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LEGO League pushes teens to build robots and science skills
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BEIRUT: For teenagers drawn to inventing and programming, the fourth FIRST LEGO League is perhaps the closest they will come to hands-on robotics in Lebanon.

The fun part, however, is they get to do it with construction toys that would make us all feel like kids again.

The purpose of the league? To get wunderkinds to build their own robots out of Lego Mindstorm pieces.

The Education and Technology Center, in collaboration with the American University of Beirut, launched the league earlier this month and introduced this year’s theme: Nature’s Fury.

“The theme is chosen according to current events, current happenings and solutions the world is trying to come up with,” said Farah Mtaweh, project manager at ETC. “And [the children] are taught to do the same.”

Students from different schools and educational centers, aged 12 to 16, are participating in the league for the fourth year of the contest in Lebanon. The winning team has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States, and participate in the international competition with students from at least 70 other countries.

According to Mtaweh, 1.5 million children from 200,000 schools across the globe competed last year.

While LEGO provides the building material, FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, an organization that helps children build their own robots – hosts the event, which began in 1998 in the U.S.

Over a period of two months, students are taught to program and design robots, create an urban model and move their creations around it in an effort to find a solution to the worst natural disasters, either by limiting the damage inflicted by such events or looking for survivors under the rubble.

ETC will begin training teachers and supervisors in December. They plan to instruct the students in basic robotics skills.

By March 1, the day of the national competition in Lebanon, students must have finalized their projects and give demonstrations to a panel of judges, all of whom are university professors working in the field of automation.

The projects are judged according to the programming, the solutions given to the problem at hand, the development of the work as a whole and the adherence to the FLL values: teamwork, creativity, friendly competition and fun. The more actions the robot can do, the more points the team gets.

“We are trying to help kids explore this field,” Mtaweh said. “We center the program around students rather than teachers, so they can begin to explore interdisciplinary learning.”

So while the instructors are trained to offer guidance to their students, it’s the teens themselves who are expected to do the heavy lifting in order to help them become creators, rather than mere consumers. They should incorporate math, computer programming, research and language skills into their projects.

Thirty-two schools in Lebanon participated in last year’s competition, with the winning team ranking third out of 200,000 schools from across the world.

Most schools hold tryouts for their robotics club, some choosing from as many as 60 enthusiastic middle and high schoolers eager to participate, Mtaweh said.

Other schools focus on discovering the future engineers among their students, who are handpicked by the teachers. A maximum of eight team members are allowed to participate.

ETC is continuously involved with the schools, making sure the students are on the right track and ready to go by the competition date.

“We follow up with the team and give support,” Mtaweh told The Daily Star. “We spend a day with each school and hold trainings with students and check on their work.”

Children are given a chance to embrace science and technology, and, more significantly, they are encouraged to learn by doing, rather than passively sitting in the classroom.

“Schools [in Lebanon] don’t teach research skills or robotics, so children are lost when they reach college,” Mtaweh said. “Even though it is expected that robotics will take over by 2020; it will be a revolution, just like computers.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 12, 2013, on page 2.
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