The Report

How to start a STEM program for 6-year-olds? Try LEGOs

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Segway inventor Dean Kamen's First organization uses the popular children's toy to stimulate interest in science and math at an early age, supplementing public school initiatives.

America is anxious about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The fear that students are falling behind has prompted U.S. educators to step up lesson plans that drive high-school kids to consider pursuing related degrees at the college and graduate school levels.

Efforts to encourage STEM studies, however, live beyond school walls. Private individuals and institutions have taken more than a passing interest in STEM education. Among them, Dean Kamen -- best known for his invention of the Segway -- has worked tirelessly since 1989 to get kids excited about science, robotics and problem solving. Kamen's First organization started by focusing on high-school students, but for almost a decade it has extended its programming to lower grades as well. This has been done with the help of the LEGO Group and its LEGO Education products.

"We've recognized that the younger you go, the more impact we have," says Dana Chism, program manager for Junior First LEGO League.

The First LEGO League (FLL) and its counterpart, Junior First LEGO League (JFLL), cover students from age six in kindergarten through the eighth grade. The older age bracket participates in a robotics competition with a specific themed challenge every year. Children between kindergarten and third grade are tasked with developing a theme-based model, but they participate only in a showcase at the end of the program rather than a competition.

In 2013, more than 10,000 students signed up for the two leagues and traveled to the annual championship events held in St. Louis in the spring.

"Ten years ago there [were] very limited amounts of materials and tools available to kids this age to experience some of the things their experiencing through being a part of the program," Chism says. "Now I would say that we've come a really long way. LEGO Education has come a long way in their products."

There is good news and bad news in the fact that LEGO leagues like these are creating unofficial avenues for STEM education. The good news is that industry experts, volunteers, and corporate sponsors are all making a tremendous effort to motivate students to explore math and science. The bad news is it takes a lot of individual effort.

As much as First provides teams with broad project guidelines and an inexpensive way to access LEGO materials, volunteer coaches and mentors, particularly among the younger groups, are the major driving force behind team participation. The junior league is only loosely organized. Teams can register any time between August and April, and participants are given instructions to create a LEGO model along with a "Show Me" poster describing the project.

As a result, the experience for JFLL participants is highly dependent on how coaches decide to facilitate the process. However, there are signs that the program is evolving. "Junior First LEGO League actually this past year has entered into a project to develop ... a guided, structured way to implement our program based on some Common Core standards," Chism says.

That means, for the first time, First is providing a curriculum guide to team coaches that outlines 16 one-hour lessons. The lessons provide structure around the group project. Chism says they "take the guesswork out of what we want the kids to experience."

First also partnered with a research group at the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this year to evaluate the effect of JFLL on participants and coaches. The organization has measured impact in the past but primarily among the older age groups. Among kids in grade four through eight, First found in 2009 that 90 percent showed an increased interest in or awareness of the use of math and science in the real world; 80 percent reported an increased interest in science and technology careers.

There is a lot to be gained from getting kids interested in STEM and problem-solving activities. This year's theme for First's LEGO leagues is Disaster Blaster. Young students are asked to study natural disasters and build a model that reflects something they've learned about how systems in nature behave. For coaches around the world, it's an opportunity to help kids understand how science works, and maybe even how they could make an impact on the environment in the future.

The First LEGO leagues provide a framework for creating STEM programs that kids enjoy. It's not a universal solution for driving STEM studies, but it's an approach that allows even six-year-olds to benefit ... with the help of some dedicated volunteers.

Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure