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Driven to learn: Lego cars teach students teamwork, problem-solving

Broadway Elementary summer school student Connor Dehn, 9, keeps an eye on his computer-programmed Lego car as it heads to a target Thursday. (Colin Mulvany)
Broadway Elementary summer school student Connor Dehn, 9, keeps an eye on his computer-programmed Lego car as it heads to a target Thursday. (Colin Mulvany)

Students in Amanda Harwood’s fourth- and fifth-grade summer school class learned about computer programming and engineering while having a great time Thursday at Broadway Elementary School.

Central Valley School District’s summer school at the elementary level is called STEM Academy. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are receiving an extra emphasis this year. Students at the middle school level are also learning about STEM.

In Thursday’s class, students built Lego cars and used a computer program called RoboLab to navigate an obstacle course.

Summer school co-Principal Camille Krestian said students spent a week studying flight with paper airplanes and pop bottle rockets. This week, it’s engineering with the Lego cars. There will also be a week of gardening and bridge-building.

Along with the projects, students get a chance to listen to speakers who use STEM as part of their jobs.

“It’s how would we use STEM in careers,” Krestian said.

In Harwood’s class, Scott Knowles, who usually teaches students in the district’s gifted program at Opportunity Elementary School, brought the Lego kits to the class. The students built their cars and used teamwork and problem-solving to navigate the cars through the course.

The course required the cars to drive in a straight line to a target about 10 feet away. Then, they had to make a left turn, travel a little farther and turn left again. They would then drive through a tunnel to another target, take another left and return to the starting point.

Knowles told them they needed to work together, work hard and stay focused.

It sounded easy enough, but many of the student’s cars were drifting to the right or left.

Nydia Rodgers, who will go into the fifth grade, and Connor Dehn, who is going into the fourth grade, had teamed up for the obstacle course.

“It seems to not be going straight,” Dehn said.

Rodgers noted the car seemed to go straighter when it was moving backward, so the two came up with a plan to fix the car.

“We switched the wheels,” Dehn said.

The two knelt down at the beginning of the course and turned on the car. It went the wrong way, but that didn’t deter the two. They went back to their computer to make adjustments to the power they sent to the wheels and to the directions they were giving the car for the course.

It was about 45 minutes into the class before Dehn and Rodgers made it about three quarters of the way through the course, but they were determined.

District spokeswoman Melanie Rose said teachers in the district talk to parents during conferences and discuss what the theme is for summer school and whether the child will benefit from the program.

Families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches may qualify for tuition waivers, but generally, summer school is $150 per student. Rose said the elementary level filled up before the end of the school year.

Not only do the students attend classes, but Broadway Elementary is the district’s location for summer meals for any child 18 or younger.

“Most come for breakfast and stay for lunch,” Rose said.

Knowles, who uses the Lego cars with his fifth-graders in the gifted program, said the project is a challenge.

“It’s a good team-building activity,” he said.

He also finds a way to incorporate what they have learned into a real-world application, by talking with them about how they could use what they just learned into a job.

“That real-world usefulness is an important piece,” he said.