Thursday, April 18, 2024

After-school LEGO program teaches robotics through play

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LEAVENWORTH – Between the bookshelves of Icicle River Middle School, Maggie, Micah and Eero, ages 9 to 12 years old, are coding a robot they built to scoop up LEGO pieces, one by one, so that one day it will be ready to compete in a relay race.

Micah and Eero set up a line of the same size LEGOS, each a different color, for the robot to meet, scoop up, move, and travel to the next piece. To be successful, Maggie, who is coding the robot’s movements, has to be very specific and explicit in her instructions of how far she wants the robot to travel.

“It looks like [the robot] goes like two inches at a time because I set it at eight inches the second time and six inches the first time, so this time 10 inches for the green, 12 inches for the yellow,” said Maggie.

The trio is part of Cascade Innovators, a Cascade School District program for grades three to seven in Cascade School District, that teaches kids how to build and code a LEGO robot. 

Success is all about teamwork. Before each day, the group discusses who will perform which role, and for how long. That way, each team member gets a chance to learn each task, but the team can still utilize each member’s strengths to achieve their goal. Maggie, a veteran participant, typically takes the role of coder. 

“My best friend I was with for two years in a row on teams was actually really, really good at coding, so she taught me,” said Maggie.

Maggie got involved a couple of years ago because she thought the program flier said she would be building LEGO towers, not robots.

“I was just like, “Oh, this is cool, I want to build the biggest tower! Then when I got here, I thought, this isn't towers, what the heck? Then I realized that I had a whole team of friends,” said Maggie. “I was nervous and excited.”

Beaver Valley teacher Eric Tiegel, who runs the program, says this is the secret to its success.

“I mean, LEGOS is the catch. You get a bunch of kids who just like to play with LEGOS, and then you teach them about robots,” said Tiegel.

Although the program has been going for about ten years now, this is the first time it’s been offered in the spring. It typically occurs each fall, ending in a FIRST LEGO League competition, in which students work on teams to complete a series of tasks with their robots, as well as come up with solutions to real life problems. 

“The FIRST LEGO League competition is built around the principles of gracious professionalism. So, it's about working together as a team, and I think one of the really awesome things about the actual competition is that a core component of how you get points is actually how you treat your teammates and how you help and treat other teams,” said Annette Bjorklund, a Cascade Innovators volunteer.

The spring session is a result of the program’s ever-increasing popularity, opening its doors to both new and experienced participants. However, instead of ending in a competition, the spring session will be strictly focused on play and fostering creativity. 

The students will get to play with 14 new robots, thanks to donors such as CrunchPak, Community Foundation of NCW, PD-Alpine Lakes PTO, City of Leavenworth Community Fund, Walmart, and private funders. The new robots are sleek and colorful, a stark contrast to the small handful of black and gray robots the group started with.

“It makes a difference. A lot of kids build with design in mind. They want it to look great, too, or look cool. To have those opportunities to say, “Yes, these are the colors I'm looking for, these pieces I'm looking for to make it happen,” it’s great,” said Tiegel.

The program will have four sessions total this spring, then again this fall. More information about the FIRST LEGO League can be found at firstinspires.org/robotics/fll.

Taylor Caldwell: 509-433-7276 or taylor@ward.media

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