More than 30 children gathered around tables in a classroom after school at Florence Rideout Elementary School in Wilton Thursday, with boxes full of Lego kits they were itching to get their hands on.
Morgan Kudlich, the school’s music teacher who had donned her club coach hat for the afternoon, set their task – design something for a park that will get their bodies moving, then use their Lego kits to bring it to life.
The students got to work, using the kits to create vehicles, slides, trees and anything else their imaginations could conjure, which Kudlich said is the main point of the club.
“The kids are getting a lot of creative time, where they can look at a problem, and try to create a solution from scratch,” Kudlich said. “It’s important they have that opportunity to build something from scratch, and encounter problems. Being able to solve those problems can then translate to a larger scope of building in the future. I think this is a really great way to experiment.”
The club is a part of the FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology – League. FIRST was founded in 1989 with the main goal of getting youth involved in science and technology. It offers different levels of programming, where children and teens get to learn about computer programming, solve technical challenges and, at the highest level, build, program and compete with robots.
Although the new club has only had two sessions, it has already become immensely popular. Students have filled the 35 spots allowed by the amount of materials the school has secured, with another 10 students on a wait list, Kudlich said.
At the elementary level, students are doing their builds with Lego, but they still get the opportunity to learn some basic programming skills and create working models. In their program, the children of FRES’s Lego club will build a functioning heart monitor and working miniature treadmill as some of their initial projects.
Emily Stefanich, curriculum coordinator for Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District, said the program was made possible through a two-year grant from the State Department of Education. Both the elementary school and Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative Middle/High School programs received grants, with the middle/high school funds going to upkeep its existing program. The elementary school grant allowed it to start a FIRST club for the first time.
The Florence Rideout Elementary School received $4,867 for this year, while the middle/high school received $5,000. Both will also receive funding next year, though the amounts of those grants haven’t been finalized, Stefanich said. Those startup costs are key for developing a program, which are then often supported by community sponsorships, similar to youth sports programs, Stefanich explained.
“FIRST brings a sports-like atmosphere to a non-sport activity,” Stefanich said. “The benefits of the ideas of working together to solve a problem, leadership and teamwork are all still there.”
Kudlich said because of COVID-19, and a late start for the FRES Lego club, the club was only able to access building kits from last year’s program, and won’t be participating in any competition events. However, students who participate will still get to show off their final ideas – designing a community park with various aspects to promote physical fitness – to their school in a symposium event hosted at FRES. She said next year, she hopes to involve the club more directly with regional or state events and competitions.
In the meantime, she said, the children are still building highly useful skills, and developing an interest in computing and engineering.
“With the younger kids, it’s just seeing if they can follow the instructions of a 20-part build, and put it together the way it’s meant to be together,” Kudlich said. “And they get to mix with kids they don’t normally work with.”
The club includes children across multiple grades, up to the fourth grade. It gives the oldest children a chance to step up into leadership roles, and help the younger ones. The teams can also learn rudimentary programming skills. Some of the Lego builds use a motor which can be programmed using a child-friendly programming model that allows students to control movement and lights. As they work through the kinks of getting their machines to do what they want, they’re learning essential problem-solving skills, Kudlich said.
“They have to evaluate, change, adapt and improve their process,” Kudlich said.
The FIRST Lego club meets weekly on Thursdays at the Florence Rideout Elementary School. The club is currently at capacity.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.