Playing to Learn: LEGO Robotics Competition in Cherokee County

Fred Rogers once said, "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."

Thanks to the Timken Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, and the Heritage Foundation, together with Spartanburg Community College's Cherokee County Campus, students in Cherokee County have the opportunity to engage in some serious play using LEGO Mindstorms TM technology and the FIRST LEGO League challenge.

Spartanburg Community College-Cherokee County Campus (SCC-CCC)was first approached by the Timken Foundation in 2010 about facilitating the FIRST program in Cherokee County schools to promote an interest in STEM fields--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--among young students in the area.

Timken gave $175,000 to SCC-CCC over two years for the program, and that money is spent on the LEGO robotics kits for the schools, training, and hosting the competition. A further $100,000 was given by Duke Energy ($20,000 per year for five years), as well as $10,000 from the Heritage Foundation.

With high-tech manufacturing jobs returning to the Upstate, it makes sense to grow the workforce locally, and getting kids interested in STEM subjects through the FIRST program is a great way to do it.

FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology," started out with 28 teams of students in New Hampshire, and has grown to become a worldwide competition. Students are provided with parts and software to create autonomous robots to solve a problem related to a theme--last year that was "helping seniors" and this year it is "nature's fury."

Daryl Smith, executive director of the Cherokee County Campus and event coordinator for the Cherokee County FIRST qualifying event, says that those topics are intentionally broad, and the teams come up with an amazing variety of creative solutions, and the team aspect of the program promotes group problem-solving skills.

"Will every kid who participates stay in the Upstate and work in a tech job?" says Smith. "No--we'll lose some, but there will be plenty who do end up in those jobs because they got interested in STEM through this program."

Besides, he says, the benefits go well beyond simply creating a local workforce. A longitudinal study out of Brandeis University followed students who participated in FIRST throughout their school career and found that, among students with similar ability, FIRST alumni were more likely to attend college and to pursue graduate degrees, and they were twice as likely to major in a STEM-related field and have a STEM-related job.

Each year, students find out the topic at the beginning of the school year and have the fall semester to work on their robots. The software used to program the robots, LabView, is actual engineering software (made a bit more user-friendly for younger students, but unchanged for high schoolers). The robots must be autonomous, not remote-controlled.

The teams compete first at the local qualifying event. At the event, the team participates in a tabletop competition, demonstrating the robot's ability to perform a task. The team members, without their coach, meet with judges to explain how their team worked together. With another set of judges, they explain how the robot was designed and how it works.

Winning teams advance to a regional or state tournament; from there, winners further advance to super-regional championship tournaments, and then on to the world championship.

This is the third year Cherokee County will have an event, although the first year was not a sanctioned FIRST event since they got started later in the school year. Teams typically have 10 students, and it is generally an after-school program, although some teachers manage to work it into the school day curriculum.

Smith says the goal is to get sponsors for each school's team, much like a Little League sponsorship--a team's operational costs for the year are around $500. In the absence of those sponsorships, SCC-CC, with Timken's knowledge and consent, has used some of the grant funds to cover those costs for this year.

This year's competition will be held on January 25 at Gaffney High School, and it is open to the public.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina.