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In business to build young engineers

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In business to build young engineers

LEGO campers Grant Roulier, a third-grader at left, and Gabe Roulier, a first-grader, build a sensor for their robot during a one-day camp that MU’s InSITE team held in June. Photo courtesy of the MU InSITE LEGO Robotics Team

A group of Mizzou Engineering graduate students has gone into business to save a children’s robotic program that may be one answer to America’s engineer and scientist shortage.

The graduate students joined forces as the MU InSITE team three years ago to bring LEGO robot instruction to hundreds of mid-Missouri elementary through junior high school students. Teachers say InSITE’s LEGO program helps students connect classroom math and technology lessons to their everyday lives and futures.

“Through InSITE, I was able to open up a whole new world of possible job opportunities for students, and tap into interests they didn’t even know they had,” said Sara Frank, a Columbia Blue Ridge Elementary School science specialist who participated in the program.

Students who will pursue those interests are eagerly sought throughout the country, with the demand for engineers and scientists rising even as the number of Americans entering those fields has declined.

But the $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant that had funded the InSITE program ended in May. So members of the InSITE team—whose acronym stands for Incorporating Science, Industrial Technology and Engineering—plan to use fees from the group’s LEGO camps for first- through ninth-grade students to cover the program’s tab.

Team members launched the LEGO camps last year in hopes of generating the money it would take to continue sending engineering graduate students into Missouri’s public schools once the grant expired, said biological engineering doctoral student Craig Weilbaecher, who along with graduate student Ashwin Mohan helped found the LEGO camps. Team members raised about $12,000 last summer through the one- and three-day camps, held during spring, winter and summer breaks, he said.

“The group has seen the popularity of the LEGO Robotics Camps grow over the last year as word of parent and teacher satisfaction has circulated around schools and the town,” Weilbaecher said.

Fees from those camps will pay to send five graduate student instructors into Missouri’s classrooms for 10 hours a week throughout the next school year, as well as the LEGO kits they use, Weilbaecher said. The team, which also has received funding from Tufts University’s Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP), plans to hold another seven LEGO camps this summer, he said.

Team members hope to use the LEGO camps to indefinitely sustain their classroom program, which they believe benefits students and instructors alike. While youngsters receive a hands-on introduction to engineering and science by building and designing LEGO robots for certain tasks, the graduate instructors receive valuable teaching experience, Weilbaecher said.

“As engineers, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity for us to go in front of students and actually teach,” he said.

Local teachers enthusiastically support continuing the LEGO-based lessons.

“I can go on and on about the program,” said Thuy Nguyen, a Columbia Rock Bridge Elementary School science specialist who taught with an InSITE instructor. “It is very easy to become passionate about it when you see kids become actively engaged with their learning.”

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