Starting early to develop tomorrow's engineers and programmers

Rebecca Leggett, right, shows the Lego Mindstorms robot to Charles Gaffke Jr. Leggett is lending her experience from Kingman’s Team 60 robotics team to help students at the elementary and middle school levels in the Lego League challenge this year. (RYAN ABELLA/Miner)

Rebecca Leggett, right, shows the Lego Mindstorms robot to Charles Gaffke Jr. Leggett is lending her experience from Kingman’s Team 60 robotics team to help students at the elementary and middle school levels in the Lego League challenge this year. (RYAN ABELLA/Miner)

Playing with Legos is a rite of passage for millions of children worldwide, often to the dismay of vacuum cleaners and the bare feet of parents.

It's also an incredible teaching tool for engineering and technology, and introducing those concepts to students early could pave the way to viable employment and other opportunities.

"Our country does not have enough people to fill STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] jobs right now. We need to provide ours students the opportunity to explore these fields," said Celeste Lucier, who advises Kingman's Team 60 Robotics students.

"If a robotics foundation can be provided at the middle school and even intermediate school level, that will be an investment, not only for the high school team, but an investment in the future of these students."

This year, a dozen middle school students are working with Lucier to enter the FIRST Lego League competition.

Each year, Lego teams up with a not-for-profit charity to put on a competition for middle school students - the FIRST Lego League. FIRST, which means "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," hosts robotics competitions for high school students as well, and is the governing body that Kingman's Team 60 operates under.

In many ways, this is a feeder program to the robotics team and gives younger students a taste of what they can do at the high school level.

"As a robotics advisor, I think students transitioning from FLL to robotics comes with a bit of experience on several levels," said Lucier.

"First, they know how to work together with teammates toward a common goal. They know how to collaborate, and they are a bit familiar with FIRST as an organization. Depending on the involvement level at the FLL level, they may bring programming experience and experience how things work together. They have an introduction to engineering and engineering practices."

The challenge

The Lego League works with Lego Mindstorms, which are Lego kits that feature a programmable brick that can control various sensors and motors on a functioning Lego robot.

Each year, the Lego League presents a different challenge course to competitors. Competitors must program their robots to accomplish each task, and are awarded points for how many tasks are completed within a given time frame.

Teams often work side by side with another team during competition, with the league coining the phrase "cooperation" as a core value of what it does.

This year's theme is "Trash Trek," where teams must navigate trash-handling themes and challenges such as trash pickup, compost, sorting and recycling.

The team sees some challenges with the course. The robot will require a variety of tools and some very specific programming instructions to navigate the challenge.

"The sorting machine is going to be hard," said Desmond McClelland, one of the students participating in the Lego League. That challenge requires the robot to turn a wheel to sort certain blocks into specific bins.

A little help

Fortunately for the team, members have plenty of mentorship from Team 60 to help them out along the way. Lucier is already using students on the robotics team to assist and recruit students for the Lego League.

"These younger kids get to see the robot and the high school students, and they see what they can be doing in a few years. That is really inspiring to them," said Lucier. "I told one mom at the fair that she's lost him for the next seven years. He's that excited about FIRST Lego League and robotics in general.

"He chose to stay and do robotics rather than go on rides at the fair! How cool is that?"

The team had last year's Lego League challenge set up at the Mohave County Fair this past weekend. The Lego robot captured the attention of Charles Gaffke Jr., an elementary school student at Black Mountain.

Rebecca Leggett, a junior at Kingman High School and a member of Team 60, showed Gaffke how the Lego Mindstorms worked.

"It's a wonderful experience. I really enjoy it. It's an opportunity to show them and help teach them things," said Leggett about working with the Lego League students.

After showing the robot to Gaffke, he said with a smile, "I could build something like that!"

"I'm always tripping over them [Legos]," said Gaffke's mother, Sheri Gaffke. "To mix them in with something like this - it's incredible,"

These programs can lead to some serious opportunities in the future for students, with many moving on to jobs in engineering or computer programming, for example.