Schenectady County

High-tech Legos a valuable (and fun) learning tool

Students at Duanesburg Elementary School are learning about science and technology through Legos tha
Duanesburg Elementary School 4th graders Austin O'Bryan, 9, left, and Isabelle Acevedo, 9, work on their Lego Robotics project in Geoff Switts class Wednesday, February 4, 2015.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Duanesburg Elementary School 4th graders Austin O'Bryan, 9, left, and Isabelle Acevedo, 9, work on their Lego Robotics project in Geoff Switts class Wednesday, February 4, 2015.

These are not old-school Legos.

Students at Duanesburg Elementary School are learning about science and technology through Legos that can see and move on their own. Fourth-graders can program their Legos to react to sound, light, movement and even color. They can tell the servos in their Lego wheels how far to move.

And then they can plug in their Lego creation — of course the Legos have USB ports — to download those programs.

Ask them if they remember the boring old Legos that didn’t move on their own, and they nod.

“I still have those,” said Carter Tripp, 9.

He still plays with them at home, too. But there’s no doubt what he’d rather have.

“Robots. They’re more interesting, and they move,” he said.

What he doesn’t realize is that his new toy is teaching him valuable STEM skills.

STEM is a new education buzzword that stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The goal is to get students ready for jobs that don’t exist yet.

“We want to get them excited about robotics and engineering. That’s the main goal [of the robotic Legos],” said teacher Geoff Switts. “Beyond that, we’re really looking to create problem-solvers.”

He runs an after-school Lego club for fourth-graders. Each week, he sets up a new challenge, and they have an hour to figure out how to get their robots to handle it.

This week, the robots had to drive up to a target — a Harry Potter book — and drop a piece of cargo on it. The students worked in groups of two, each sharing one of the expensive robots.

“I’d love to do this with my whole class, but I don’t have the time or the money,” Switts said. “So I do this.”

Working largely without adult assistance, the students programmed their robots and took them over to the Harry Potter book. One robot just spun in a circle, never recognizing its target. Another drove into the target and proceeded to push it across the room.

The students giggled, picked up their robots and studied their programs, trying to figure out what went wrong. That’s the heart of the program, Switts said. As they try again and again, they learn to keep trying, experimenting and then responding to the results of their experiment.

“Think beyond what’s just in front of them,” he said.

As he watched one group’s robot spin, he said, “Think. What’s wrong? Look at your sensor. Is it on?”

Whoops. The students trooped back to their computer to program the sensor to turn on so that it could search for its target.

Another student laughed when his robot pushed the book instead of dropping cargo on it.

“Keep on plowing,” Logan Krouse said cheerfully.

Logan, 9, conferred with his partner, Carissa Eagan, also 9.

“It keeps hitting the book and going forward, and it won’t stop,” she said, staring at the program.

Logan read through the program, too.

“I think we didn’t tell it to stop,” he said.

They added that direction, building a flow chart: Turn on the sensor, find the book, drive up to it, stop and then drop the cargo.

Meanwhile, Carter Tripp and his partner had successfully programmed their robot. They ran to the book and cheered as their robot plunked its cargo down.

For a moment, Carter basked in the cheers of his friends.

“It’s pretty hard and challenging. I like challenges,” he said.

Then his robot backed away from the book and kept on going, driving out of the classroom. He watched with some surprise.

“Bye, bye,” he said as it drove off. “Um, I think we need to change that measurement.”

Back to the drawing board.

Switts looked on with a smile. The lack of dismay as Carter worked on his program yet again was exactly what he was trying to teach.

“It’s not cut and dry,” he said. “It encourages students to persevere with problem-solving.”

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