The bell had already rung. The buses had already left. Most hallways were empty. Classrooms were dormant. All except Joshua McCurley’s, on the fourth grade wing at South Hart Elementary School. Inside his walls, a handful of students were filling the space with excitement and energy as they practiced a table-top mat of activities, all fueled by creativity. And Legos.
As the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) facilitator, fifth grade teacher and the First Lego League coach for the school, McCurley is very used to this after-school situation. Two to three times a week, once the school bell rings, his classroom becomes a playhouse of teamwork and innovation, as his league team, tagged the Mind Twisters, works on their Lego creations.
These, however, are not the Legos of yore. These are electronic-based Legos, used through robotics and coding. As the only First Lego League team in the county, McCurley’s class stands out as an inspiration of imagination, which was displayed recently with their first place win in Chattanooga, Tenn., at the First Lego League competition.
The theme of the recent competition was space. Just, space. And while vague and broad, these 10 students on McCurley’s team, all of whom are nominated to be in the league, went with the theme and ran, doing weeks’ worth of research to understand how they could use the idea of space to their advantage.
After delving into the assigned topic, students started to understand what it means to be an astronaut, and that life in space isn’t all that easy. Depression can sit in when living alone in a capsule, flying high above the Earth. To combat that, the students at South Hart developed a Lego-based dog, named Robie, which interacts with humans, via a human-based controller.
“We did research and found out, astronauts can really get depressed,” said Hanna Jo Coker, a fifth grade member of the award-winning Lego team. “So, we found out the number one animal to help with that are seals. But dogs are number two, and that seems more like something people can use easier. Plus dogs can help with things like exercising. And they take a smaller charging station.”
The Mind Twisters took on the Lego challenge for a second time this year, each time placing highly in the multi-tiered completion. The First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), program is a global not-for-profit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen, with the goal of inspiring young people’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as building 21st century skills.
Among the challenges’ tasks are first, developing a centered headliner based on a broad theme, then solving a variety of side problems, such as crafting smaller, controller-based accessories to accomplished a series of activities along a map, such as flip modules of towers and tumblers.
Beyond the competition level, though, students simply enjoy developing their skills in Lego-based lessons. That doesn’t just mean putting little electronic blocks together. It also means learning how to code, how to work with one another and how to do research. These are all skills students will need once they leave the classroom and enter the working world, McCurley’s said.
As the students in McCurley’s class put it, “The best part of all this is team building and working together. It’s not just reading and learning.”
But, McCurley said, it really is, students just don’t realize it. Which may be the best part of the league.
“Our students need to first, identify a problem under the assigned theme, then research it,” McCurley said. “Service dogs come to our schools, and we read to them. So they looked further into that idea, and that was how their research really began. It’s pretty impressive. They took on these challenges, and took them to heart. I’m impressed by what they have accomplished and excited to see that, without realizing it, they are learning so much. This whole idea is a lot of fun, and our students love being here after school to do this. What a great way to help students have fun, learn and team build all at the same time.”
While the Mind Twisters competition season may be finished for the year, their energy for learning has yet to fade. The team still meets on a regular basis for an hour or so after school, and many of the team members plan to continue the trait once they reach the middle school level. With the accolades already given to this team, it’s easy to see why.