Life & Culture

Solving the crisis - it's child's play


Who would have thought it? Lego could be the key to improving global economies.

According to Israeli entrepreneur Amir Asor, the popular children's building brick is integral to training the next generation of engineers, who will in turn play an increasingly important role in solving some of the world's financial difficulties. So convinced is Mr Asor that he has set up a business based on it.

His rapidly growing company, Young Engineers, has developed a programme which uses Lego and robotics to teach children aged four to 12 the intricacies of engineering.

And Mr Asor is not alone in seeing its potential. The 26 year-old was recently named Entrepreneur of the Year by The Prince of Wales's Youth Business International, supported by Barclays Capital. And he has secured around NIS 250,000 (£42,500) in funding from investment vehicle Keren Shemesh.

Mr Asor says: "I believe that the right use of Lego could certainly advance and foster the next generation of engineers.

The world is advancing in a ditigal way and engineering is the cornerstone of the digital world

"The world is advancing in a digital way and engineering is the cornerstone of the digital world. There is no doubt that engineers are vital to our world's development."

He continues: "Engineering is key to answering the current problems we are experiencing in the business world. The right use of technology could increase GDP, decrease dependency on imports and increase exports. This would strengthen a nation's exchange rate, increase sales and decrease unemployment."

How does the Young Engineers programme work? Instructors demonstrate a scientific principle using an interactive Lego model. The child replicates by building their own model enabling them to understand the concept both in theory and practice.

The models are built step by step and at the child's own pace with more complex add-ons available to those who finish quickly. Models include vehicles, cranes, robots, amusement-park rides and conveyor belts.

The programme is currently only operational in Israel where it is being used in more than 100 schools and education centres but Mr Asor is planning an ambitious international roll-out. The UK, Europe, Africa and Latin America are on the agenda with plans already underway in the US. He is in advanced discussions with Israel's Education Ministry about formally incorporating the programme into the national curriculum.

His concept should too appeal to the UK government as sources show that there is a significant lack of skilled craftsmen/crafts jobs in Britain despite one million 16-to-24 year-olds being out of work.

According to reports, many manual-trade firms are being forced to recruit foreign workers because the British education system is not equipping teenagers with the necessary basic skills.

Mr Asor says: "There is a shortage of skilled crafts people in the job market. In the UK for instance, many come from abroad to work in this area resulting in an unhealthy imbalance in the sector. Schools should celebrate jobs that require professional practical skills and not just academia.

"They should focus on techniques that combine practical skills, artistic thinking and academia. Our programme prepares children in the best possible way to join the world of work."

He adds: "One of the reasons I started the business was to equip children with the learning tools most relevant to Israel's economy - technology."

But what was once an innovative idea to promote science to children and make lessons more accessible has developed into a solid business.

Launched in 2008 the programme grew 1,100 per cent in its maiden year. It has continued to grow at an average rate of 400 per cent a year - 2,500 students are now enrolled compared to 100 in the first year.

Revenues for 2011 were around NIS 2 million (around £340,000) and are expected to reach close to NIS 8 (£1.3 million) this year. "The potential is huge," says Mr Asor. "It is a big market which will only grow. There is no doubt that out of the 2,500 children enrolled in the Young Engineers programme, many will become engineers, particularly in the robotics and machine sectors.

"I was surprised that nobody had set something like this up before."

Mr Asor was inspired to establish the company based on his own educational experience. The youngest of five children he struggled at school and was diagnosed with learning difficulties. Determined to overcome them he attended extra classes and earned a scholarship to study at Israel's Open University. He completed an economics and computer science degree.

While studying, Mr Asor volunteered for a project which supports students in need of extra educational and emotional help. He recalls: "I started to research and develop an idea that grew into the Young Engineers programme. I was thinking about what would make lessons more interesting for children and began developing instruction manuals.

"Overcoming my learning difficulties motivated me to build a fun learning experience that promoted self-thinking."

His plan now is to translate the programme into foreign languages and export it. "The English and Spanish versions are ready. In five years we aim to hold Young Engineer courses in between 6,400 and 8,000 centers around the world.

"The franchising model is a perfect fit. We have a proven product that answers a global educational need. I believe it can earn maximum revenue with minimum risk."

Parents pay the host school, which in turn pays a fee to Young Engineers; the programme is offered free to some organisations such as schools for the blind. Young Engineers employs 18 full-time instructors. New staff chaperone a senior instructor for two weeks before they start teaching.

"We believe the programme is imperative for developing thinking among children and helping to develop a country's resources in order to maintain its financial feasibility."

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