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LEGO robotics program flourishes under ASU's leadership

FLL 2013
January 14, 2014

Robotics and problem-solving competition teaching STEM skills to thousands of youngsters

See a list of award winners at the Arizona FIRST LEGO League 2013 state championship tournament

In the six years since Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering took the state’s FIRST LEGO League under its wing, the program has evolved from a fledgling student competition into a far-reaching education outreach community.

The recent 2013 state championship tournament at ASU’s Tempe campus featured 56 top-performing teams of elementary- and middle-school-age students selected from among the more than 300 teams that competed in regional tournaments – a nearly four-fold jump in the number of teams involved in the program since ASU’s engineering schools’ took ownership in 2008.

The more than 2,000 young students Arizona FIRST LEGO League now reaches are being supported by increasing ranks of teachers, coaches, mentors and industry sponsors, as well as volunteers from ASU and various middle schools who staff the tournaments.

Focus on ‘core values’

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by well-known inventor Dean Kamen. The international organization develops programs aimed at motivating children to pursue opportunities in STEM fields (science, technology, and engineering and mathematics), and to teach them the skills they need to do that.

In FIRST LEGO League competitions, teams are scored on their design, construction and programming of small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits. The robots must perform specified technical missions.

Teams are also evaluated on the creativity of their proposed solutions to a particular societal challenge. This year’s challenge theme was “Nature’s Fury.” Teams had to select a specific region in the world that has been affected by natural disasters and come up with ideas for how those places can better prepare for and cope with the types of natural disasters that impact their communities – tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and similar destructive events.

Students are judged on their technological and problem-solving skills, and on how well they exemplify FIRST LEGO League’s “core values” of teamwork, respect for fellow competitors, friendship and sharing, and valuing the joy of learning and discovery.

Building a community

The Arizona program is helping young students achieve those goals by fostering a fun-focused spirit and a family-oriented environment that is especially reflected in the rousing atmosphere of the annual state championship day each December.

“The kids are excited and having fun, but inside that fun are lessons about the whole engineering design process, about teamwork, leadership and communications skills, research and presentation skills,” says Stephen Rippon, an assistant dean who leads the student outreach and retention efforts for the Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The almost 500 middle school students on the teams at the state tournaments are cheered on by parents, grandparents, siblings and friends, while professional engineers, volunteers from industry and ASU students, staff and alumni serve as competition judges, or in various roles coordinating and staging tournament activities.

The LEGO League program “has given us a great opportunity to build a community that’s engaging schools throughout Arizona, and has dedicated volunteers and supporters who are getting involved year after year,” Rippon says.

Spreading the love of engineering

Jared Schoepf, ASU chemical engineering grad student, and Brittany Duong, who plans to graduate next May with degrees in biomedical engineering and biological sciences, helped open this year's state tournament with a presentation about the adventure of engineering and the community service projects inspired by their engineering education.

“The reason I did this is because when I was younger, someone came to me and talked about what was awesome about engineering,” Schoepf says. “I wanted to do the same for these kids, to encourage them about the things they could someday learn to design and build.”

Duong, who is also an honors student and recipient of the Robert H. Chamberlain Memorial Scholarship, says her parents told her to pursue engineering studies even though “when I first started college I really didn’t know what engineering was.”

Had she not gotten on track so late, “there was so much more I could have done by now,” she says. So she wanted to help give the LEGO League students the jump start she never had and to “pass on the excitement and love for engineering I have,” she says.

Among the dozens of volunteers working at this year’s state tournament was Rick Hudson, a past president of the Fulton Schools of Engineering alumni organization and an electrical engineer for the Salt River Project utility company. He’s motivated to participate for the thrill of helping children “who are already doing so much more than I did when I was their age. I think about what incredible things they might achieve some day because of what they are accomplishing here now.”

An energizing experience

Volunteer Chelsea Mann, who just graduated with a degree in civil engineering, says she had only very limited exposure to engineering while in high school. “So it’s really cool to see the students get inspired by engineering and to be doing some amazing things at their young age.”

Mann, who worked as an assistant for the Fulton Engineering’s recruiting office, will be busy with more studies and research as she pursues an engineering master’s degree at ASU, but she plans to continue devoting time to the FIRST LEGO League state tournament.

Jessica Loya has been a tournament volunteer for the past four years and plans to continue in the future. She graduated this semester with a degree in business communications, plus a minor in psychology.

“I think outreach is one of the most important parts of a college experience. And it’s been worth it,” Loya says. “These kids have so much energy, and that energizes us as volunteers.”

The experience with FIRST LEGO League competitions “has built on what I learned” in undergraduate business and psychology studies, she says, “in everything from seeing all the administrative work and planning that’s involved in putting on the tournament to getting an understanding for how kids learn to communicate and work together.”

Devoted volunteers

Rick Kale, who competed in robotics events in high school and just graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering, was a volunteer for a fifth year at the 2013 state championships, and intends to continue helping with the logistics of the event as an ASU alumnus. “It’s helped to hone my organization and time management skills,” he says, “and it’s just a lot of fun.”

Computer systems engineering major Sami Mian is a veteran robotics competition volunteer in only his sophomore year.

He was a member of a FIRST Robotics team in high school and participated in a summer robotics camp at ASU, and later became a teaching assistant for the camp.

Mian is now founder and president of the ASU Sun Devil Robotics club. He has been a judge and a planning assistant for FIRST LEGO League regional and state tournaments. He now trains new volunteers and judges.

“I love doing this,” Mian says, “because when I was doing robotics competitions as a kid, I remember how much it meant to me that people devoted their time to it.”

He also views the experience as an opportunity for students to connect and network, as well as "give back to the community, which is something I think all engineers should do.”

Opportunity to succeed

Don Wilde, an Intel engineer who helps lead the company’s efforts in Arizona to support STEM education, particularly the FIRST LEGO League, was at this year’s tournament to cheer on a team of girls from the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community that he had helped to mentor.

The team reflects what the program is doing to open opportunities in underserved communities, Wilde says.

“Theses kids are growing up in an environment that has not always had the resources to give them opportunities to succeed,” he says.

In only its second year of competing, the team performed well enough at a regional event to get to the state tournament.

“To see them come to ASU, and to be proud of what they are accomplishing, and to see them here with their parents watching ... this is great,” he says.

Turning lives around

The outcome of participation in FIRST LEGO League has been equally positive for many other Arizona students, says Fredi Lajvardi, the lead mentor for the Falcons robotics teams at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix.

Over the years, Falcons teams have won three regional FIRST Robotics Competitions at the high school level. One team gained a measure of fame in 2004 by besting a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the finals of a student underwater robotics competition.

The Falcons team began hosting the FIRST LEGO League competitions for Arizona grade schools until the events outgrew what the team could handle. That’s when they called on ASU to take over operations.

Lajvardi has seen the LEGO program grow from its beginning in Arizona more than a decade ago, when in its early years it was drawing only about 30 teams. He says he’s been thrilled to watch its “phenomenal” growth under ASU’s management and to see the caliber of the competition improve.

More than that, he says, robotics competitions “have been one of the major factors” enabling many more students to come out of Arizona high schools with more solid basic training in applying STEM skills.

At Carl Hayden High School, he says the result is that most students involved in robotics teams are going to college or the military, and many have earned degrees in engineering and are working in high-tech industries.

All in all, he says, the Arizona FIRST LEGO League “has turned lives around.”

That’s happening because the robotics programs “are teaching the skills you need in a real job,” says Allan Cameron, a retired Carl Hayden High School computer programming teacher who joined with Lajvardi in mentoring robotics teams.

“When you’re on a team that’s competing, you have to make a commitment. People are counting on you to work. You have to learn the things you need to know to do a job and complete a project,” Cameron says.

Expanding horizons

Emma Galligan’s experience is an example of how the values being taught through FIRST LEGO League are starting to be passed from one generation of youths to the next.

Galligan, 13, was a member of Team Toxic at the Sonoran Science Academy in Tucson last year and the previous year. Last year, the team won a top award at the LEGO League state championship. The year before, the team’s performance at the state tournament earned it a trip to the LEGO League World Festival.

This year she helped mentor her younger Team Toxic schoolmates. “It’s so much fun. I think of them as my little family. I just try to teach them everything I know,” she says, “and it’s so great to see them perform better than I ever have.”

She is also preparing her “little apprentice,” 8-year-old sister, Miranda, to begin her venture into FIRST LEGO League next year.

She plans to advance to a high school FIRST Robotics team in the near future, but her competitive experiences have already given her skills she will need to pursue the medical career she is considering.

“A lot of my knowledge about science has come from this,” she says of her work with the robotics teams. “It has definitely expanded my horizons. I am more outgoing than I ever was and I’m good at talking to adults. I’m just more confident around other people.”

Through her involvement with FIRST LEGO League, Galligan says, “I learned how to research things and how to experiment. That’s taught me stuff I’ll probably use the rest of my life.”

Poised to flourish

FIRST LEGO League’s goal is to nurture not simply future generations of technology-savvy professionals, but to train students in problem-solving skills and in “the ‘soft skills,’ such as cooperation and public speaking, that they can use in any career field or any other pursuit in life,” says Jennifer Velez.

Velez is the K-12 outreach senior coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering and manages the state’s LEGO League program as the Arizona operational partner for the FIRST organization.

With the teachers, coaches, mentors and parents at the dozens of schools throughout Arizona currently involved in league activities – along with ASU faculty, staff and students – the program has established a community of more than 1,000 volunteers, Velez says.

The program is being further strengthened by commitments from industry and philanthropic sponsors, Intel, the Tooker Foundation, Raytheon, General Motors and the Time Warner Cable “Connect a Million Minds Project.”

FIRST LEGO League “is going to grow and flourish in Arizona,” Velez says, “and keep providing invaluable learning experiences to our children.”