Building learning with Legos

Second-graders at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City are taking on science, technology, engineering and math brick by brick.

Lego bricks, that is.

Last month, Worthington formed a partnership with Howard High School in a new Lego Robotics Program at the elementary school. Every Thursday, a group of high-school students sit down in the Worthington cafeteria with small groups of second-graders. Together, they build model robots from the Legos, which the second-graders then program to move and emit sound.

The five second-grade homerooms are rotating through the program, with a new group starting every three weeks.

"Every second-grader will participate," said Worthington principal Katherine Orlando. "Other schools do this as a pull-out class, or a kind of extra-curricular, but everyone gets this here.

"We're trying in classes to tap into different learning styles, different ways to learn. This is a hands-on approach."

Each Lego model, whether a bird, a lion, an alligator or a soccer goalie, illustrates the use of gears, levers and fulcrums or belts and pulleys. The second-graders build the models with the guidance of the Howard High students, and the next week bring the models to their technology class.

There, with the help of technology education teacher Linda Isberg and the Lego WeDo software, the students program the models with rudimentary motions and sound effects.

"They're learning mechanical engineering as they go," Isberg said. "Each is a simple machine, and they're learning what's making the parts move."

The software allows the students to program the models with a sequence of actions — when the motor starts, stops, how long it runs, what direction it's turning, and what kind of sounds they want to hear and when.

The Legos are an age-appropriate, motivating tool for learning, Isberg said.

"It's different than an erector set and a pile of gears," she said. "It's like they're playing with toys, but it's a tangible way to learn about simple machines — they can clearly see how the models are moving, and why they're moving in that way."

When the students program the alligators they built Thursday Feb. 3, the models' jaws will open and close, and motion detector inside the mouth will sense when another Lego block has been placed in it.

"It's going to snap its jaw," said Owen Segala, 8.

'The cool thing is ...'

Before Owen got to work on the alligator, he and Vincent Jung, 8, were in the computer lab, making their model of Lego birds spin.

"The cool thing is, it's just one type of robot," Vincent said. "There's a bunch of robots you can make out of Legos ... you can make anything. Like a house-cleaning robot. That would be creative."

Other second-graders were on the same page as Vincent when it comes to creativity.

"You can build anything, really," said Jason Kush, 8.

The Lego Robotics program at Worthington was made possible through a $1,275 grant from the Bright Minds Foundation of Howard County. Pat Sasse, director of the foundation, said the fact that it was a "multi-school and multi-generational" program, bringing together students from Howard and Worthington, was one of the reasons the foundation thought the program deserved grant money for cross-age STEM collaboration.

"We like projects that can be replicated across the county," Sasse said. "This is a STEM project, too, and there's such a push in that area."

Howard senior Leslie McAdoo, 17, is one of several students in the career and technology track at Howard that spend an hour a week after school working with the Worthington second-graders. McAdoo played with Legos as a child, he said, and programs like the Lego Robotics show young students the potential in STEM-related jobs.

"It shows what you can do, and it's motivating. If you've seen the results of something you've built and you've programmed, it broadens your field," he said. "You see all the careers that are out there, and interest in this field could possibly lead to other things."

For students like Vincent, Jason and Owen, though, it's just fun.

"It's kind of like science and math, I mean, you have to think about things, but it's better," Owen said. "You get to do lots of creativity, you get to build lots of things – it's good."

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