Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School fifth-grader Alex Liu likes Legos for the same reason he likes robotics: with the same pieces of equipment, he can do countless things.
"You can use one set and make tons of different things. You don't have to keep things the same way," he said. "With robots, you can do something different every time, too."
Alex is one of 36 fourth- and fifth-graders at the Ellicott City school who are participating in the school's new FIRST Lego League program. Numerous schools across the county participate in the league, and last year Triadelphia Ridge took part in the Junior FIRST Lego League (for first-, second-, and third-graders). FIRST Lego League is a partnerhip between the Lego Group and the organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, aimed at inspiring students in science and engineering fields.
"It was a big success last year, and we had 47 kids in Junior First Lego League," said Erin Edwards, a Triadelphia Ridge parent who helped spearhead the effort to establish FIRST Lego League at the school. "It was amazing."
Now in its second week, FLL meets several nights a week at the school, where teams break off into groups to prepare for December tournaments. This year's FLL theme is "Nature's Fury," and students learn core values, like teamwork and sportsmanship, prepare for a presentation on an area affected by severe weather, and program a robot to perform various tasks to help a small Lego town avoid disaster.
Ultimately, the teams will be scored based on their performance in those three areas, Edwards said.
"By the end of the program, they have a lot more confidence," she said. "We have kids that are outgoing, kids that are shy, and they're all learning. For the kids to accomplish this — giving a presentation on creative problem-solving, programming a robot — it's an amazing thing."
Edwards loves the program because it's getting kids interested in science, technology and engineering at a young age, which she hopes makes the fields less intimidating.
"I have a daughter, and I want her to feel confident that engineering is something she could do if she wanted to," Edwards said.
For Edwards daughter, it seems to be working.
"I've been playing with Legos since I was two," said Alex Edwards, 9. "I like building things, and programming robots to do whatever I want."
Because this is the first year for the program at Triadelphia Ridge, Edwards said, parents are dealing with start-up costs for robots, laptops to program the robots, as well as annual registration fees. Through sponsorships and a $1,000 donation from the PTA, however, cost-per-student is down to $140.
"We have a lot of interest and support from the parents," Edwards said. "The parents agree with how important it is for students to be exposed to these things at such a young age."
That's what got Andrew Stephan interested in coaching one of the teams — that, and his son's enthusiasm.
"Legos are an entry point," Stephan said. "It's introducing them to things they wouldn't get exposed to until later in school, and they're learning about how to work as a team, how to be responsible for your job on that team and how to be good sports."
Darius Bakhtiar, another parent coach, said FLL gets students started early in learning both life skills and engineering.
"It gets them thinking about science and technology in a very fun way," he said. "They might not like math or science, but here they can see it in a different way, in something they all like to do. They get to see the results of their work and their work as a team."