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Using Legos to build interest in science

Shannon Park third graders Katelyn Dwyer, Cameron Schulz, Jacob Hackerson and Alexandra Poehler, members of the Groovy Skeletons, work on their Lego League creation.

"Go," the Shannon Park Elementary school student said, and the wheeled robot on the table started to roll forward with the whine of a tiny electric motor.

"Stop," he said. And it did.

"Go." Whine.

"Stop." Quiet.

It's not the most sophisticated program. At least not yet. But that will change in the weeks ahead. And the lessons that student and about 90 others will learn along the way have Brian Hackerson excited.

Hackerson is the head of the FIRST Lego Robotics League at SPES. Now in its third year, the Lego league is meant to be a fun way to introduce students to the basics of science and engineering. Depending on their age level, students might build a robot capable of navigating an obstacle course or dream up a contraption that will address a proposed problem.

This year's theme is Body Forward, and the focus is on biomedical engineering. It's a topic Hackerson believes is particularly important with the number of wounded soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan in need of prosthetic limbs.

If the United States wants to develop the scientists who can design better and better limbs, or if it just wants to keep competitive with other countries, it needs to get kids interested early.

The idea behind Lego League, Hackerson said, is to make science more like sports. At the end of the season, the students will pit their creations against each other.

"We're really trying to get kids of all ages involved at the elementary level," Hackerson said.

SPES has about 20 teams this year, with student participating at every grade level.

Making everything run smoothly has required help from a lot of parents, Hackerson said. On Monday, meeting night, students spread out around the edges of one of the school's gyms and in a number of classrooms. They had bins full of Legos and heads full of ideas.

At the third grade level, students were asked to dream up a device to help people. One team, which calls itself the Groovy Skeletons, has put together a wheelchair with a breathing pack and tools to help blind people. The creation, which on Monday looked as much like a race car as a medical device, has changed dramatically over the first three meetings, and it could change more. But the students seem to be having fun as they imagine, for example, the ways an add-on knife arm could be of value.

"You get to create fun stuff that you would never think of," said Katelyn Dwyer, one of the members of the Groovy Skeletons.

That's the kind of attitude Hackerson is looking for. Hackerson, who works in the corporate research lab at 3M, has seen more and more jobs go to other countries, where there is more interest in science.

Eventually, he'd like to build the SPES program to the point where students compete against teams from other schools. He compares it to a traveling sports team, rather than the in-house league that exists today.

For now, though, he'll take whatever interest he can get. And there seems to be plenty. About a third of the current league members have been involved all three years, and another third has been involved at least two years.

"The kids who are doing this seem to be really, really excited," Hackerson said. "If we are lucky enough to get one kid interested in engineering who maybe wouldn't have been otherwise, I would consider this all worth it, because the stakes are so high."