Block by block: LEGO robotics builds interest in STEM

Block by block: LEGO robotics builds interest in STEM

Red Bridge Elementary fourth grader KayShawn Whitworth wants to be both a scientist and an inventor when he grows up.

“Scientists, to me, connect to inventing things,” Whitworth said. “If I was just a scientist I would be studying things and then, out of nowhere: pop! an invention comes into my head. … Most of the greatest inventors that did theories or even made machines were scientists.”

Whitworth and his teammates on the Rocking Robo Roadrunners from Red Bridge Elementary School are honing their creativity and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — skills through FIRST® LEGO® League, which challenges 9–14-year-olds to build and program robots made of LEGO® pieces that must accomplish a series of missions on an obstacle course.

The Roadrunners were one of 41 teams at the Greater Kansas City FIRST® LEGO® League Regional Championship held Jan. 18 at Union Station.

“The STEM Alliance sees FLL (FIRST® LEGO® League) as an important opportunity to capture the interest of students while they are still in middle school,” Laura Loyacono, director of the KC STEM Alliance, which supports and organizes FLL in the Kansas City region, said in an email.

Loyacono says research shows students form an interest in STEM careers around the time they leave elementary school.

“Given that, we think it’s critical to provide as many opportunities as possible to this age group,” Loyacono said. “FLL is a low-barrier entry to learning about STEM, which captures their imagination, spirit of competition, using a cool medium like LEGO — while providing a really fun atmosphere during the events.”

According to the Alliance, by 2023 the Kansas City area will need over 200,000 STEM workers, which is a 14 percent increase from today.

Since 2011, the KC STEM Alliance has been tracking how participation in FIRST® Robotics programs, like FLL, translates into students pursuing careers in science and engineering.

A national study at Brandeis University found that students who participate in FIRST® programs are 50 percent more likely to attend college and twice as likely to major in science or engineering.

“We hope that these students will go on to take more math and science once they get to high school and get involved in other STEM offerings, like FIRST® Robotics, or take courses in Project Lead the Way, which propels them down the college and career pipeline,” Loyacono said. “But wherever they end up in their career, we believe that participation in FIRST® LEGO® League will serve them well.”

As part of the FLL program, students are taught the FLL Core Values, which include teamwork, friendly competition, gracious professionalism and the idea that teachers and mentors don’t know all the answers.

Red Bridge Elementary FLL coach Chrissy Chandler says that part of the reason she got involved with FLL five years ago was the Core Values.

“One of our Core Values is that what we learn is more important than what we win,” Chandler said. “So I tell (the students) whether you win or lose, you’ve won because you worked hard and you made it here, and look at how much you learned that you didn’t know before.”

Chandler not only coaches the Roadrunners, but also mentors a growing number of other FLL teams in Center School District.

Loyacono said FLL has grown from a few teams to over 169 teams in less than a decade and anticipates that it will continue to grow.

Although the Rocking Robo Roadrunners did not advance to the FIRST® World Festival, Whitworth and his teammates are already gearing up for next year.

“Overall, I think we did pretty good,” Whitworth said at the end of Regional Championship. “Next year, I’m going build better attachments for the robot.”

Story by: Lindsey Foat — The Hale Center for Journalism via KCPT