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Can a Lego League rekindle students’ interest in STEM education?

Durango School District 9-R seeks volunteers to put program into action
Students compete in the Four Corners FIRST Lego League Robotics Tournament in 2014 at Miller Middle School. The Durango School District 9-R superintendent wants to restart the program for Durango schools. (Durango Herald file)

Durango School District 9-R is looking to launch a program for students of all grade levels, but it needs volunteers to get the project into action.

The program is the FIRST Lego League, a robotics program that is aimed to introduce grade school students to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects by challenging them with real-world problem-solving opportunities meant to develop their critical thinking, coding and design skills.


The school district is seeking parent volunteers to help coach students in the program. Interested parents do not need engineering or programming skills, and the school district will provide resources, equipment and coaching guidance, said Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser.

Cheser said she has a personal fondness for the FIRST Lego League. The program is meant to teach students how to effectively problem-solve, but it also emphasizes teamwork, inclusion and innovation through creativity and persistence. (FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.)

FIRST Lego League was formed in 1998 by FIRST founder Dean Kamen and Lego Group Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen. They set out to create a program that allowed children to “play in meaningful ways,” according to the program’s official website.

“It’s a competition,” Cheser said. “They call it a coop-etition because ... it’s a competition but you also know that you’re building comradery with other teams, you’re working toward this great vision and goal.”

The program emphasizes inclusion. Cheser said one of the values she sees in it is that it offers students an activity other than sports, including students from less represented groups such as females and minorities.

“This makes it more inclusive for all schools and students across the district,” said 9-R spokesperson Julie Popp. “At the high school, we had the aerospace team and they do have a robotics class. But this is great, what Karen’s vision is and expanding it to students of all ages and across the entire district, so that will make a big difference.”

Cheser said FIRST Lego League founder Kamen noticed that students’ excitement for STEM subjects begins to wane as they grow older, and the program was developed to try to curb that trend.

“Even students, young children, even if they’re excited about it, their enthusiasm wanes. Especially for underrepresented populations such as females, minority students, they typically weren’t going in or sustaining their excitement about it,” Cheser said. “By the time students are in like fourth grade – not interested anymore. So he created this program so that students could get as excited about robotics competitions as they do about sports. So it really does feel like that.”

Bayfield Middle School students take part in the 2013 Robotics Challenge, in which participants program a Lego vehicle to negotiate a course while performing certain tasks during the Four Corners Regional Lego League Tournament at Animas Valley Elementary School. The Durango School District 9-R superintendent wants to restart the program for Durango schools. (Durango Herald file)

Cheser brings her passion for FIRST Lego League from previous school districts where she worked. She served as a coach in the Lego league and participated in the FIRST Head Challenge programs for about 12 years while she was superintendent of the Fort Thomas schools, the No. 1 school district in Kentucky then, she said, and the deputy superintendent for the third largest Kentucky school district before that.

Durango has the potential to become the No. 1 school district in Colorado, too, Cheser said. She believes the FIRST Lego League program can help students learn how to approach problems with creative solutions.

The competitions within the program include regional, state and even world-level events. In Kentucky, league teams Cheser coached advanced all the way to world tournaments. The competitions revolve around different topics every year, from natural disasters to addressing the challenges faced by senior citizens.

“They develop a product or some sort of solution, then they have to present that to experts and others and get feedback and continually make their idea better,” Cheser said.

At the competition, teams present their projects to judges. Cheser described the process as “the best example of authentic problem-based learning.”

Shubham Banerjee works on his Lego robotics braille printer at his home in Santa Clara, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press file)

Some student participants have even gone on to market their ideas, demonstrating that the program also builds entrepreneurship and global thinkers, Cheser said.

Parents who want to get involved don’t need programming or engineering skills, and Cheser said she will be there to guide them on how to coach the students through the program.

“I just don’t want parents or volunteer coaches to be intimidated,” Cheser said. “You don’t have to know programming or engineering. ... Typically, students are amazing at figuring out block programming. They can do way more than we ever expected that young children can do. So we will support our volunteers and make sure they have everything they need.”

State funding is also available that could help the school district acquire resources it needs, including for the robotics.

Parents who would like to volunteer to coach students in the FIRST Lego League can sign up through an online form. The school district can have as many teams as needed to accommodate all students who are interested in participating.

Once the school district has received enough volunteer applications, which Cheser said she hopes to accomplish this week, it will begin accepting students into the program. The league runs from October to December.


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