It’s not every day that college students are given the opportunity to contribute to their local community simply by playing with LEGOs.
Every year, Penn’s GRASP Lab participates in the FIRST LEGO League, which introduces middle school students to concepts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by involving them in a competition where they work in teams, designing and building robots to complete tasks related to a particular theme. This year’s theme is water.
Each team consists of around 10 middle school students who work with coaches to research the topic, build a robot, and put together their own field models that their robots will interact with. They start out by participating in a qualifier, and the winning teams go on to compete in the regional tournament, which is held at Penn, and the world championship, which will be in Detroit this year.
LEGO models built by Penn students, which take a total of six to eight hours to put together, will be used in the competitions to help the students put their robots into action, working through missions that are related to water.
“People are pretty enthusiastic to build LEGOs because everyone played with LEGOs growing up, especially in [Penn] Engineering,” says Daniel Miller-Uueda, the associate director for education and outreach at the GRASP Laboratory. “I don’t have to work hard to get people to build them.”
After completing field tasks with their robot, the middle school students also have to complete a research project and demonstrate “core values,” such as teamwork and cooperation. For their research projects, the students have to identify a problem that exists in the world having to do with water and develop a solution.
In addition to recruiting Penn students and other volunteers to build LEGO models and help in other ways, the GRASP Lab pays for the costs of registration for 45 public schools in Philadelphia, Chester, and Camden, N.J.
According to Miller-Uueda, the FIRST organization has conducted research on the program to see its effects. They found that there are a lot of benefits to students, such as becoming more interested and confident in their ability to pursue STEM careers. It also seems to have a greater influence on students who are underserved and underrepresented in STEM fields, such as female students, lower-income students, and students of color.
“In Philadelphia,” Miller-Uueda says, “we have a large underserved population that has a lack of access to programs, activities, and resources like this, whether it’s programming, mechanical design, or real-world problem solving. This program provides that to students at a pretty low entry level.”
Miller-Uueda, who was a teacher for 11 years before coming to Penn, says the LEGO competition helps to build “perseverance and grit” in students.
“Creating something and being able to show it off to adults is a really good motivator,” he says. “I think it’s really important for the students to have this idea that they can do things: that they can be successful and it just takes a lot of work and determination.”