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Robotics competition inspires youngsters to be self-educators

Erik Von Burg AZ FLL
December 04, 2012

Innovative learning environment attracts award-winning teacher to Arizona FIRST LEGO League program

Erik Von Burg sees hope for improving the education of the nation’s youngsters in a “fundamental paradigm shift” in teaching and learning methods.

There must be a break with conventional concepts of education “where the teacher spouts and the students simply absorb,” says the elementary school teacher. “Students must no longer simply be consumers of knowledge. They must become creators of new knowledge and understanding,” he says.

Von Burg works with students from kindergarten through sixth grade in three public schools in Mesa, Ariz., including teaching grades three through six in the MacArthur Elementary School Gifted and Talented program.

He employs what is known as the constructivist method –  focusing first on schooling children in critical thinking skills and then allowing students relative freedom to pursue their own paths to learning.

“Teaching people how to think rigorously is truly the only universally applicable lesson we as teachers can provide,” he says.

His belief in the value of this approach to education is why he’s made a commitment to get his students involved each year in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League (FLL) program.

The program seeks to teach young students the fundamentals of engineering, science and math through competitions that involve designing, building and programming small robots (constructed with the use of LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits) as well as problem-solving projects related to real-world societal challenges in areas such as health, energy and environmental sustainability.

FLL is managed by Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, which coordinates operations for FIRST LEGO League regional tournaments and an annual state championship tournament.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international program founded by renowned inventor Dean Kamen to ignite young students’ interest in engineering and science.  Since ASU’s engineering schools became the FIRST LEGO League operational partner in Arizona in 2008, the state’s program has more than tripled the number of middle schools and student teams participating.

This year’s Arizona FLL program has seen participation from a record number of about 300 teams of students from middle schools around the state. The state championship tournament on Dec. 8 at ASU’s Tempe campus will feature more than 50 of the top-performing teams.

Von Burg has coached FIRST LEGO League teams from Mesa schools for the past four years, and says he understands what is attracting more schools. “FIRST LEGO League embodies the mindset” of cutting-edge innovation in education methods, he says, “and its adherence to this philosophy of teaching and learning makes it so rewarding and valuable.”

FIRST LEGO League “provides authentic problem-solving situations” that prompt students to do some deep thinking, he says.

The complex challenges energize the youngsters. “If you attend only one tournament, you will see why it’s appealing to kids,” he adds. “For accomplishing tasks that develop their technical knowledge, these students are put on a pedestal that is typically given only to athletically gifted youngsters.”

Getting involved in the FIRST LEGO League competitions has had an impact on his classroom environment. There’s now more “authentic collaboration” and an “atmosphere of mutual learning” between teacher and students, he says.

His successes in the classroom have led the Arizona Science Teachers Association to recently select Von Burg to receive its 2012 Elementary Science Teacher of the Year award. His work “exemplifies what it means to teach science to the next generations,” says Vicki Massey, president of the association of more than a thousand members dedicated to improving science teaching in the state’s K-12 schools.

Von Burg, an ASU graduate with a degree in psychology and education, has been teaching in Arizona for the past 12 years. His future teaching plans include continuing to mentor FIRST LEGO League teams for years to come, he says, with the hope of one day coaching a team that includes his two young daughters.

Written by Rosie Gochnour and Joe Kullman