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Robots Rule

What has ten 9- to 14-year-olds, at least one volunteer leader, thousands of LEGO pieces, and a supportive 4-H Extension agent?

    Robots Rule

In 2005, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that only 18 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in science. Currently, only 5 percent of U.S. college undergraduates earn degrees in science and engineering. There is growing concern that the nation’s long-standing role as a global leader in math, science, and engineering is slipping.

The national 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) initiative is designed to pull together the resources of the Cooperative Extension system to help strengthen U.S. competitiveness in math and science. The goal of the initiative is to prepare one million young people to excel in science, engineering, and technology.

    Robots Rule

The Virginia 4-H program has responded to this challenge, and opportunity, by forming its own SET effort. “We formed a SET committee to promote ways that 4-H’ers can get involved in science-related projects. This group provides support to 4-H agents who are interested in bringing science programs to their local youth,” says Kathleen Jamison, 4-H Extension specialist for curriculum and learning.

One aspect of the SET effort is the 4-H LEGO robotics program. “LEGO robotics teams offer a 4-H program for youth who are naturally interested in science and math, but may not be participating in 4-H in any other way,” says Kathy Alstat, 4-H agent in Greene County. “The eight-week robotics program is intense, and really challenges youth to develop their scientific inquiry skills along with fostering teamwork and people skills.”

The program is offered by a partnership between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the LEGO Corporation. The FIRST LEGO League (FLL) organizes an annual competition that presents teams with a two-part challenge: build and program an autonomous robot that performs a set of tasks, and research and create a presentation that answers a specific issue.

In 2007, the Virginia 4-H Foundation gave funds to 10 Extension units to begin new robotics teams. This effort was made possible through a science and technology education grant from Dominion Virginia Power. In a field of about 320 teams, there were about 30 4-H sponsored teams competing in the First Lego League challenge.

Scott County in Southwest Virginia was one of the units funded by this year’s grant. Patty Collier, 4-H agent, was able to organize five teams. These teams competed against seven other area teams at a regional competition that Collier organized in November, the first and only regional competition in Virginia completely organized by 4-H. Three of the Scott County teams qualified to compete in the state championship tournament in December at James Madison University.

“Our teams learned about science and technology and about energy consumption,” says Collier, “But along with that, they also learned the value of teamwork, problem-solving skills, and how to be gracious when winning and losing.” According to Collier, the competition among FLL teams is serious and difficult, but it takes place within a culture of support and encouragement. Teams learn from watching how other teams solve the same problems and often get new ideas for their next competition.

Everyone involved in the Virginia 4-H robotics program notes that it would not be possible without the work of Bill Duggins and his wife Susan, part-time employees of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering and dedicated volunteers. Bill retired after a long career at the Virginia Tech Computing Center and sees his participation in this program as a way to “give back and make a difference.”

“This program allows youth a chance to experience how much fun science and technology can be,” Duggins says. His hope is that as young people learn that solving math and science problems can be enjoyable, they will be more interested in math and science in school, and ultimately, consider those fields for their life’s profession.

Duggins views the LEGO robotics program as a perfect complement to 4-H’s mission of teaching life skills. “While it may seem to be all about science, math, and robots,” Duggins says, “The work is completely team oriented. If you think about it, almost everything we do in life is team based.”

Interest in offering the program at summer camps at 4-H educational centers around the state has also taken off. Two centers pilot-tested the program in the summer of 2006, and others quickly picked up the enthusiasm. In 2008, four of the six centers will offer the program.

Chris Smith, program director at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Center at Smith Mountain Lake in Wirtz, has seen a great response to the classes offered at his center.

“We find that some kids come to camp just to participate in the robotics classes,” Smith says. “We are reaching a segment of the population that normally wouldn’t come. And, once they’re here, they get want they want – a chance to work with the robots and computers – and we get the opportunity to engage them in outdoor activities, nature, and other more traditional 4-H programs during the rest of their day.”

Smith has observed the development of interpersonal skills as youth work among themselves and with teen and adult leaders on the robotics challenge, as well as improvements in their abilities to communicate effectively, to express their ideas in a group, and to take suggestions from others – life skills that 4-H has focused on throughout its history.