Frear Elementary Lego Leagues provide building blocks to learning

CAMDEN — Students, all in fourth and fifth grade, were sitting on the floor, staring intently at a robot.

In the lobby at Allen Frear Elementary School in Camden they held their breath each time the whirring Lego robot took a sharp turn.

It made its way rolling tentatively across the board, stopped and launched a ball.

And finally it happened — the ball landed in the small Lego-made soccer goal.

The kids were on their feet, high-fiving and cheering.

In First Lego League, students are tasked to build robots and code it to complete missions, like shooting the soccer ball. And along the way, they learn to strategize and work together.

The fun played out after school on Friday; after they scarfed a couple pizzas, the kids were back to prepping for their tournament that took place the following day.

First Lego League introduces young people to science and technology, said Jamie Cohee, achievement liaison teacher at Frear.

At the school, students in grades 4 and 5 participate in First Lego League; children in grades 1-3 participate in Junior First Lego League.

There are five teams and 10 coaches, Mr. Cohee said. They’ve been meeting after school on a weekly basis since the program started in mid-October

“It’s very STEM-related. It’s learning through inquiry problem-solving,” he said.

“It focuses on various strategies. It’s a lot of outside of the box thinking. And it’s fascinating to see the kids outside of their regular environment work on it.”

The students from Allen Frear Elementary School headed to Delaware State University in Dover on Saturday where they competed with 36 teams across the region.

Mr. Cohee said Monday that all of the Junior FLL teams won an award in at least one category.

For the big kids, one team placed eighth on the robot field competition and another team placed third on the robot field competition and will compete in the state championship on Feb. 14.

In First Lego League, students are tasked to program an autonomous robot to score points on a thematic playing surface.

They also need to come up with solutions to a problem in a group project. And while they work, they keep the program’s “core values” in mind, like teamwork and friendly competition,

“It’s student led,” Mr. Cohee said. “The coaches are there to coach them but the students really do the projects themselves.”

Hannah Meaney, 11, said she was drawn to the program, in part, because she is interested in robots.

“They can do anything. They can be the future of anything,” she said Friday.

Another student, Quinn Sabanayagam, said that at first he thought the program was all about building with Legos.

He was wrong — but he still enjoys it.

“Sometimes I don’t actually realize that I’m learning something because it’s so much fun,” he said.

He said he also enjoys the calculations — “I like math in school and I like figuring out the equations.”

Aside from building a robot, for their other project, Hannah and Quinn’s team looked at how they can improve the process of learning a language.

Their solution was a website for language immersion, where students could chat and play games in another language.

They practiced their presentation Friday, which included descriptions of the site’s layout and features.

In the meantime, a Junior FFL team had visited the Air Mobility Command Museum near the Dover Air Force Base for their project.

They researched the exhibits there and made a display about what they learned.

They also built their own C-130, complete with motorized propellers and Lego men seated at the controls, and a runway and ramp.

“They had a lot of fun building it,” said Tim Elmer, a parent volunteer. And they all asked for Legos for Christmas.

Allen Frear is the first school in Caesar Rodney School District to set up First Lego League teams, Mr. Cohee said.

“We’re just trying to get our feet wet with the program and trying to figure out where it is,” Mr. Cohee said.

He said parents came to him with the idea, and the program wouldn’t have been possible without parent volunteers and support from University of Delaware and Delaware State University.

More than 200 students wanted to sign up at first, but, with limited funds, organizers decided to keep the number down while they tested the program.

Students from all different academic backgrounds are on the school teams, Mr. Cohee said

“I was very upfront with parents and students. This is not a chance where you just come and you play with Legos. This is project-oriented,” he said.

“It’s very brain-based. It requires a lot of work, but the work is fun. It’s extensive but at the same time the kids are having fun and enjoying themselves.”

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