Sunday, September 14, 2003

Lego League links kids to engineering



By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

SHARONVILLE--Tomorrow's aerospace engineer might be today's 9-year-old master of the Lego universe.

While playing with the brightly colored, interconnecting blocks, experts say children can establish a foundation for math, science, technology and problem-based learning. That can spark an interest in related professions - such as engineering. The Cincinnati Regional First Lego League Robotics Competition for students in grades 4 through 8 is one way some in Greater Cincinnati are trying to make that happen.

"If you can show kids the real-life applications of what they can do, they understand and they can become interested in it," said Kathy Schweinfurth, chief of outreach education at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. The base is a sponsor of both regional and state First Lego League competitions.

About 20 Tristate elementary and middle school teams of 4-10 students have registered for the Dec. 13 regional event at Scarlet Oaks Career Development Campus in Sharonville. Registration deadline is Sept. 30.

Wright-Patterson supports First Lego League because of a national shortage of graduates in math, science and technology, Schweinfurth said.

"We've got ulterior motives," she said, adding that more half of the base's work force will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. Many of those people have scientific and technical careers.

The First Lego League competition lasts eight weeks. Age-appropriate curriculum introduces students to robotics and builds on that knowledge by allowing students to progress from theory to robot design and programming. Students work in teams that use the design process and scientific method to achieve objectives and create Lego robots that meet specific challenges.

"It's extraordinarily creative," said Mary Kay Fleming of Crescent Springs. "The kids do all the programming from scratch. All they're given is a kit of Lego parts that number in the thousands, with no directions."

Fleming helped coach her son's Lego team the past two years. In both years, her team of seventh- and eighth-grade boys from St. Joseph's and Covington Latin schools won the Ohio competition.

This year's theme is "Mission Mars," geared to the NASA Mars rovers on their way to the planet, said Cincinnati competition chairwoman Cathy Metzger, who teaches at Whitaker Elementary in Finneytown. Whitaker participated last year and will send teams this year, too.

In all contests, students must design, build and program an autonomous Lego robot to achieve as many objectives on the playing field as possible in three, two-minute rounds. Students also must present a research report to a panel of judges about the science they used and a technical presentation explaining their design and programming strategies.

Dr. Karen Schmahl, associate professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering at Miami University, said First Lego League reaches students at a critical point in their math and science education.

Engineering, in particular, is a profession that elementary students often don't connect with math and science, Schmahl said.

"In elementary text books, the word 'engineer' rarely appears," she said. "Kids are exposed to a lot of science, but they're never told that it's engineers who use it."

For information about the national program, visit www.firstlegoleague.org. For more information about Cincinnati Regional First Lego League Competition, e-mail metzger415@yahoo.com or visit www.ispaceohio.org.

E-mail annag376@aol.com




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