Combined efforts to keep elementary school children in the technological development loop transformed a grade school science project into a collaborative venture that fused science, technology (including 3D printing and robotics), and urgent social issues. The non-profit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) joined forces with Lego® to create the FIRST Lego League (FLL), which introduces elementary and middle school students to “real-world engineering challenges by building Lego-based robots designed to complete tasks on a thematic surface.”

FIRST, which is based in Manchester, New Hampshire, was founded in 1989 by entrepreneur Dean Kamen logo(probably best known for inventing the Segway PT). Its mission “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders,” has consistently inspired American youths to participate in mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technological skills.

FIRST’s Lego League adult coaches work with students to use Lego MINDSTORMS technology — pre-assembled robotics kits, video tutorials that teach building and programming, downloads, and more — to design, build, test, and program robots. Kids apply real-world science and math concepts, utilize technology, and learn critical thinking, team-building, and preseFLL4ntation skills, as well as learning about some of the challenges that today’s scientists face.

In New York City, FIRST teamed with NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering to host the FLL challenge; students from all five boroughs participated. In Brooklyn alone, over 400 elementary and middle-school kids participated in the qualifying round of the competition. 42 Brooklyn teams competed for the 20-or-so spots in the New York City-wide finals, which are set for March. One of the teams that was selected on January 25th to go on to the finals was from the inner city neighborhood known as Bedford-Stuyvesant, better known as “Bed-Stuy.”

Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn, is one of the New York City neighborhoods that is currently battling gentrification. Gentrification, a deeply controversial subject and, opponents would argue, the cause of genuine, deepening crisis in many urban areas in the country, is the phenomenon in which more affluent people move to an extant urban district and affect negative changes for current residents such as rent hikes, elevated property values, and the elimination of neighborhood businesses.

The DIVAS for Social Justice team displayed models of brownstone homes that they created using a 3D printer. (Photo by Zach Crizer, Technical.ly Brooklyn)

The DIVAS for Social Justice team displayed models of brownstone homes that they created using a 3D printer. (Photo by Zach Crizer, Technical.ly Brooklyn)

The kids on the Bed-Stuy team led by Professor Andrea Calloway who call themselves the 6 Robo-Rebels are participants in a grassroots community program known as the DIVAS (Digital Interactive Visual Arts Sciences) for Social Justice. The Robo-Rebels, five of whom are girls — an exciting turnabout in a science and technology environment that is still largely dominated by males (a recent study found that women comprise just 35% of tech-industry workers) — saw firsthand over the summer how the increasing gentrification of their neighborhood underscored racial and economic disparities between long-term residents and the newcomers. They decided to make the topic of gentrification the subject of their FLL project. The kids interviewed people in their neighborhoods, housing officials, business owners, and politicians. They used the results of their interviews to figure out how to use technology — specifically, the tools at their disposal with the FLL as well as digital media and 3D printing — to explain gentrification not only to the judges of the competition but to their peers.

The 6 Robo-Rebels’ project featured 3D printed buildings on a grid-like surface resembling the streets and sidewalks of their own neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. The structures, including the sturdy pink brownstone, were inspired by buildings in the team members’ neighborhoods. The buildings were paired with photographs taken by the students and the grid on which they were placed featured graphics that included text and data on the topic of gentrification. To complement their project, the Robo-Rebels produced a TV program on their theme, “changing channels for changing neighborhoods.” They contrasted the ongoing forces of gentrification in their neighborhood to the exemptions that other areas of the city enjoyed because of their “protected historic district” status. They will move on to the finals at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering in March 2015.

I’m not sure how the robotic component of the FLL project was incorporated in the Robo-Rebel’s gentrification theme and would love to hear more about that, but I am impressed by the children’s technical savvy and their capacity to mesh technology, science, and a pressing social issue to create an impressive, cohesive, and successful collaboration.

Check out the video below explaining FIRST’s Lego League. Let us know what you think about initiatives like this one over in the FLL 3D Printing School Project forum thread at 3DPB.com.

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