Southgate uses Lego League as building block for high school robotics

Published 7:43 am Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How does a mango make it from the fruit-bearing trees of southern Asia or the southern states to your local grocer?

Some first and second grade students at Southgate Elementary know, and they could even design the transportation needed to haul the fruit from tropical tree to Midwestern kitchen.

Southgate is piloting a Junior FIRST Lego League (FLL), an after-school activity that teaches science, technology and engineering concepts to first through fifth grade kids. It’s the foundation for the middle school level Lego League and the building blocks of the high school level Robotics competition.

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Austin High School has had a robotics team for two years, and Southgate is the only other school in the district that is now involved. The program will grow next school year when Southgate fifth graders graduate and move on to Ellis Middle School.

“It is going really well, and we’re extremely excited about it,” said David Wolff, a Southgate teacher who co-coaches the league with teacher Paul White.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by Segway Transportation System inventor Dean Kamen. Based in Manchester, N.H., the non-profit organization designs programs to inspire an appreciation of the sciences and engineering in young people.

Four Junior FLL teams of eight students each meet twice a month with Wolff and White to reflect on and meet a challenge. This year’s challenge is to find out what types of transportation are used to get products to Austin. Each year brings a new challenge to teams.

The first step for Southgate teams was to chose products to follow. First and second grade students selected mangos; third graders chose coconuts; fourth graders picked ingredients in Kool-Aid; and fifth-graders chose the ingredients in root beer. After completing team research, the students are now working with Legos to make a model of one of the means of transportation.

In February, they will show off their accomplishments at the science fair.

Southgate has fielded so much interest in the club that they’ve split the year into two sessions, so 32 more kids can participate come February.

Wolff and White have recently given presentations to teachers in other elementary schools about starting leagues. Wolff secured funds for Southgate’s program by writing an Austin Public Education Foundation grant for almost $700.

“It’s a great activity for kids who might not be interested in sports, or for anybody to pique an early interest in engineering challenges,” Wolff said.

“It’s very hard,” said third-grader Daniel Nelson who was brainstorming ways to build a crane — for transporting coconuts — with his team Monday. “There are directions, but Mr. White took them away. It’s really fun to figure it out ourselves though.”

Nelson stood huddled around a table, with his teammates who made sketches, shouted out ideas, and put together Legos for prototypes.

At the other end of the room, a first and second grade team were building a wheel and axle for a semi-truck — for cross-country mango transport.

“We mounted tools on top of the truck, in case we loose a tire,” said second-grader Aaron Knoll.

Knoll said his favorite day in the league was when they built a bridge that spanned a desk and could bear the weight of eight bottles of glue. A bridge built by fourth and fifth graders supported seven bottles. “We play with Legos at home, but this is the real thing,” he added.

Madison Herrick, a second-grader, is the only girl in grades one through three that participates in the league.

“It can be a challenge,” she said, of the engineering, not of working with all boys. “It’s really fun and I like it.”

Wolff said only one girl in fifth grade is on the league, but about half of the fourth grade team are girls.

“We are trying to reach out and encourage them, as there just has not been a lot of interest,” Wolff said.

“It’s great for all kids, especially at this early level. It’s engaging, accessible and fun.”