By CHRIS WIRSZYLA and MARY ALICE HUDSON
In the Fall of 2015, as part of an effort to bridge achievement gaps between subgroups, our Principal, Charles Chestnut, suggested applying for a technology grant through General Electric. As a co-director for GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in the early 2000’s in South Carolina, I knew the Lego Robotics class we offered was very popular with our high risk students, so I went with that as the meat of the grant.
I contacted the Lego area rep who steered me toward the Lego WeDo Robotic Kits. When the grant was accepted, we ordered enough equipment for our initial target groups: EC students; the SED (Severe Emotional Disorder) students; Occupational Therapy students; the Hispanic summer camp; and a regular education 2nd grade classroom. These groups had the biggest achievement gaps in end of year testing compared to the high performing students. Our population is in a rural area, with a high free and reduced lunch, and many students from single parent or blended families.
So, great, the grant was accepted. Except, when the equipment came, the implementation part of the process appeared imminent, and I had a bit of a panic…being super busy I just didn’t have the time to get involved in a big ordeal right then. Almost out of the blue, my guardian angel appeared in the form of our media specialist, Mary Alice Hudson, who needed a project to head as part of a graduate class. The stars aligned, she totally took over, and not only implemented Lego WeDo Robotics to the targeted groups of students (with the exception of the summer camp) but also conducted an action research study encompassing both qualitative and quantitative evaluation. In fact, we have already presented the research at a regional STEM conference!
The grant required we use GE volunteers. Ms. Hudson and I went there and gave them a hands-on experience with the kits, which we replicated with the teachers. The training was fun and it was neat to see the engineers and teachers completing the tasks they would soon be helping the students with. The training included assembling one of the projects using the computer instructions, and then assembling coding instructions to make the models move and act in different ways.
The students really bought into the program. Every time I walked into a classroom I was amazed to see everyone on task, working in pairs with no behavior problems, the volunteer asking and answering questions, students totally engaged. I walked in on one class and saw Sarah, one of the EC students (ADHD) and John (autistic) working so nice together, Sarah “in charge” and John helping, smiles on their faces, talking in quiet conversation. Ms. Hudson walked over and helped them with one part and I snapped a picture, which was printed in the local paper. Sarah told me when her mother saw that “she was just a crying!” Later I was talking to Sarah, and she said she loved Lego’s, that “it taught her to work with another person” and that it was “fun to put together the kits and make them do things”. This was interesting, as those were the exact things we were looking for, but to hear her say it and be able to verbalize it that way was rewarding for us.
The SED group was amazing to watch. One boy, Tom, who is autistic, and usually all over the place, was intently putting together the kits by himself. He didn’t need any help, just wanted to work by himself, on his mat, which we were fine with, and his models were perfect. The volunteer then helped him code the model to do different things, and the smile on his face was priceless. He was trying to verbalize his excitement which is an excellent step in his development. Another student, Charles, who has social challenges (as well as other problems) was working with his partner in a way I had never seen before. It never even got to a situation where he felt he had to yell at another person, or start crying, he was just enjoying the whole thing and told me he loved doing it! I talked to his caregiver who reinforced this. In Physical Education class, Charles always got into it with another student, out of frustration or other unknown reasons. He actually told me he didn’t even think about anything but how much he liked doing the Lego’s. It was interesting to see also the SED kids were the fastest group putting together the models. The challenge for the volunteers is to try to engage these students in the periphery content, not just the assembly part.
One of the regular education students, a notorious non-worker, was threatened with not being able to do the Lego’s if he didn’t do his work. His teacher told me David had a whole stack of work that he started doing after missing the first class. First, he started with doing the worksheets that had the least amount of work to do. Then, he went onto the harder stuff, until he was done. After he went to his first Lego’s class, he just started doing his work along with everyone else. When I asked him about it, he just said, “the work really wasn’t even hard…and when I was doing it, no one was yelling at me to do it! So, I figured, I might as well do it, ‘cause I love putting together the Lego’s”. His outstanding effort continues and seems to be a long term consequence. Perfect.
We did have one outlier. Out of the 150 or so kids that participated in the program so far, we noticed one girl was absent every Wednesday her class had Lego’s. I asked her about that, and she said, “I hate it! Why don’t they have something that I like to do?” But we were just tickled that the overwhelming majority looked forward to doing the classes, working together, working with the volunteers, and building and programming the kits.