Using LEGO Robotics to Increase Minority Representation in STEAM
Battling with LEGO robots engages children in the excitement of competition and the engineering design process. But, can it help in the bigger battle to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) careers, where women and minorities are historically underrepresented?
A transdisciplinary team is hoping to find out with a 2020 Research and Applications in Social Change Grant from Walden University. In 2018, women comprised only 25.6% of employees in computer and mathematical professions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among scientists and engineers in 2018, a National Science Foundation report showed only 7.7% were black or African American and 8.6% were Hispanic – well below their representation in the general population.
“Both of my daughters participated in FIRST LEGO League robotics, so I’ve seen the positive impact it had on them and children from a variety of backgrounds at competitions we attended,” says Eric Brosch, executive director of communications at Walden University and co-principal investigator. “Longitudinal studies show that FIRST female alumni are much more likely to major in STEAM areas than their peers. We want to add to that pipeline and gather data about their early engagement in LEGO robotics.”
The grant, “Impact of LEGO Robotics Enrichment Curriculum on STEAM Interest in Minority Girls in Grades 4 and 5,” has several goals according to co-principal investigators Brosch and Dr. Jennifer Blessing, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tampa. The applied portion of the grant is to develop a multisession curriculum that leverages the newly released LEGO Education SPIKE Prime kit to engage children in robotic sumo.
“Imagine BattleBots, but with robots programmed to find each other in a ring and push each other out,” says Brosch.
For the curriculum, they are working with Walden’s Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership Associate Dean Dr. Stephen Canipe, who has more than 40 years of experience, primarily in STEAM education.
“What’s exciting about the curriculum is that it will use the explore before explain method, rather than a recipe model of following detailed directions, which can remove the spontaneity of learning that is so important in science,” says Dr. Canipe. “By giving these young women materials, a safe place to work and encouragement to try different things, they will ask deeper questions, discover answers and learn science is fun.”
Once the curriculum is complete, Brosch and Blessing will test it with minority girls in fourth and fifth grade in collaboration with Neirda Lafontant, founder of the nonprofit FUNducation. Lafontant is a civil engineer and Woz ED K-12 STEAM educator who hosts hands-on STEAM programs in underserved communities.
“I do this in the hopes that they will get into these fields,” says Lafontant. “Our country is falling behind in the number of graduates in STEAM fields at the same time there is a projected boom in job growth in these areas. We have to make STEAM mainstream, especially for underrepresented minorities. If students can see it, they can be it.”
To assess the impact of the curriculum, Dr. Blessing will measure the girls’ interest in STEAM before and after the enrichment activities. She will also record the sessions so she can analyze changes in how the girls talk about STEAM and the facilitators support their learning. She will be looking for conversational elements such as turn-taking and increased use of science terms.
“Studies I have done in museums demonstrate the importance of conversations children have with each other and with adults in the early construction of scientific knowledge,” says Dr. Blessing. “It’s also important to engage girls in targeted science activities at young ages.”
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology showed that as early as first grade children believed that boys were better at robotics than girls. However, after just one robotics activity, girls had the same level of interest and sense of self-efficacy as boys. Brosch has seen this firsthand in the LEGO robotics teams he has mentored and coached over the last seven years, including several award-winning all-girl teams.
“When my teams host free LEGO sumo sessions in the community, we get girls and boys who tell us they never thought they could create a robot,” says Brosch. “But, in just an afternoon, we get them building, programming and competing. The confidence they walk away with is amazing, and it’s especially gratifying when they come back for other STEAM activities.”
The LEGO sumo robotics sessions will include children working in pairs using a language based on Scratch to program motors and sensors to keep their robot in the ring and locate their competitor. They will also customize their robot with wedges and other tools to make them more competitive. An exciting competition will take place to test their robots in the ring, sparking scientific discussions about what strategies worked and why. Facilitators will include LEGO robotics alumni who are on Brosch’s FIRST Tech Challenge team VISION.
When the program concludes and the data are analyzed, Brosch and Blessing plan to release the LEGO sumo curriculum so that other STEAM educators can benefit from it.