Imagine a gymnasium packed with excited parents, middle school students, and community supporters, all screaming in support of their favorite teams.
Perhaps pictured was such familiar events as a basketball game, a volleyball match, or a gymnastics meet. But, think again. This time, imagine that the teams being cheered on to victory are based on the academic pursuits of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and that teams are manipulating robots they crafted from LEGO sets, then programmed to complete specific tasks.
This fall, such a scene will be coming to local middle schools.
Mount Airy City Schools and Surry County Schools are partnering with several local businesses to offer the area’s first robotics program for middle school students under the North Carolina FIRST LEGO League (FLL).
The project grew locally from discussions between Surry County Schools and SouthData Inc. concerning how schools and businesses can partner to improve STEM initiatives through implementation of a robotics program. SouthData agreed to be the principal corporate sponsor and Mount Airy City Schools quickly jumped on board. SouthData recruited Insteel Industries, Inc., Advanced Electronic Services, Inc., NCFI Polyurethanes, Northern Hospital of Surry County and Renfro Corporation to join the project.
The Surry Economic Development Partnership has agreed to act as the “umbrella” organization for Surry FLL which allows donations to be tax deductable.
“We as a company wanted to do something that would benefit the local educational system,” according to John Springthorpe III, president of SouthData. Springthorpe said he was especially interested in becoming involved in a project designed to stimulate interest in STEM subjects since employers frequently experience shortages of qualified candidates in those areas.
“The FIRST LEGO League is an extracurricular activity for students where they compete in building a LEGO robot, which has to be programmed to perform various tasks,” Springthorpe explained. “The participants are judged based on the robot design, a science project, teamwork and presentation. The competition stimulates learning in a hands-on and exciting environment, which helps the students discover new career possibilities and develop skills that will last a lifetime.”
Local Surry FIRST LEGO League (Surry FLL) teams will be associated with a state and national organization called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) which has partnered nationally with the LEGO Group to organize local, regional, state and national competitions annually. Teams of middle school students, fueled by their imaginations and their increasing knowledge of math, science, engineering, and technology, will be guided by a teacher-coach to prepare for a national “challenge” using a programmable robot built from LEGO blocks.
Each Surry FLL team must solve the same nationally developed challenge within specific guidelines but how they do it is up the team. Teams earn points in competition for succeeding at various aspects of the challenge.
Each middle school in Surry County Schools and Mount Airy City Schools will have an opportunity to field two teams this fall, thanks to funding from the local corporate sponsors. Students will compete on a local and regional level and — if they qualify — may go on to compete at the state level and nationally.
During the first days of school, local middle school students will be hearing more about how to get involved.
Schools leaders and corporate sponsors have already been hard at work this summer recruiting mentors, ordering LEGO kits, building regulation-size competition tables, and getting the word out to interested students. A steering committee, made up of school administrators, corporate sponsors, and statewide FIRST experts have been meeting since April.
Surry FLL will officially kick off its first season on Thursday when middle school principals, along with team coaches, attend a day-long training at Mount Airy Middle School. Marie Hopper, NC FIRST regional director, will conduct the training. Teams will be selected and robot-building and programming will begin in the middle schools soon after training is complete.
Surry FLL teams will be conducted after school hours under the supervision of teacher-coaches.
Dr. Ashley Hinson, superintendent of Surry County Schools, said he is extremely excited about the new opportunity local middle school students will have. “Competition and recognition are two powerful motivators for children,” Hinson commented.
“FIRST LEGO League (FLL) employs both in a learning experience to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Technology has leveled the learning field worldwide and the U.S. continues to fall further behind other nations in achievement in education, especially in the STEM subjects,” he explained. “FLL provides a great experience for students to get involved in high level competition at the local, regional, state, national and international level. The experience challenges participants individually and as a team employing 21st century skills that business and industry crave as skills for their employee base.”
Hinson also recognized the role local business and industry is playing in the project. “The partnership with John Springthorpe, president of SouthData, has made this experience possible and recognizes that business/industry and education must work hand and hand to solve the issues our country faces, both in education and in the challenges of a global economy. Personally, I am very excited about providing our students this great experience and I want to thank John and Alan Connolly, executive vice president of SouthData, for partnering with Surry County Schools to make it happen.”
Dr. Greg Little, superintendent of Mount Airy City Schools, is equally enthusiastic. “Mount Airy City Schools is extremely excited about partnering with the local business partners to make FLL a reality at Mount Airy Middle School,” he stated.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our students to learn about problem-solving, teamwork, and persistence. I believe it will be one of the most popular extracurricular activities that we offer,” Little commented. “It says so much about our community and the importance that they place on education to make FLL possible.”
In addition to providing the funding necessary to operate a FIRST LEGO League, the corporate sponsors also are providing team mentors. Mentors will meet with FLL teams on a regular basis, help with competitions, travel on field trips and invite team members to visit their places of business in order to see the connection between STEM subjects, the robotics competition and real-world careers.
To learn more about the program at a child’s school, contact the principal of the school the child attends.
For additional information about the North Carolina FIRST competition, go to www.ncfirstrobotics.org. For the Surry FLL website, visit http://surryfll.org/.