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Neuro-LEGO Robotics program thrives at Mizzou

Camp mentors Riaz Hefler and Michael Shocklee (front) assist Lexie Hetzler, Gannon Foxx, Zachary Gaines, Tristan Buckner, Paterson Hibdon and Dylan Kline (left to right) in the LEGO NXT fast car challenge during Neuro-LEGO robotics camp Aug 6-8th in Lafferre Hall.

Five years ago University of Missouri engineering faculty submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the goal of training engineering graduate students in professional skills by partnering with the Columbia Public Schools and other mid-Missouri schools. The team – who adopted the name Incorporating Science, Industrial Technology and Engineering (InSite) – worked with teachers in the classroom to make math and science more attractive to elementary and middle school students. Their proposal – a three-year grant of  $1.6 million – was funded and provided a stipend of $2,000 per teacher, 10 LEGO kits and equipment for each school and supported the engineering participating engineering fellows. But what was planned as a one-time grant at its inception, turned out to be a lasting and effective outreach program for Mizzou Engineering.

This initial program introduced around 1,000 children to science, engineering and math in a new medium. In addition, 40 teachers received classroom assistance and 250 high-tech LEGO robotics kits were placed in 13 schools.

Because of the success of the original grant program, headed by Satish Nair, professor of electrical and computer engineering, team members decided to continue their efforts and devised a plan that would allow the program to be self-sustaining.

The fellows started fee-based LEGO camps in 2006 for first through ninth-grade students in the mid-Missouri community and used profits to continue placing MU students in schools and teach via LEGO-robot based enrichment programs.  Another program, TECH4K5, was started in 2009 at West Boulevard and Blue Ridge Elementary and funded mentors and teachers who provided after-school LEGO robotics programs once a week throughout the school year. Around 25 elementary school students attended.

In addition to this, a partnership with the Kauffman Scholars Foundation began in 2008. The College of Engineering, in collaboration with the Office of Enrollment management, submitted a proposal to Kauffman to fund students from Kansas City to attend LEGO summer camps.

The camp curriculum has changed along with the structure. New hardware and robotics programs are now being offered.

“We are now emphasizing neuroscience and the human body using LEGO robotics to help students compare a robot to a human body,” Sandeep Pendyam, doctoral student and program manager for outreach in the Center for Computational Neurobiology, said. The camps have new hardware and emphasize the connection between the brain, the human body and robots.

Camps are offered at two levels – introductory and advanced. During the regular year they will be two days and in the summer they will be three days.

“We are still learning how to effectively tailor our curriculum to excite youth, and at the same time provide a meaningful education in the process,” Pendyam said.

Engineering undergraduate and graduate students continue to work with elementary school teachers in Columbia and receive an hourly wage from the Neuro-LEGO group.  Pendyam said he doesn’t see an end in sight for the Neuro-LEGO camps and other programs.

“LEGO robots are probably the best tools to make students interested in math and science and we want to continue assisting elementary and middle school teachers in encouraging students to pursue careers in math, science and engineering,” Pendyam said.