From Toys to Tech: Building Robots Brick by Brick

IMG_5581Students at Robles Elementary School are given a box of standard parts called Lego Mindstorms. Their task is to build and program robots from their given pieces including motors, wheels, sensors and microprocessor via tablets and laptops with software downloaded from Lego. The students compete against other teams of Lego robotics programmers, first within the school, then all the way up to state, regional and national competitions.

But first, they just have fun with it. “They set the Lego down in its base and press go,” said Desh Bagley, a computer lab technician with Hillsborough Community College and the FIRST LEGO League Partner for the region. FIRST is a not-for-profit public charity designed to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. There are 95 FIRST LEGO teams in west Florida alone, so Bagley is organizing training, recruiting coaches, setting up events and working with parents across a 16-county radius.

“Robots perform challenges for as many points as they can within a two-and-a-half-minute period, with a maximum of 465 points – though that’s very rare,” Bagley said. “Teams have to engineer the robots to approach tasks with the highest points. Some go for the highest challenges, others go for the low-hanging fruit.”

According to Vicki Allen, who volunteers with her husband Jim as coaches for the Robles program, this involves a lot of trial and error. “There are 20 different missions on the board,” she said.” For example, a Lego robot might carry a barrel to a fountain and place it accurately to where an arm rises. “We want [the students] to get up to where a robot can accomplish four out of five tasks. One out of five is not going to work in competition.” She pointed out that students must grapple with challenges like limited battery life and potential wheel failure. “The children do all the work and you, as coach, bring your expertise,” she said. “We’re showing them that they have the skills.”

An Early Start

Founded in 1989 and based in Manchester, New Hampshire, FIRST aims to motivate students to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM fields. Its founder Dean Kamen invented the Segway and helped develop the Coca-Cola Freestyle vending machine. Bagley said the first Lego League started in 1998 as an early push to get kids into robotics. The idea was, she said, “If we start them younger, they’ll get interested early on and celebrate robotics as much as rock and roll and athleticism.”

But FIRST doesn’t do it all alone. Nine years ago, Allen and her husband were visiting Robles as professionals to present on computer science and robotics and were inspired by the students’ interest, so started the Lego robotics team there. “They have no kids at the school. They just love the project,” Bagley said. “They’re so invested in those children without a biological connection. They’ve stuck it out with no funding because of their passion for the project. They’ve been paying for it themselves for eight years.”

This changed when Allen met Stephanie Morgan, CompTIA director of member education, at an ASTD meeting. “She tapped me on the shoulder, handed me her business card and said, ‘I want to sponsor your teams,’” she said. “I started crying.” CompTIA sponsors two teams at Robles.

Builds a Future

When Allen and her husband started Robles’ first Lego robotics program, there was a groundswell of interest. “When we first decided to start teams we were limited to 20 people,” she said. “Fifty tried to sign up.”

It’s had an impact. Allen said she’s had parents call and tell her their students used to be a problem in school and got better after getting involved with the program. “It improves their behavior in other classes,” she said. Eighty-eight percent of FIRST LEGO league students are more interested in doing well in school, 87 percent are interested in attending college and 80 to 90 percent end up in a robotics career; according to FIRST.

Allen points out that Robles is a Title I school and is 95 percent low income. “Our students may not have had Legos or computers in their homes,” she said. “This is their first exposure to them.”

Allen’s teams have done well in competition, one year advancing as high as the state-wide competition and securing a trophy.

The lessons students learn in the Allens’ Lego robotics program are ones they take forward.

She also noted the program helps get young women in particular interested in robotics. “The girls here, their faces light up because they didn’t know they could program a robot.”

The Core Value: FUN!

Jo McCawley, a product manager with software company Strata, has had a similar experience with her daughter Madelein. She’s a student at Dewey Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, and one of six members of the school’s most senior Lego robotics team – Royal Flush.

The students get very creative. “If you want your robot to do things, like push [objects] or use claws, you add Legos,” McCawley said. Royal Flush has built two robots named Ace and King.

And Ace and King have a lot to do. This year, as prescribed by FIRST LEGO, Royal Flush is engaged in a set of 30 missions all oriented around “the human water cycle” – all the tasks on the team’s board are dedicated to this and this is all in preparation to compete in the FIRST LEGO League Regional Tournament. The students program Ace and King to do things like “move across a board and flush a toilet, or put out a fire, or move a little Lego well to a specific location on the board,” McCawley said. “It’s very hard to have the robot do that and not break it.”

According to McCawley, the kids love doing all this, and, more importantly, they’re learning a lot from it. The team has a stated list of core values that reads like a dream for any teacher or parent. They are as follows:

•         We are a team.

•         We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.

•         We know our coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers; we learn together.

•         We honor the spirit of friendly competition.

•         What we discover is more important than what we win.

•         We share our experiences with others.

•         We display gracious professionalism and “coopertition” in everything we do.

•         We have FUN!

With all of that understood, McCawley said, the hardest part for the coaches is fairly simple: “It’s keeping it fun and having enough gear to keep the entire team engaged.”

According to McCawley, this experience moves kids to consider things well outside the scope of the Lego board – including their professional futures. “It’s very engaging in moving kids to STEM careers, especially the part of programming the robot and feeling so much pride in that.”

Madelein is only 10-years-old but already thinking about a career in STEM, even though she jokes with her Mom that this is “very nerdy.”

“It’s hard to be a woman in tech,” McCawley said. “The Lego program is giving her the confidence to do that. It’s clearing a path for her.”
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