Take us to your leader - Making friends through robotics is child's play

The United States has lost its edge in mathematics and science. Almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The bad news: recent studies show that American children don’t have the same skills as other children throughout the world. The good news: STEM is now a mandate within the U.S. educational system.

FIRST® LEGO League (FLL®) was developed to introduce children of all abilities to the wonders and excitement of science, technology and engineering. The goal is to provide an experience that captures young children’s inherent curiosity and creativity, and directs it toward discovering the possibilities of improving the world around them through understanding, thought, planning and science. This fun and exciting global robotics and innovation program ignites an enthusiasm for discovery, science, teamwork and technology in kids ages nine to 14. Teams work as young scientists, engineers, mathematicians and creative writers, engaging in research, problem solving and engineering. Participants also learn through friendly sportsmanship, developing a true sense of community.

Students have the opportunity to solve real-world challenges by building LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a thematic playing surface. The tasks—called missions—ask participants to problem solve using programming and building skills. The more “missions” teams accomplish the better competition scores the team receives.

FLL teams, guided by their imaginations and adult coaches, discover exciting career possibilities and, through the process, learn to make positive contributions to society. Over the years, the program mission has sparked projects in food engineering, biomedical sciences and transportation. Each year a new research project topic is chosen as part of the competition. Team members learn more than just building robots and programming; they must also use and hone their skills in problem-solving, presentation, public speaking, ingenuity and creativity.

Assistive technology can be used everywhere; in fact, adaptive learning is necessary for the success of all children whether disabled or not. Children love robots and it is a great medium to teach many life skills. Children think they are just having fun, when in fact they are caught up in structured learning. That’s why robotics, assistive technology and LEGO robotics fit so well together.

LEGO therapy was developed more than 15 years ago after observing that children with autism and other neurobehavioral disorders were naturally attracted to LEGO pieces when presented with a room full of toys. Using LEGO pieces in a therapeutic and structured way was fun and seemed to reinforce appropriate social behavior naturally. Courage Center started its program as a fun event for children with disabilities. LEGO have also conquered the educational system with all the features needed to create and program a robot. Many schools have started incorporating LEGO MINDSTORMS® into their curriculum or after-school programs.

LEGO therapy has been systematically evaluated in research studies conducted by Daniel LeGoff, Ph.D., and a replication study completed recently at Cambridge University in England under the supervision of internationally recognized autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D. Each study has shown that using LEGO as a modality for group interaction and communication with peers increased self-initiated social contact and the duration of social interaction in other group settings such as in the playground and school cafeteria, and improved social competence in general.

It has been shown that to become a better LEGO® builder, children need to learn from each other, cooperate, solve disputes, follow rules and be helpful. These skills are often learned and reinforced by their peers throughout the weekly sessions and generalize to school and home environments.

Courage Center hosts year-round programs which expose robotics to kids of all abilities. Participants in the programs have had a variety of disabilities: autism, spinal cord injury, learning disability, personality disorder, and cerebral palsy. Some participants are not disabled. The program, by incorporating everyone together, promotes lifelong skills for learning and social skills. Everyone benefits and adaptations are often simple. See the sidebar for ideas and recommendations for adaptations.

Next time: Learn about LEGOS and children with autism spectrum disorders.

Jennifer Mundl works in Courage Center Assistive Technology. Contact her at AT@couragecenter.org

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