Building a Love of STEM, Brick by Brick
Competing in a LEGO robotics team empowers fourth-graders — and their teacher.
- By Matthew Pelzer
Getting kids interested in STEM can be difficult sometimes, especially in an urban area like North Minneapolis, where I teach fourth grade at Bethune Community School. Our school demographics are such that people often underestimate what our kids are capable of, but I believe they can excel if we as teachers make connections between STEM subjects and the experiences and careers they might lead to outside the classroom. The hands-on nature of robotics is the perfect outlet to excite students about math and science, which is why I became a robotics coach at our school.
To get our robotics program rolling, we had some help from High Tech Kids (HTK), a Minnesota-based non-profit that focuses on STEM, robotics, coding and collaboration for elementary schoolers. More than 43,000 kids across the state participate, as well as 1,800 volunteers. HTK is Minnesota's partner with FIRST LEGO League (FLL), which is part of an international robotics program serving more than 200,000 kids in 63 countries.
The FLL competition includes a robotics challenge, which requires students to design, build, and program an autonomous robot capable of achieving specific missions set forth in the competition. Students are also tasked with a research project where the team proposes an innovative solution to a real-world problem. Finally, teams are evaluated on how well they work together and display the core values of the program, including gracious professionalism and willingness to seek out the answers to their own questions. HTK supports the largest number of FLL teams in any state in the United States., as well as the world.
We kicked off this year's season in September, through Bethune's after-school program. This was my second year coaching, but for most of the students it was their first time participating in an event like this. We started with 20 fourth- and fifth-grade boys, which we then whittled down over time to a core group of 10.
Building and Research
The HTK FLL website provides information on a yearly theme chosen by FIRST and gives all teams the information they need to complete each mission. My group chose to start with programming and building their robot. They began with basic programming (forward, left, right) and at first didn't worry about attachments or sensors. There was no shortage of ideas of things to build. Some ideas were good but wouldn't work, so as a team, the students refined and simplified ideas until they had something workable. Over time, the students gained confidence, and they weren't afraid of using trial-and-error to figure things out. We used the NXT software for all the coding, which is very kid-friendly, so the students did nearly all the work themselves.
This year's research topic was "Animal Allies," which meant the students had to identify a problematic animal-human interaction and present a solution to that problem. The students decided to look into reducing the number of deer-related car accidents. The boys did a lot of research on the number of accidents caused by deer every year, and what is being done to prevent them. The students wrote letters to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), auto mechanics, veterinarians and insurance companies to get more information.
The kids were really excited when these agencies actually wrote back to them. The DNR gave them information about deer's eyesight, and the insurance companies provided them with information on the cost of auto accidents. Through this experience, students learned that there are experts out in the world, and it's pretty simple to reach out to them and to hear back — and they can even take advantage of this in areas other than robotics.
As we began working, each team member fell into his role. Everyone learned the basics needed to program the robot, such as angle measurements. Throughout the season, the students rotated so each would have experience with programming, research and the skit they would use to present their research project. As a teacher, it was very powerful to see each of my students excel in their strengths outside of a traditional classroom setting. For instance, even if a student struggled with math or reading, I could see him after school embracing his creativity and contributing in that way.
Inspiration from Competition
The FLL competition starts with local tournaments throughout the season. Teams that perform well go on to compete in the state, national and even world competitions. Teams must place well in their regional tournament in order to qualify for the next event. Minneapolis Public Schools hosts its own regional tournament featuring more than 60 teams of students in grades 4–8. This tournament is broken down into five divisions, and the top teams in each division advance to the state tournament.
Our team was able to win our division and had the honor to represent our school at the state tournament as one of the top 61 teams in the state. Last year was our first year competing, so none of us really knew what to expect. This year, I didn't emphasize the competition aspect at first. The kids were just interested in learning, and they were having fun. Once they learned there was a competition, they began to work even harder. They were very self-motivated and held each other accountable. Those who were in my fourth-grade class would use class time to prepare, and they even asked if they could practice during recess.
An unexpected and extremely positive byproduct of our participation in FLL was the support we saw from my students' families. We had a lot of parents and grandparents attend the competitions. Many of our parents work multiple jobs, or are the head of single-parent households, so the support of these families meant a lot, especially since their attendance meant they were giving up entire Saturdays to be there and support their child. The district picked students up at their houses for the event, so families could also ride the bus with us. I don't know how much the boys told them about what they were doing in advance, so when they were finally able to see it, they were very impressed. I heard a lot of "wows" that day. When we won our local division and advanced to state, it was a proud moment for all of us.
It's no secret teachers lead busy lives, but making time to coach students outside of school is very worth it. Coaching is a great way to connect with students outside of class. It's more laid-back than in the classroom, and you're able to see students in a different environment. It shows you that, though some students might struggle with a particular subject, they have other talents that can be encouraged and utilized. Building any kind of relationships helps you out as a teacher, and establishes mutual respect with students. As students learn in FLL, if we work together and respect each other, we can accomplish anything.
Coaching these boys has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Seeing how hard they worked and how excited they got about science, math and coding was amazing. These students are already talking about wanting to be engineers when they grow up. I already have third-graders asking if they can join the team next year. FLL is so much fun, and the students learn valuable lessons about teamwork, research and professionalism. No matter where these boys end up, I know these lessons — and robotics — will stick with them.
Matthew Pelzer teaches 4th grade at Bethune Community School in Minneapolis, MN.