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Lego program helps parents, teachers conquer robotics

Sean Sumner tested his Lego robot during a recent course for parents and teachers at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke.

Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe

Sean Sumner tested his Lego robot during a recent course for parents and teachers at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke.

HOLYOKE — With elbows grounded and neck cocked down and to the right, Sean Sumner looks his robot in the eye, calculating the necessary adjustments for the robot’s pivoting arm.

He deliberates with his partner, Judy Bennett, over the seesaw relationship between arm span and stability as Bennett rummages through a crate for the Goldilocks attachment — one that can’t be too short or too long.

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The crate brims with Legos, which come in every size imaginable. And it will be these Legos that will form the bones and muscles of the robot that Sumner and Bennett are bringing to life (once they solve their mechanical conundrum).

Sumner and Bennett, along with five other pairs of participants, spent one recent morning building robots as part of a Lego robotics challenge — an international program known as FIRST Lego League that calls on kids ages 9 to 14 to build and program their own robots.

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The challenges and tasks have become increasingly complicated over the years. And while the Lego League has grown in popularity among kids, there are not always enough adult coaches to keep up.

Colleen Shaver, assistant director of the Robotics Resource Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said an “intimidation factor” shrouds the world of robotics and discourages parents and teachers from signing up.

“The parents are concerned they won’t know enough,” said Shaver, whose center will host the regional Lego tournament this year. “The kids are more open-minded. They’re less intimidated than adults by the idea of getting it wrong and trying again.”

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But earlier this month, that generation gap disappeared: The room full of excited parents and teachers at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center was indistinguishable from a seventh-grade classroom on the last day of school. They gathered as part of an initiative based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst called Coaches Connect — a workshop that aims to familiarize parents and educators with concepts in computer programming. One of the goals is to ensure students have support to one day pursue a career in related fields.

“For parents and coaches, they sometimes don’t know what the technology is all about,” said Renee Fall, project manager of a different UMass Amherst initiative that works to boost representation of women and people of color in technical fields.

“Here,” she said, parents and coaches “realize that they can learn largely by their own exploration. They realize they don’t have to have all the answers [for students], but they can learn together.”

Sumner tested his Lego robot at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.

Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe

Sumner tested his Lego robot at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.

The workshop, now in its fifth year, grew out of a one-day program called Girls Connect, which works to balance out the gender differences in the Lego League by encouraging middle school-age girls to build their confidence in the field. More and more teams emerged out of that effort, and Fall and her colleagues realized they needed similar workshops aimed at adults.

“There is no shortage of student interest, but without caring adults, it would be impossible to provide this experience for kids,” said Kim Wierman, director of FIRST Lego League, a collaboration between Lego Education and For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit that fosters students’ interest.

Sumner, who lives in Holyoke, has an 8-year-old son who has the Lego robot kit at home. The father wants to help his son and potentially coach a team.

As Sumner and Bennett’s robot navigated a maze of obstacles and fulfilled its mission, their peers, circled around them, burst into cheers.

‘There is no shortage of student interest, but without caring adults, it would be impossible to provide this experience for kids.’

Kim Wierman, FIRST Lego League director 
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The guinea pig-sized robots are some combination of classic Legos and their modern descendents, including a system of gears, sensors for color or sound, and pincer-like arms.

What the adults did this month mirrors what kids do in their competition. In one Lego League task, kids must deliver a Lego man to the other side of the field. Whether they carry him in a basket or launch him with a catapult is up to them.

“Kids all start with the same robot kit, and we end up with 400 completely different robots,” said Shaver, of Worcester Polytech.

Bennett, an eighth-grade science teacher at Greenfield High School, said the workshop for parents and teachers showed her how simple and intuitive programming can be. She plans to hold an after-school program to coach a team for the challenge.

“Not knowing anything about [programming] would have been overwhelming,” Bennett said. “This gives people a starting point.”

The software used in the program condenses chunks of code into simple building blocks, which users stack and arrange to give the robot a series of commands stored in its brain. Kids test different variations so the code can work correctly.

Through that process, students learn the fundamentals of programming, said Andrew Eaton, an instructor at Robotech Center, which teaches kids about technology.

In learning to code, “it’s the idea that, if this happens, then this; if this happens, this will be a response,” said Eaton, who participated in FIRST Lego League as a kid. “They can understand how code works. And once they understand how something works, they can be inspired to try more things.”

Virgie Hoban can be reached at virgie.hoban@globe.com.
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