Lego Robotics: Serious Fun

From Cow Farts to STEM Majors, Lego Robotics Inspires and Delights

by Casa Bay Photography

By Lizzi Katz

There’s quite the buzz in education these days about getting more kids engaged in STEM learning – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – to prepare them for an increasingly technological future. In Central Oregon and nationally, increasing numbers of students are turning to robotics as a way to hone their STEM skills, while having a blast in the process.

It doesn’t hurt that robotics tournaments have all the energy of a sporting event, including encouragement from teammates, cheers from the crowd, and matching team shirts. The goal here is for teams, divided by age, to create, design and program robots to solve challenges designed by an international organization called FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology). Robotics engages students with hands-on activities to learn STEM subjects like coding, engineering and math. But after speaking with two local teams, it’s easy to see that there is much more involved.

Buckingham Elementary school is Bend-La Pine’s STEM focused magnet school, with robotics as a popular after- school activity. They have both a robotics club and a more time-intensive competition team. Recently, the Buckingham Broncobots won the “Young Award” at the State competition this year: the team was comprised of 4th and 5th graders in their first year of competition, up against students ranging from 4th to 8th grade.

The Buckingham students showed impressive skills with their robot, which, like others teams, they built from Legos and programmed to complete tasks set by FIRST. While it’s exciting to watch the robot, that’s not the only part of the competition. Students are also judged on their approach to a real-world problem, in the form of a project, based on “core values” – the spirit of cooperation, learning from other teams and each other, and having fun.

This year’s project theme was Animal Allies, the idea being to design a solution for a problem that occurs when people and animals interact. The Broncobots chose to focus on the methane released from cattle flatulence
(are we surprised?), do research on its impact to farmers and the environment (they spoke to both scientists and ranchers), and develop a presentation to give at competi- tions. (They did a skit showing how giving the cows additional microbes would help digestion and decrease the incidence of cow farts).

Robotics initiates some serious learning masked in a whole lot of fun. Students apply STEM skills, work as a team and learn to compromise. They connect academic skills to real-life problem solving, and gain confidence as they present their ideas at local, regional and (if they advance) state competitions. But what impresses Buckingham team coach Joshua Hayden the most is the change in students’ “growth mindset” – the ability to make mistakes and persist in new ways to solve the problems – that will serve them well as they continue in school and start their careers.

At the high school level, most Central Oregon schools have robotics programs, as well. Redmond Proficiency Academy (RPA), a charter school open to all students in Central Oregon, has two competition teams. In a high school robotics com- petition, students are judged for the tasks robots complete. They also get points from the “panel judging”, where teams are evaluated on their engineering notebooks, coding, and community outreach.

RPA seniors, Alex Guyer and Zach Taylor, members of the veteran team called the Robotics Quasar Alliance, like the flexibility and creativity involved. While there are standards to be met, including a maximum size for the robot (18 inches) and standardized apps for programming – an Android phone makes up the brain of each team’s robot, there is unlimited room for creativity. This year, the Robotics Quasar Alliance used aluminum building parts from Tetrix as well as parts they designed and 3D printed, improvising materials when necessary. Their robot was a collective work of engineering, fabrication and computer skills. Proud of their work, the team finished the season in the top 12 of the 48 teams that made it to the state competition (there are over 200 teams in Oregon).

Both Alex and Zach credit their participation in robotics with helping them clarify their future paths in college. Both plan to continue in STEM majors: Zach is planning to study mathematics while Alex wants to continue with computer science.

This is an activity with long-term implications. Benefits to FIRST robotics alumni are:

91% more interest in going to college

2x as likely to major in science or engineering

33% of female participants major in engineering

98% report increased problem-solving skills

Students who participate in robotics are also more likely to be accepted into four-year universities and become candidates for many STEM-related scholarships.

Interested in getting your child involved with robotics? There are over 24 teams already established in Central Oregon, and new teams can register through the FIRST website and with ORTOP (The Oregon Robotics Tournament & Outreach Program), which organizes competitions in Oregon. To join an existing team, check with your school or local 4H. Parents can get involved too – while coaches insist that the kids follow their own ideas, volunteers are crucial to their success.

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