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Elementary school students use LEGOs to learn tech skills

9-R receives $50,000 grant from Durango Education Foundation
Needham Elementary School fifth grader Titus Wilderman, left, puts together the fender of a self-driving LEGO car Wednesday. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

Playing with LEGOs may not seem like a traditional form of education. But through a STEM learning model, the plastic building blocks are helping students imagine solutions to real-world problems.

That’s what was happening Wednesday in Jennifer Rector’s fifth grade STEM class.

Through a $50,000 grant from the Durango Education Foundation, Durango School District 9-R elementary schools have received LEGO STEM sets as well as 3D printers. Students were tasked to construct a prototype of something that would help the school.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The learning model integrate those disciplines into real-world settings.

“We’re getting kids excited,” said Superintendent Karen Cheser in a news release. “We are seeing this movement that our students and staff are really embracing technology tools, and we want to support this as much as we can.”

Rector’s students discussed various ideas like building a grabbing device that could help students with disabilities; others experimented with various forms of transportation. One group decided they wanted to build a self-driving vehicle to help with the school district’s shortage of bus drivers.

“Because we have a lack of bus drivers, it means we have a lack of people to take kids on field trips, so this is definitely a problem,” said 9-R spokeswoman Karla Sluis about the students’ project.

The goal of the group was to build a replica vehicle that was both aerodynamic and four-wheel drive because it needed to endure Durango’s winter weather.

The students were tasked with brainstorming how to best develop a four-wheel drive system with a two-wheel drive motor. Fifth grader Titus Wilderman said he wanted to develop a pulley system that would activate all four wheels of the vehicle, but he was still working out the kinks on how it would make the car four-wheel drive.

He said he has learned about auto mechanics by watching Formula 1 racing. The students then used code to dictate how fast the car moves, when to brake and when to turn.

Needham Elementary School STEM teacher Jennifer Rector helps students set up a LEGO set Wednesday. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

“LEGOs are great because they’re so engaged with them and that’s something that they’re familiar with,” Rector said. “And then, the more complex thinking comes more naturally once they’re playing with it.”

Rector said it is important for students to transfer what they’ve learned to other parts of their education.

The students start the STEM programs in kindergarten. They learn the basics of how to build the LEGO robots. Usually, younger students don’t code as much.

By second grade, student begin coding consistently with iPads.

Students tend to stay engaged and rarely become distracted by the technology in the classroom – one of the benefits of STEM education, she said.

STEM learning has grown in popularity in recent years, and demand for jobs in the science and engineering fields may be the cause. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of STEM-based jobs are expected to grow 10.8% over the next 10 years, compared to non-STEM jobs which are expected to grow only 2.3%.

“What I love about STEM is about the process – testing and debugging – not the final product,” said Matt Smith, the district’s technology integration specialist. “It makes the kids think in different ways. It’s really cool to watch them iterate and try new things.”


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