Multimedia: Engineering Fun with Lego

FinalCut RoboFun from Joanna Plucinska on Vimeo.

It’s a spring afternoon at Robofun’s Upper West Side location. Kids, just out of school, sit in various corners of the small teaching space, excitedly putting together pieces of Lego. Their squeals of joy — “I did it!!” —and sighs of confusion — “Why won’t it work?” —fill the room. Battery powered motors and connecting wires litter the floor— the tools used to bring the Lego constructions these children are working on to life.

This isn’t just busy work to keep kids occupied after-school. Here at Robofun, an private after-school program, the organizers hope that these pieces of Lego will help set the foundation to a long future in science, techonology, engineering and math education, known commonly as STEM – and an eventual career – for these children.

It mirrors other after-school programs in New York City, which have become popular in recent years thanks to a renewed interest in STEM education. Politicians, including President Obama, and business leaders are now saying that, with a toys as simple as Lego blocks, the next Mark Zuckerbergs and Marissa Mayers of our generation could bloom.

STEM is considered to be the gateway to well-paying jobs – and to a stronger American economy. It’s been proven to improve math and science scores dramatically, especially when children are exposed to it early on in their education.
On a national level, the president , started the Educate to Innovate initiative, investing over $700 million in public-private partnerships to boost STEM education around the country. And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio included the promotion of STEM education at the college level in the CUNY system as part of his platform.

“Our aim is that within eight years, the majority of skilled technology-related jobs in New York City are being filled by those educated in New York City schools,” de Blasio said in his State of the City speech.

In New York City, this mantra hasn’t only been supported at local colleges, however. Already, 134 science-specific programs exist in New York’s public high schools. It’s also led to a newfound interest in STEM-related after school classes, like Robofun, aimed at kids. In 2013, ten different major community organizations, such as the Harlem Children Society, and schools, such as the Paula Hedbavny School, applied for funds – between $5,000 to $45,000 – from their councilors to pay for STEM-related after school programs.

Laura Allen, who is the founder and CEO of Robofun, believes teaching kids STEM principles in a fun, hands-on setting, is much more effective than boring in-class lessons. “We work really hard to meet kids where they are at,” she says. “The most important thing is that they have fun,”

Robofun runs over 80 programs in their UWS location, and many others in schools around the city. They use Lego blocks, computers and motors. With an annual revenue of $1.3 million, the 16-year old program has seen remarkable success through its hands-on approach focusing largely on Lego.

Allen says traditional teaching styles for elementary and middle school are too passive. “Children are [treated like] a vessel and we pour learning into them,” she says, adding that this method doesn’t engage kids in fun and active learning. “I don’t think we can afford to do what we’re doing now and have so much of it not work.”

At RoboFun’s Upper West Side location, children take learning in their own hands, instead. With robots and blueprints, they have the independence to play and be creative. The instructors stand by and are available to help, but never impose themselves like a stern math or science teacher.

RoboFun also works with both public and private school teachers in their classrooms to incorporate robotics into math and art classes once a week for multiple weeks during the semester. RoboFun instructor and Program Manager Aya Takemoto facilitates a program run in at the School for International Studies in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. “We build robots that play basketball. Students choose an NBA team that they want to support,” Takemoto said, offering an example of a day’s work.

While the kids are big fans, she says that at times, parents and teachers are sometimes skeptical of their approach. “They get nervous to have time taken away from a test,” she said.

But, Takemoto insists that the children still learn the curriculum – rates and ratios, geometry and coordinate planes. The process of building these robots and putting them in given situations, such as placements on a makeshift court or around a net, allows Takemoto and teachers to apply essential math principles in an interactive and engaging way.

Founder Allen said that the program works, both in and outside of the classroom. “It really feels like they want us there,” she said.

In Morningside Heights, Kenneth Jones runs another similar program at the Salvadori Center, a science and engineering education after-school program. The executive director believes that one doesn’t need complicated tools to teach STEM.

To demonstrate, he takes out a set of small wooden blocks. At first, they don’t seem to represent much. But, when he puts them together, they form a bridge-like shape, no taller than his shin. He doesn’t use additional materials – no glue, or string or clasps – to hold them in place. And yet, he stands on top of them, and they hold. Proof, he says, of the power of understanding physics – and of Salvadori’s simple approach to teaching STEM.

A tall and cheerful man, his office is covered in models of bridges made out of pasta and blocks, and colorful finger paintings. It’s no surprise, then, that he runs B.R.I.D.G.E.S., an engineering and architecture program for kids, which stands for Build, Research, Invent, Design, Grow and Explore through Science. Through the center’s programs, children build skate parks, skyscrapers and bridges using simple materials like pasta and paper – and wooden blocks – while learning the principles of engineering, math, science and architecture.

He says that, at the Salvadori Center, the discussion about STEM has been happening since the 1970s, when the center was started by civil engineer Mario Salvadori, who wanted to encourage kids to learn engineering and math principles in a fun environment with simple tools, using the urban landscape of New York City as inspiration. Now, the center runs four different programs both in and out of school. With the help of instructors, booklets and their own imaginations, kids work to recreate the city’s impressive architecture and infrastructure. Neither of these programs comes cheap, however. At Robofun, ten ninety-minute sessions cost $450. “When parents have disposable income, they’re using it here,” she said. But, only kids who have a certain degree of privilege can afford to play with these robots. While some public schools, like the one in Carroll Gardens, are willing to invest, others simply can’t afford a more experimental approach. “Money is really tight at schools. They’ve not really opened up a lot of funding streams,” Allen said.

The Salvadori Center also runs an expensive program, but carries out aggressive fundraising through a sponsorship team. One eight-week session alone often costs more than $25,000 to run. Jones says that they are able to pay for 75 percent of the costs that they incur using the money they’ve raised. The remaining sum is paid either by the school, by parents or through grant money. But, in a tough economy, he says that some schools that really want to implement the program often can’t. Others can afford the program for one year, and then don’t receive grant funding for the following year.

Jones hopes that, as the economy improves, the Department of Education in New York will be willing to invest more. He’s seen great success with the program, especially in more disadvantaged parts of the city. One student in particular found a way to engage his younger brother in the program. “The nine-year old came home after school and taught [the six year-old] everything he knew,” said Jones. Jones eventually let the 6-year old join the program with 9-year-olds because his brother’s engagement with the material and teaching had been so effective.