GSE mentor project yields robotic champs

Caskey_legoHow do you motivate elementary children to love science and math? Answering that question led five local middle school students; their coach, Arun Sagiraju; and their mentors, GSE doctoral student Donna Webb and GSE faculty member and Associate Dean Micki Caskey to victory in the 14th Annual Intel Oregon FIRST* Lego League Championship tournament at Hillsboro’s Liberty High School on January 18, 2015.

Their team, Lego Legends, was one of two Oregon teams that will move on to the World Championship in Lego Robotics, combining the plastic building bricks with technology. The win is a significant accomplishment because Oregon has over 400 robotics teams, making the Intel event one of the largest in the country.

The competition required the teams to identify a community-based problem, build a functioning Lego robot that would solve the problem, and then describe what they did to judges. The competition’s theme for this year was “How to find a better way to help someone learn.” 

The Lego Legends robotics team consists of three girls and two boys: seventh graders Catherine Lee and Jasmine Wang, who go to Cedar Park Middle School, and Anshul Arunkumar, who attends the French American International School; and sixth-graders Rishi Alluri and Megha Alluri, who go to Stoller Middle School. In addition to being the team’s coach, Sagiraju is a parent who relied closely on mentors Webb and Caskey—both veteran middle school teachers.

The Lego Legends decided they might like to motivate elementary students to love science. They created a hands-on, customizable system for teaching science that would inspire children in any school. To accomplish this, they used a free program called Scratch to help design interactive science activities. “For example, they used a yoga mat, wires, a sandal, and other materials to make a kid-sized skeleton model,” said Webb. “Students would put on the sandal, step on a bone and the program would explain the part.” Sagiraju, who works at Intel, supervised the robotics portion of the project and helped the team work cooperatively to build and solve tasks. Webb and Caskey helped them with their presentation, providing feedback for the third and final portion of the competition. “They are really focused and smart kids,” said Webb.

The Lego Legends tested their project with local elementary students who were so engaged they were reluctant to end the lessons.

“The team is grateful for the contributions of mentors Caskey and Webb. I honestly don’t have enough words to thank you for your kind gesture—it made a lot of difference to kids,” said Sagiraju. “Our heartfelt thanks to both of you. [These] kids will cherish this mentorship forever.”

Webb is a current GSE doctoral student, independent curriculum developer and a former middle school teacher. Caskey is a nationally recognized middle school specialist and author of 10 books on middle-level education.

Oregon’s two winning teams will compete with middle school students from 40 states and 44 countries. The World Championships will take place in St. Louis, Missouri, in April.

*FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to introducing children of all ages to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The FIRST Lego Robotics program is one of several initiatives on STEM topics and is specifically focused on middle school students.

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