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Toys or tools? Federal Way kids learn from Legos

Sara Huwe and her instructor, Terri Landers, work on problem solving as they work out of the Lego book. Sara and her classmates will use the knowledge they gain on some of these early projects when they begin work on their own robots later this year. - Photos by Kyra Low/The Mirror
Sara Huwe and her instructor, Terri Landers, work on problem solving as they work out of the Lego book. Sara and her classmates will use the knowledge they gain on some of these early projects when they begin work on their own robots later this year.
— image credit: Photos by Kyra Low/The Mirror

Whoever said Legos were just child’s play?

For nearly half a dozen students in Totem Middle School’s Tech Start program, Legos aren’t just toy blocks — they are the first step in learning about robotics.

Last January, the school started the program using the Lego Mindstorm, a set of dozens of kits that teach kids the first steps in robotics, including the physics and pneumatics of gears, tension and programming.

The after-school activity met until May before breaking for the year. The club started back up in October, with an almost entirely new group of kids.

The first few kits were based on following directions, then moving on to different contraptions. Students work at their own pace, for the most part, through the material.

Currently, the group is creating a small self-designed car that will travel down a ramp and race across a table. The student whose contraption can travel the farthest wins.

“It’s parallel to the Mars expedition,” said Terri Landers, the class instructor. “You have to think about how you are going to design this.”

Excitement for the competition is up among the students, but for many, it’s what comes afterward that is most thrilling.

The next project up for the kids is creating their own “tankbot:” A small tank robot that the kids program themselves. That is, after they figure out all the gears and get their own tank to move.

The program and the kids

The Tech Start program is limited to 12 students. Students apply to the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and, after an interview, are selected for the program. There is a short waiting list, but turnovers do happen as kids in the program leave for sports or other activities.

The group meets three times a week for an hour each session.

The dynamic is also ever-changing, Landers said. Last year when the program started, there were eight girls and four boys; this year there were only two girls.

For some, entering the program was a nod to the future.

Sara Huwe, 13, who started the program last year, said it will look good on college applications.

“It’s a fun concept and it might help me in the future,” said 14-year-old Xavier Romos, whose current project is a ping-pong ball launcher. Right now he’s working on adjusting the gears and the tensions of the rubber band.

The fact that they get to use Legos is an added bonus.

“I used to play with Legos all the time,” Huwe said. “It’s really fun.”

Phillip Cordova, 11, thinks the Lego people are “really cool.”

Eventually the kids will create robots that will respond to commands and can enter an obstacle course.

Legos may be a toy, but for these kids, they make learning fun.

Contact Kyra Low:

klow@fedwaymirror.com

or (253) 925-5565.

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