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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.

"For us, the challenge is not getting the kids interested; it's getting support from folks at the building level," said Nick Swayne, executive director of the Virginia/DC First Lego League. "It can be very expensive to put together an after-school program."

The Titans' equipment and entrance fees are paid by Booz Allen Hamilton. Their coaches are engineers, software designers, teachers and parents who volunteer on weekends. For months in the fall, they met twice a week to train, starting with basics that other teams had learned years ago.

To make things harder, because of the school's schedule, the team didn't get its equipment or missions - robotics objectives it would have to complete - until September. The rest of the teams had received that package in May.

Still, the Titans were undeterred. The students didn't dwell on their relative inexperience or the demographics of their competitors. "It's not about social status," Brittany said. "It's about robotics."

KIPP's extended day program, which includes a mandatory Saturday class, allowed students to spend several hours on weekends studying robotics.

"These kids are fast learners," said Daniel Pick, a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton who helped coach the team. "In their first season, they proved that they could excel in serious competitions."

The competitions can be intense. Teams are given about 10 minutes to respond to a mission related to the season's theme. This year, cohering to a biomedical engineering focus, students were asked to build robots that could perform surgical tasks with Legos. They were asked to consider possible robotic solutions to nagging medical problems.

The robots are mostly small objects, often minimalist in their use of Legos, resting on two small wheels, with functional limbs and sensors. Some are built from instructions. Others are wholly original.

"It's cool to see how a math equation can put a patch on a heart," said DeMarcus Hicks, 12.

It's more than just the tasks. The team has thrived in a community of young engineers.

"At those tournaments. we became a part of this really cool community. We got to see what other teams were building, how they were responding to the same missions," Brittany said.

The tournaments included some of the region's highest-achieving students, such as the members of Ashburn Robotics, the local league's top team. Ashburn, which was established in 2007, is headed to the First Lego League Championships in St. Louis next month.

The climate at the league's tournaments has been positive for the Titans. They've learned from other teams and bonded over shared passions.

Occasionally, there are reminders that they are new - comments that have little significance, but sting nonetheless.

"That's a simplistic robot," one student told the Titans, pointing to their creation.

"Is this your first competition?" another asked, after seeing the Titans' performance.

The comments, though rare, were motivating.

"Being a rookie team was just one more obstacle," Brittany said. "Just something else to overcome."

The team's work paid off. During its first year in the league, the Symbiotic Titans won first place in presentation and robotics at the regional competition, where they used a robot to patch a Lego heart with a Lego piece.

"It gave me a true sense of honor," Brittany said. "It made me proud of how far we'd come."

DeMarcus arrived at school the next day with the Lego League medal around his neck. When classmates asked what it was for, he said: "We build Legos! They act like robots!"

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