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Robotics challenges inspiring youngsters to learn engineering

FLL championship competition

The Arizona FIRST LEGO League program culminates each year with enthusiastic teams of young students putting their robots to the test in the state championship tournament hosted by Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Photo by: Jessica Slater/ASU

Posted: December 20, 2011

Competitive program for Arizona middle school students growing under ASU’s direction

Two hundred and sixty-six teams of Arizona middle school students – more than 2,500 youngsters in all – competed in the recently completed 2011 FIRST LEGO League program.

That’s a jump of more than 30 percent over last year in participation in the competitions that are providing students from 9 to 14 years old hands-on instruction in fundamentals of engineering, science, technology and applied math.

Students build, design and program autonomous LEGO MINDSTORMS robots and put them to the test in regional qualifying tournaments. Top teams move on to the state championship tournament at Arizona State University.

ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering host the championship event that brings several hundred students – along with enthusiastic parents, teachers and friends – to the university’s Tempe campus for a day of boisterous robot games, research project presentations and demonstrations of  teamwork skills.

The engineering schools have overseen the Arizona FIRST LEGO League program for the past four years. In that time the number of teams participating has more than tripled from the 88 teams that competed in 2008, a significantly higher growth rate than the 8 percent overall average for the program throughout the country.

Motivational aim

“We’re seeing increasing participation particularly from schools in rural areas and underserved communities,” says Patricia Smith, a K-12 education outreach coordinator for ASU’s engineering schools and FIRST LEGO League operational partner in Arizona.

“Many schools don’t have the resources to provide students with this unique learning opportunity,” she says. “Our goal is to ensure that every child in the state will have an opportunity to experience this through the FIRST LEGO League competition.”

Smith directs planning, organization and management of the regional and state tournaments, as well as fund-raising, and recruits and supervises hundreds of volunteers to staff the tournaments.

The FIRST in the program title derives from the not-for-profit organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Renowned inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST to encourage appreciation among young students for science, technology, engineering and math, and to inspire them to pursue studies and careers in the fields.

The organization hosts the FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge for high-school students, FIRST LEGO League for 9- to 14-year-olds, (9- to 16-year-olds outside the U.S. and Canada) and Junior FIRST LEGO League for 6- to 9-year-olds.

Each of the programs culminates every year with the FIRST LEGO League World Festival. Arizona will send its 2011 state champion, Team TOXiC from Tucson, as its representative to the event in April.

The Arizona state champion team in 2009, Helping Hands, a neighborhood team from Peoria, earned second place overall at the World Festival competition in 2009.

Advanced problem-solving

Each year the competitions focus on exploring potential solutions to real-world challenges. Students use robots to perform various tasks that reflect how technology can be part of making advances that would, for example, improve public health, protect the environment, ensure clean water supplies or sanitary conditions in the production and distribution of food.

Some of the youngsters’ work has advanced into relatively complex engineering and math. They’ve used calculus and mechanical design, for example, to enable their robots to perform various functions.

“In many cases these students are actually writing artificial-intelligence programs,” says Eric Von Burg, a teacher and coach of the FIRST LEGO League robotics team at MacArthur Elementary School in Mesa.

Students are learning to use electronic sensors to enable the robots to gather and respond to information sensed through touch, light and even sound.

“They are using robotics kits that are the same as those used in colleges to teach engineering principles,” Von Burg says.

Sparking fascination

Middle school teachers and robotics team coaches don’t measure the success of the program by where their teams finish in the competitions, but by what students learn and the positive reinforcement they gain from the experience.

The fun of making and operating robots, and tackling real technological problems, is awakening fascination among many students for engineering and science, says Faridodin Lajvardi, the robotics program coach for Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix .

Students who might never have had interest in or exposure to technological fields because of their backgrounds, or schools’ lack of resources, are “now showing a passion for engineering,” Lajvardi says.

“Robotics is a great vehicle to teach problem-solving skills to kids, because it applies math and science in ways they can see and understand,” explains Bill Johnson, a Scottsdale Community College instructor and mentor to several Scottsdale LEGO League teams.

Students whose teams make it to the state championship at ASU often get some extra motivation, says Chris Sheehan, the seventh-grade science teacher and robotics program director at Madison Park Middle School in Phoenix.

“When our students have 20-year-old college engineering majors at the championship tournament talking to them, listening to them, and telling them they are impressed by their robots, they feel a greater sense of importance about what they are doing,” Sheehan says.

Students get excited about going to ASU for the championship, Von Burg says.

“They understand that they’re at a place where real research happens,” he says, “and where people value the efforts our students have been making.”

For more information, visit the Arizona FIRST LEGO League website.

Written by Joe Kullman and Natalie Pierce

Joe Kullman, [email protected]
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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