LEGO® Blocks and STEM by William O. Gardiner IV A
s the world turns more towards technology, only those who can speak that language will be able to participate. It is now more
important then ever for our children to achieve proficiency in that arena. One of the ways to teach this new language is to bring it directly
into the schools and make it fun at the same time. I have been teach- ing integrated science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, or STEM, to children between the ages of five and twelve for the last two years. I go into elementary and middle schools and community centers that offer after school and summer programming to area youth and help guide them along this new journey. With specialized LEGO kits (the Simple and Motorized Mechanisms sets) containing anywhere from 300–600+ parts, children get to learn the basics of STEM through hands-on activities that include such concepts as problem solving, team- work and critical thinking. Ideally, we start by splitting the class into teams of two and giving each a LEGO kit.
This way, the students learn to use teamwork and cooperation. They then get a brief intro- duction to the basic parts of the LEGO kits. Students learn all about beams and plates, gears and axles, connectors, spacers, and motors, and how all of these parts work together to create simple machines. For some of the more advanced classes they will also learn about sensors and how to program a small LEGO computer known as the “NXT brick,” which is the heart of the LEGO NXT Robotics system, and will allow students to create robots that will function seemingly on their own. Once they have a handle on the different parts that are available to them, the students
work from image-based plans, which use no words and have only a very few numbers. Following the instructions, they will have created some type of simple machine, vehicle, or robot. Once built, the students will often be given the opportunity to modify their cre- ations and see if they can improve on the originals. After students have gotten a few of the guided projects under their belts, they are
usually challenged to use their imaginations to build some type of machine or robot from scratch. This allows them to develop, troubleshoot, and design some type of new machine. What seems to work best is giving the students a real-world scenario that they can respond to such as recreating something they are familiar with like a theme park, or creating a device to aid someone with a debilitating injury. From there, the students work together to design and build and sometimes program their own creations. When I am working in the schools, there are usually equal amounts of girls and boys.
Since the whole class usually participates, this gives the girls the same opportunity to learn as the boys do. But, when the programs are then offered as an after school program or as part of a community center’s cadre of children’s activities, the girls typically do not sign up; they represent only one of twelve participants on average. Left to their own devices, they do not attend. Why aren’t the girls showing up? Parents, teachers and com- munity centers need to make more of an effort to encourage girls to become involved. Girls need to feel that they are welcome. They need to hear about other women who have made strides in STEM careers. In my current class of LEGO robotics for a group of middle school girls at my local
Girls Incorporated, there are several girls who want to be doctors, a couple of aspiring engineers, and a few budding lawyers. I’d say we were on the right track in this particular program!
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William O. Gardiner IV is a professional photo- grapher and educator from Worcester, Massa- chusetts. When he is not photographing on assign- ment, he is teaching youth all around New England in the areas of STEM, adventure-based learning and photography.
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