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Oct 22, 2019

Teachers are using Legos to get kids into STEM

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Building robots from the plastic bricks also builds confidence. "It's just that wonderful of a medium to delve into," a middle school teacher says.

Sure, Lego is a childhood classic, but in recent years the company has made a big push into STEM education. Lego makes robotics kits, and kids can learn to code Lego robots on the company’s website. The company works directly with schools by offering curriculum, teacher training and competitions to help get kids interested in all things science, technology, engineering and math.

So I wondered how schools are using Legos in classrooms, and do they work? I spoke with Ian Chow-Miller, who teaches robotics using Legos at a middle school in Washington state. He said they do work. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Last month, Lego Education‘s Twitter feed encouraged students to build and program a robotic elephant for National Elephant Appreciation Day. (Video courtesy of Lego Education)

Ian Chow-Miller: It works because it’s tactile, first of all. One of my favorite quotes for Lego usage is “when you put two pieces together, if they don’t fit or they don’t work, you learn something. If they do fit or they do work, you learn something.” Just the actual building blocks and pieces are teaching material for the very simple process of building just a three- or four-piece doohickey in anything you build, and from there is the same thing when you build a robot. If you put it in wrong and the robot doesn’t drive straight, you learn something. If your robot doesn’t throw the ball far, you learn something. I let them make a machine that succeeds or fails, and then we talk about how to improve it, and if an applicable physics concept comes up in doing that, that’s where I would approach it. 

Molly Wood: Not to be the cynical journalists, but then, it’s OK that it’s a company? I feel like there’s always this tension about when a company comes into a school — what is their ultimate aim?

Chow-Miller: They need to make money. The robotics kits are expensive, but I think with that they provide you with tons of material, with tons of support. I would say on the cynic’s side, yes, it’s a corporation trying to make money, but I don’t think they are overstating the success of their materials; I don’t think they’re overstating the easability of getting into their materials. And I don’t think they’re overstating the adaptability of the concepts learned to more complex or hardcore machines. 

Wood: Do you find or have you found that you’re able to expand the pool of children who are interested in learning STEM concepts, or do you already have to have a proclivity? 

Chow-Miller: No, I almost prefer students who are not into it — and I don’t mean to dismiss those ones who have the proclivity. I think there are a lot of students who think that engineering is beyond them, or “I can’t be an engineer. I can’t be a computer scientist. I don’t get math. So how can I do this?” And they are shocked and then overjoyed at finding that they can do this. They will build something and then they’ll downplay it: “Oh, I just follow the directions,” but, like you just made a robot. You are a roboticist. You just wrote a program. You are a programmer. 

Wood: It sounds like it’s the confidence building first and then the curriculum after on some level? 

Chow-Miller: Absolutely. I don’t mean to be facetious, but I have a curriculum design because I’m required to have a curriculum design. I could sit and play with kids and build their confidence and teach them a lot about robotics without ever having a curriculum. It’s just that wonderful of a medium to delve into — just building something and then making it do what you want. Who doesn’t want to have that? Every student wants to have a voice, and I think in my class they want to have an extension of themselves. They want to be able to make things do what they want. In math and science — I don’t mean to knock those classes, and social studies — they’re not making things do what they want so much as they’re observing and learning and interacting. In my class, your end result is an extension of your wishes and desires. I think that really hooks them in. Then we can take that original excitement, and we can teach whatever STEM concepts — engineering, math, science — that I want to put in there.

Wood: Tell us some cool stories about things your students have built. Has anything really shocked you? 

Chow-Miller: Oh, my gosh, there’s so much that really shocked me. One student from two years ago, who was way on the [autism] spectrum, would run out of class a lot and had difficulty dealing with other students. He was also, of course, on my robotics team. He would build amazing robots. He built this one robot that looks like one of the robots in the original “Star Wars” movie that bounded across the floor of the Death Star. All the other students flocked to him for help with their robots, and he just had the knack for that. While the ones that have gone on to do amazing things are great, the ones that I really liked are the ones that just are happy to come to my class and happy to come to parents’ night and say, “Mom, come look at my robot.”

Robotics middle school teacher Ian Chow-Miller had some of his students produce videos for his YouTube channel. Here they talk about building and programming robots. (Video courtesy Chow-Miller)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

There are a lot of companies selling robotics kits and curricula to schools, not just Lego. Educational researchers say schools spent over $146 million on robotics teaching kits in 2018, and that number will rise to more like $640 million in the next three years. Educators generally are saying that the interactivity works.

And interestingly, at the Cannes Lions advertising and media gathering this summer, Lego’s chief marketing officer said that when the company was facing financial troubles about a decade ago, it specifically decided to double down on education, and now it’s paying off.

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