Learning as a team

Not many kids would want to stay after school twice a week and on Saturdays, but when building with Legos, robots and computers is involved, a group of Castle Elementary fourth-graders couldn't pass up the opportunity.

The eight students are the school's first robotics club-- The Castle Cubs -- to join Minnesota FIRST Lego League, an international program that hosts competitions to teach kids problem-solving techniques and team work.

Teachers Barb Ives, fourth grade, and George Bruehl, fifth grade, organized the team to be a part of a program overseen by High Tech Kids, a non-profit organization that supports participants in Minnesota FIRST. The organization offers "high energy, fun, team-based programs and competitions that celebrate science and technology," according to its website.

The Cubs have been meeting Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and on Saturdays since the beginning of October to work on preparing their Legos robot to complete several missions so they can take it to a regional tournament on Dec. 11.

"It's a big commitment on their part and their parents, and they've really met that all the way," Ives said during one of the after-school meetings last week.

Typical fourth-grade activities such as sleepovers, camping trips and team sports have all been put on the back burner for the eight team members, Ives says.

But, Ives and Bruehl say they organized the club so students wouldn't feel they're missing out. They've emphasized friendships, fun and, of course, educational opportunities.

"Some of the things that we've heard as we've gone through the season from the kids is that, first of all, it's fun for them to be at school outside of school hours, and they're learning," Ives says. "It's been an opportunity for them to get to know other kids that they maybe normally wouldn't have time to get to know and be friends with."

Brainstorming bunch
The students are a few weeks away from the competition and regularly practice the program they set for their robot to complete missions on a small track and make revisions to ensure it all goes smoothly.

Simon Donohue-Brown is the computer programmer for the Cubs while his teammates watch over the robot as it completes missions. They quickly brainstorm new ideas when it gets off track.

In the competition, set to be at the Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School in St. Paul, the Cubs' robot will have to perform its missions in three 2.5 minute performance rounds and earn more points than the other teams to win.

"I'm really excited to be in a Lego League tournament because I've never done something like this before," says student Hannah Semlak.

When the tournament competition is done, the students also have to present a research project that shows the solution to a "real-world problem," according to High Tech Kids. The students will give their presentation in front of a panel of judges at the competition, Ives says.

The curious students decided to research why humans sweat and provided a solution through a skit based off the game show "Deal or No Deal" but called "Sweat or Don't Sweat."

"Being fourth-graders," Ives says with a laugh, "they decided they wanted to research excessive sweating, and they've learned all about why the body sweats and what treatments are out there for it and then they had to come up with their own treatment."

Cheers for learning
With their skit and research ready to go, the Cubs are now focusing all their attention on the robot they designed, built and programmed all on their own.

Ives and Bruehl are there only to guide the students and answer questions, but not make any decisions for the team.

"As teachers, we can't tell them how to fix it; we have to let them figure it out on their own," Ives says. "It's a different environment for both them and for us, because we're not sitting at desks with paper and pencil, so they get to see a little different side of us and we get to see a different side of them," she says.

Students are also exposed to learning perseverance through the competition and practices.

"They're really learning how to face challenges and try, try, try again," Ives says. "They can't just give up, they have to keep plugging away."

The success the team has had so far and hard work has made sacrificing Saturday afternoons worth it for both the coaches and students.

"It took weeks of trial and error and fine tuning to complete two missions five consecutive times last Saturday," Bruehl described. "By the end of the day Saturday when we were leaving ... you could hear cheers down the hall because they were so excited they actually did that."

After regionals
When their competition is over, the students and coaches have two things to do: have a party to celebrate their achievements and develop plans to bring the team back next year.

"You can just hear the buzz of excitement as they're talking and working together," Ives says. "This is where they shine and it gives them this opportunity."

Student Jack Hackney excitedly adds that his mom would like to host a party for his teammates at their house.

Teachers are expecting as much interest in the robotics team next year, and Bruehl says the fourth-grade students are asking for it to be offered to the fifth grade so they can participate again.

Bruehl says he wants his students to "just enjoy the experience. The kids are learning a lot and in the future years they'll have a good background."

Katy Zillmer can be reached at kzillmer@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.

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