually closed deals before we had a finished product,” he reveals. “I did on-job training during that first year, by constantly gauging the young students’ feedback. This allowed me to prepare programs based on the children’s progress. The courses have been revised many times. We’ve reached the stage where I can confidently say that we’re very close to optimization.”

A global message

The company already employs 25 people, and more instructors are slated to undergo an intensive week-long training course. “We’re going to be a global business,” says Asor. “We can now provide the service directly. The next stage is franchising.” To prepare for this rollout, the training manuals have been translated into Spanish and English.