Lego contests put minority students on a mission

By Kevin Sieff
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 11:55 PM

From a classroom in Anacostia, Brittany Robinson, 14, is programming a robot to perform open heart surgery. She's focused, squinting at the small machine, weighing in periodically on the intricacies of computer science and engineering.

Never mind that the robot and the heart are made of Legos.

Her team at KIPP DC: AIM Academy, a charter school, is part of a burgeoning program that uses the children's toys to make engineering more exciting and accessible to students in elementary, middle and high school - an effort that has experienced success in its first years.

At Washington area Lego robotics competitions, Brittany's team is one of a small but growing number of predominantly African American groups. Although most of the Virginia/DC First Lego League's 3,500 entrants and 437 teams are from the suburbs, the Symbiotic Titans are one of a few teams from east of the Anacostia River. Maryland also has a First Lego League.

For many on the D.C. team, robotics has been a revelation.

"I knew the basics of what engineers do, but I didn't know all the things that go with robotics," Brittany said. "I didn't know what it takes to complete a mission."

Those missions blend the academic and the intuitive, impressing upon students that what they learn in math and science classes might lead one day to an engineering career.

"They're using and applying mathematical concepts that they learn every day," said Myron Long, a KIPP teacher.

President Obama has made Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives a priority, but such programs, particularly those that take place after school, often lack underrepresented minorities, a fact that experts say is apparent in U.S. labor statistics.

In 2006, underrepresented minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, constituted only 9 percent of the nation's science and engineering labor force, while accounting for nearly 30 percent of the population.

Just as the Titans were beginning their season, the National Academy of Sciences said in a report that underrepresented minorities were being "squandered" because of a lack of access to STEM fields, calling for the United States to double the number of black and Hispanic professionals with science and math degrees. That would require significant changes at the high school level, according to the NAS evaluation.

Lego robotics teams sprouted in Northern Virginia several years ago. But in the Washington region's poorer neighborhoods, it can be difficult to find coaches or practice time. In schools struggling to close the achievement gap, robotics clubs are sometimes considered an extravagance. About 12,000 Lego robotics teams are active around the world.

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