LEGO leagues draw kids into math, science & more

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-04 07:00:14-05

Throughout the Tri-State, young students are acquiring technical skills, thinking about real-world problems and competing on teams — all while playing with the products of an 84-year-old toy company.

From relaxing after-school clubs to competitive leagues, LEGO toys are increasingly being used in educational environments. And for a growing number of Tri-State students, FIRST LEGO League provides an opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity as part of a team regardless of athletic ability.

The result of a partnership between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the LEGO Group, FIRST LEGO League is a program in which 9- to 14-year-olds research a theme, determine a problem associated with it and develop a solution. Using LEGO technology, the students also build robots, which they use to compete against other teams in tasks related to the theme.

“In addition to acquiring technical skills to build a robot, they’re also thinking about real-world problems,” said Jean Bolte, outreach and FIRST LEGO League coordinator for nonprofit iSpace in Sharonville.

Miles Elementary LEGO Club members invited family and friends to school for a Build with a Buddy event. Photo by Amy Cooley/Provided

Teams are independently organized by parent coaches and organizations, but they tend to operate within school district boundaries, often with support from school and district officials and their communities.

Such is the case with Springboro Robotics, which uses three dedicated rooms at Springboro Intermediate School for its after-school programs.

Established by Jerry Brewster in 2006, Springboro Robotics provides three different after-school programs, all from the FIRST family.

“The reason we use their program is because it’s well-rounded,” Brewster said.

In addition to FIRST LEGO League, he also offers Junior FIRST LEGO League for 6- to 9-year-olds and FIRST Tech Challenge for students in eighth- through 12th grades.

The program teach kids hands-on skills like cutting and drilling while also instilling computer-programming knowledge.

“Even as young as 6 years old, the kids are learning to program,” Brewster said.

FIRST LEGO League also incorporates marketing and public speaking skills. Grouped in teams of two to 10 kids, participants present their research and solutions in competitions at varying levels from regional to international.

Students give a presentation at the 2016 FIRST LEGO League District Tournament at iSpace. Photo by Will Clifford/Provided

“I think what makes it unique is just the teamwork aspect and the communication and respect taught through the whole process of this problem-solving challenge,” said Jennifer Noxsel, speech-language pathologist and FIRST LEGO League director at Ross Middle School.

Nine Cincinnati teams who recently advanced from the district level will compete in the Ohio FIRST LEGO League State Championship Feb. 6-7 in Dayton.

“That’ll be exciting to see if any teams advance and go beyond the state championship,” Bolte said.

While the results of the state championship are yet to be seen, one thing is certain — FIRST LEGO League membership is growing in Greater Cincinnati. After peaking last year at 95 students enrolled in its three programs, Springboro Robotics had to turn kids away to keep numbers to a more manageable 65 to 70 this year.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth,” Brewster said.

Not only are more students joining programs, the number of FIRST LEGO League teams in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky has increased significantly, Bolte said.

When iSpace became a FIRST partner in 2002, there were 11 teams in Cincinnati and none in Northern Kentucky. Of the 494 teams currently registered in Ohio, more than 80 are from Cincinnati. Kentucky now has 194 teams registered statewide.

“I think it’s just the parents wanting this experience for their children, because when they see it, they see it’s such a positive thing,” Bolte said.

“We feel we’re investing in our future for our kids, that we’re really having an impact,” Noxsel said.

Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools aren’t one of the Kentucky districts with registered teams, but educators in the district have found other ways to incorporate LEGO toys into learning.

For the past two years, students in second through fifth grade at Miles Elementary have had the opportunity to participate in an after-school LEGO Club. Inspired by her experiences building with LEGO bricks with her husband and sons, early childhood community connector Amy Cooley wanted to give Erlanger-Elsmere students a similar experience.

“It was a desire to do something fun for the kids and do an after-school program where everyone can be involved if they want,” said Cooley, who offers LEGO programming around Greater Cincinnati through brix and blox LLC.

During LEGO Club sessions, students build creations based on themes ranging from energy conservation to mosaics and holidays.

“We really want it to be very original creations,” Cooley said.

While parent volunteers and older students offer assistance, their primary role is offering guidance and helping to find pieces.

“We want them to talk to us and talk through what it is they’re building,” Cooley said.

The club is so popular that it inspired Jennifer Martin, a kindergarten teacher at Lindeman Elementary, to start a similar one at the start of this school year.

“A lot of our kids in our school don’t have LEGOs at home,” she said.

The benefit is already apparent in some of the club’s participants.

“Some kids I’ve seen, they’ve been able to work together more cooperatively,” Martin said.

Although Martin and Cooley are trying to get as many as possible involved in the clubs for now, a FIRST LEGO League is not out of the question in the future.

“We would really like to have LEGO leagues,” Cooley said.

“What we would really need is a business that might team up with our schools to run something like that,” she said.