Engineering the Future of STEM with Fun

You don’t have to be a technologist to know what STEM is.  These days, you see STEM everywhere you turn around.  Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  Some even add Art and make it STEAM.  Whatever you call it, it’s critical for our kids to advance in this technology focused world.  It doesn’t have to be all work though.  There are some great resources that make learning STEM more fun then you can imagine.

Our school is blessed with two amazing teachers, Noreen and Shelly, who are dedicated and excited about teaching young kids technology!   Once a week, they spend a few extra hours helping the kids in our Jr Robotics Club.  The club is open to kids 1st-3rd grade, boys and girls.  Yesterday, I took an hour out of my day to spend some time assisting.  It was so exciting to see how many young kids were excited and engaged with the robots they played with.   Especially as a woman in IT, it was exciting to see how many girls were involved as well!

Initially, they focused on the early LEGO robotics as they were gearing up to participate in the FIRST Lego League Jr showcase in December.  Our school had 4 teams create a “working LEGO project”.  They had to create and build something that moved using the LEGO motors that related to this years theme on waste and recycling.  My 7-year old son’s team, Tough LEGO Town, built a can recycling conveyor belt.   They take their creation, along with a poster that shows their ideas, to a competition where they are interviewed by volunteer judges.  As a parent it was thrilling to see them explain their creation and demonstrate it at such a young age.  Another critical skill they’re practicing is working in groups, this is something many adults still don’t do well!  Certainly nothing like what I was doing in 1st Grade!

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Since the competition was over, and the kids still wanted to learn about robot and technology, the teachers have continued meeting once a week after school.  The group grew from 24 to about 40 once the word got out. They break the kids into groups and have different stations for each group to work on.  Here’s an example of what they’re using in our club to engage and excite:

Scratch and Scratch Jr

Using iPads or Laptops, the kids can code using Scratch.  If you haven’t checked out Scratch, you should!   Scratch was developed at MIT and is a great way to get kids using their creativity and thinking skills.  They can create stories, animations, games, music and art, just the way they want it.  You can start using Scratch on a PC or Mac at scratch.mit.edu or you can download the Scratch Jr app on a tablet.   This is a great one to do at home too!  My kids love to share their creations with their friends!

LEGO WeDo 2.0

The LEGO WeDo is the beginner version of their Mindstorm robotics.  The build instructions are easy, and the software you use to program is very simple!   The newest release just came out in January (too late for Christmas unfortunately).  WeDo 2.0 is geared towards 2nd through 4th grade, though with parent help Kinder and 1st will also enjoy!  The core kit comes with 280 bricks, a SmartHub power block, 2 motors, a motion sensor, storage tray, programming software and examples!  You can see more in the video below.   WeDo 2.0 is available for $159.95 from LEGO Education here, this is definitely on my Christmas list.   We’re currently using the original WeDo sets, but the 2.0 looks like so much more fun!

If you have older kids, 4th and up, you might also want to look at the LEGO Mindstorm EV3.   My 4th grader competes in the regional FIRST Lego League competition for Houston this weekend, and they use the EV3 robot.  You can read more about their experience with FLL here.

Dash & Dot

Wonder Workshop’s Dash & Dot are controlled by an app on your phone or tablet.  You can program them using a visual block based app, or you can play one of the games that are available.  Along with movements, sounds and lights, you can purchase accessories such as a Xylophone that Dash can play.

Sphero

Sphero is an app controlled robot that allows you to program with visual blocks, then see the actual c-based code that you wrote.  Our school has the Sphero SPRK Edition, which is fun since you can see what’s inside and how it works.

Family STEM Time

While all of these robots and programs are very useful in schools to aid in their STEM curriculum, we shouldn’t just limit technology teaching to school.   These robots and games make learning fun, and it’s just as easy to have fun at home with mom and dad!   They make excellent birthday and Christmas gifts for the kids who have everything!  Grandparents love to buy educational items, instead of just video games.  Take some time, invest in the future of tech, and watch your child’s face light up with joy!

 

Kids and LEGO and Robotics, Oh My!

Kids and LEGO and Robotics, Oh My!

If you know me well,  you know Oracle is my secondary passion.  My true passion is my children.  I have two amazing, beautiful, intelligent and active boys, ages 7 and 9 (no bias there, I know).   Life is never dull, that’s for sure!  We are fortunate to live in a area with great schools, with teachers and administration that realize the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.   We have a very active PTO that goes to amazing efforts to raise money so that the school can get the latest technology and programs to help our kids succeed.   The whole school participates in the Hour of Code each year, and recently started a Python programming club.  Kids actually come to school early to program!  They also recently added robotics teams for 1st-6th, and this year my 4th and 1st grader are both participating.

I didn’t know much about the FIRST organization before now.  They’ve done some Jr. Engineering and Jr. Robotics camps, most recently an excellent one by Woodlands Robotics that they really enjoyed.  This led to their interest in participating with the school teams.  My oldest is in FIRST LEGO League (FLL), where my youngest is doing FIRST LEGO League Jr for kids K-3rd grade.   Last weekend the FLL team had their first competition, and there’s only really one way to describe it.  Electric.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

This program is for students in 4-8th grade.  Each year there’s a new challenge.   This year it’s about trash, and how we can reduce, reuse and recycle.   The teams have missions they have to solve with their robot, all worth a certain number of points. They need to work together to decide the best use of their time, and how to program the robot to complete as many missions as possible in 2 1/2 minutes.

They are also judged on their core values (discovery, teamwork, gracious professionalism), robot design, and their project.  The project is a way for them to show their creativity in how to solve this years challenge.   Our team decided that our school could reduce trash by using sporks instead of spoons and forks, and recycling in the cafeteria.  The also wrote a rap and performed this for the judges.   The team has a sponsor, but all the work is done by the kids themselves.

For the robot, they use the LEGO Mindstorm EV3 robot.  If you haven’t checked this out, you should.   Every techie could fall in love with this.  You can build various robot models, with sensors and arms.  Then you connect it to your computer and program using a visual block structure.   Viola! You’ve got a robot that can play music, move pieces, turn wheels and anything else you can think of!  The programming is very flexible, and easy enough once you understand what the components do.

Competition Day

Our team is called 4G Short Circuits.  These 6 boys and 1 girl have been meeting 4 hours a week after school since early October.  They stepped it up in the last 2-3 weeks adding every day before school for 45 minutes, working through lunch, and extra after school hours.   For a while I was a little concerned with how much time he was having to spend on this, he is only 9 after all.   With 7 incredibly intelligent kids, one of the things they’re learning  is to work together as a team, and communicate effectively.  When everybody has a great idea, it’s sometimes hard to get them all out for discussion.   Once they work out the kinks here, I think we can expect to see amazing things!  I know adults who have a hard time with this concept, so it’s exciting to see the kids working on it so young.

We arrived at the competition before 8am on a Saturday.  The kids got in a few practice rounds, some hands on experience and advice from the judges, and had a chance to fine tune their programs a bit.  It was amazing to see them just go to work and know exactly what they needed to do.   Then the kids go in front of a panel of judges for design, project and core values.

Solving problems after first test run.

Finally, the robot games started.  There’s three rounds and they keep their highest score.  Their first round, things didn’t go so well.  The robot went crooked, missed it’s mark, and stalled.  You could see the disappointment on their faces.  However when the scores were posted, they were still positive and went straight to work on fixing the problems they had.  They went into the second round knowing that their final program wasn’t quite right but they’d made some changes and hoped for the best.   When they hit 4 out of 5 missions, you could see the pure joy and accomplishment in their faces, and when they were ranked in the top 10, they were beyond themselves!   The third round didn’t go as well, and they slipped to 11th place, but these kids remained positive and upbeat the whole time, and that is what I’m so proud of.  Their first time as a team, first robotics competition and they came in 11th out of 42 teams!

Testing out their robot before competition starts.

They worked so hard to get to this point, just like any sports team when playing a tournament.   Although they didn’t win an award, they did earn their golden ticket to the regional competition in February.    These 4th graders worked together, worked hard, challenged themselves in areas they weren’t familiar with, and kept pushing until the very end.  They never game up, never game in.  They were electric.  And as a parent in tech, it was so exciting to see the sparks!  They’ve got a break for now, but in January they’ll be back in the lab working together to fix those problems and see how many more points they can earn for the next competition!

4G Short Circuits celebrating their golden ticket

One thing about the competition that stood out, was how diverse the participants were.  All ages, races, genders, it was really fun to see so many of the young girls involved with the robotics and programming.   The idea behind FIRST was a way to get more kids interested in STEM, by leveraging the sports competition model.  I think it’s working!  I think back to what I was doing in 4th grade, and it sure doesn’t compare to this!

Texas Torque is the high school team who sponsors the FLL competition for our district.  I have to say, this was the nicest group of high school kids I’ve ever met.   They won the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championship in 2013 and were featured in the documentary Roboleague.   It’s an amazing look at how the FIRST league got started, and how bright and amazing these kids are.   So, if you have bright, creative, talented children who like to use their mind, check out FIRSTInspires.org and see if there’s an event in your area, or consider forming a team!

See my Kids & Code page for more resources!