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Duval Schools look to Legos to expand interest in science
DENISE SMITH AMOS, The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Duval students in 50 schools will be playing next year with Legos, with School Board approval.
Along the way they'll learn about math, computer coding, engineering, problem-solving and teamwork, organizers said.
It's part of a proposal Duval's School Board is expected to vote on this month.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has proposed spending $187,700 to set up Lego robotics teams in 50 schools, an increase from the 36 schools currently operating such clubs.
The long-term vision, said Mason Davis, assistant superintendent, is to have robotics teams in all 161 Duval public schools. He said the mostly extracurricular activity will spark students' engagement in technology fields and hopefully get them more involved in math, science and computers in class.
Vitti said Duval's investment will be unprecedented among large, urban school districts.
"We are setting a trend as a large urban school district to have this many schools participating in FIRST Lego League," Vitti said.
That claim could not be verified by FIRST Lego officials on July 1.
Vitti wants the school district to work with Renaissance Jax, a nonprofit Lego League affiliate partner for FIRST, the national nonprofit entity which organizes thousands of robotics and technology competitions around the country, involving teams from kindergarten through 12th grade.
FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."
"This is going to be the first proposal where a school district contracts for the growth and management of their FIRST robotics teams to a FIRST affiliate partner," said Mark McCombs, head of Renaissance Jax, which already runs dozens of FIRST Lego teams and events in 20 Florida counties.
The contract would involve training teachers and volunteers to run the teams and coordinating practices and qualifying competitions.
In 2011, Renaissance Jax had 14 teams and no tournament. It had 220 teams last year totaling 1,100 students who competed in tournaments at the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University.
Legos are plastic bricks of various colors and size that can be combined to build things.
Lego also makes parts and kits that robotics teams use to build programmable robots for team competitions, including the FIRST Lego League tourneys.
Lego touts the robotics teams and competitions as having important educational benefits.
Team surveys show that 86 percent of participants say they are more interested in doing well at school, 84 percent are motivated to take challenging math and science courses, and 80 percent are more interested in STEM-related jobs.
The gender gap in science and technology isn't evident at the tournaments, McCombs said. About half the competitors last year were boys and half were girls.
"They are learning about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) and finding out that they are way more capable than the adults around them have told them they are," McCombs said.
At competitions, it's common for groups of students to huddle over their sometimes malfunctioning robots, trying to troubleshoot to make it perform.
You'll see plenty of frustration, McCombs said, but rarely will a kid give up. They may do that at school with a rough math problem, but in robotics competitions they usually keep tinkering until it works, he said.
"What you're seeing in robotics competition is true grit," he said.
Marin Day, who recently graduated from Stanton School for Advanced Studies, said that as a robotics team "dictator" she is more likely to stick with a tough robotics challenge than with typical classroom tasks.
"The robots are a manifestation of engineering," she said, "whereas, when I go to physics class it's boring and the teacher talks theoretically about stuff."
She is majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of North Florida.
Jarrett Ford, an 11th grader at Fleming Island High, said he plays baseball and is into martial arts, but he finds robotics most enjoyable. Clay County has robotics teams at most of its schools.
"The competition aspect makes you want to do better," he said.
Robotics competitions are big business for the privately owned Lego Group and its affiliated nonprofit, FIRST.
Last year more than 44,000 teams of 400,000 students created 37,000 robots at 2,200 events or competitions. They involved 200,000 coaches, mentors and volunteers, 3,500 corporate sponsors and up to $22 million in college scholarships.
Robotics can be expensive, though McCombs says it's cheaper than most high school sports teams.
According to Lego's website, a new robotics team can expect at least $900 in costs, including registration, the robot kit of parts and field set up. It doesn't include event participation fees, travel, food, T-shirts or shipping.
Just one Lego League Ev3 Robot set costs $439, according to the website.
McCombs estimates it can cost $1,200 to $1,800 to start a new robotics team of up to 10 members. But FIRST expects teams to do some of their own fundraising, he added, as a problem-solving experience.
McCombs hopes to eventually involve 6,500 Duval boys and girls, at an average per-student cost of $471, by 2020.
That's why he's seeking corporate sponsors and someone to help him apply for grants.
It'll be a good investment, he said, because that many robotics teams will produce many more students for STEM fields of study, and it will help Jacksonville lure more companies seeking tech-savvy employees.
"We would change Jacksonville forever," McCombs said.
FIRST Lego League Jr. for kindergarten through third grade presents an annual challenge. Each team explores real-world themes, learns basic engineering concepts, and builds a robot model made of Lego elements. They present their research and accomplish a series of tasks with the robot model.
FIRST Lego League is for grades 4 through 8. Teams build Lego-based autonomous robots and develop research projects based on a real-world challenge that changes annually. They learn core values, robotics, game play, and research.
FIRST Tech Challenge is for grades 7 through 12. Teams learn to think like engineers, develop an engineering notebook to document progress, develop strategies and build a robot from a reusable kit of parts. They learn about robotics, engineering, game play and scholarships.
FIRST Robotics Competition is for grades 9-12. Teams are mentored by professional engineers. They design and build their own 120-pound robots. They learn from pros and are exposed to competition and scholarships.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com
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