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Want to Get Kids Excited About STEM? Let Them Build Robots

Getting more students to pursue studies—and careers—in science, technology, engineering, and math is possible when you step outside the textbook.

Getting more students to pursue studies—and careers—in science, technology, engineering, and math is important for the economic success of our country and of the world. But catalyzing that interest requires more than drilling kids on facts in a textbook. I work as an engineer, but I also work as a FIRST LEGO League volunteer, and I’ve seen first hand the impact building LEGO robots through our program has on kids.

FLL is one of four programs offered by the national organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)—which was created by famous inventor Dean Kamen to inspire more talented American students to pursue careers in science and technology. It aims to increase the number of STEM professionals with the skills required to solve real world problems.

It’s primarily an after-school STEM program, but it’s also offered by many neighborhood and youth organizations, such as Girl Scouts, 4-H Clubs and Boys and Girls Clubs. We work with students aged 9-14 and get them excited about doing science and technology so that they will want to take STEM classes in high school and college and hopefully pursue STEM careers. Unlike many academic STEM programs, FLL is fun and is accessible to students with a wide range of physical and learning disabilities.

What we’re doing here in the Los Angeles is working. In 2012, our region had a record level of participation—up 30 percent from 2011. And thanks to a $15,000 donation from Time Warner Cable, we were able to host the FIRST LEGO League tournaments across Southern California. We had 2,400 young people organized into 297 teams to build robots, research problems, create solutions, develop presentations, and compete in 26 tournaments in four counties in Southern California.

The way it works is FLL teams register between May and September. Then, during September and October, they design, build, program and test LEGO MINDSTORMS robots to play a game with missions related to the Challenge theme on a field about the size of a ping pong table. The teams participate in high-energy practice, qualifying and championship tournaments in late October through mid-December.

At the tournaments, teams compete to see which team can achieve the highest score on the robot game and are judged for awards in the areas of robot design, research project, and core values/teamwork. The top 30 percent of teams attending the ten regional qualifying tournaments advanced to two regional championship tournaments. The top two teams from each regional championship advance to international championship tournaments. Worldwide, over 20,500 FLL teams participated in 889 qualifying tournaments and 124 regional championship tournaments in 2012.

The kids get excited because the program brings the fun and excitement of sporting events to science and technology via robotics competitions. They also think like scientists and engineers to solve real problems in their communities related to the Challenge theme, which is different each year. The 2012 Challenge was Senior Solutions—improving the quality of life for seniors by helping them continue to be independent, engaged, and connected in their communities.

The teams talked to seniors to identify problems they faced in their daily living, consulted experts in the field, developed creative and practical solutions, and presented those solutions to members of their communities. Their creative presentations of their work on the project frequently involved role playing and were always very informative. Teams are encouraged to practice a strong set of core values, including inspiring others, teamwork and what we call “Gracious Professionalism.”

All of these activities take the dedication of hundreds of volunteers—coaches, mentors, referees, judges and event volunteers. But the effort is worth it. We’re eager to help inspire the next generation of problem solvers by connecting young people to the wonders of STEM.

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