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Building a Robotics Ecosystem: How LEGO® Went From a Bystander to a Leader in Early Robotics Education

Q&A with Stephan Turnipseed, President Emeritus of LEGO Education, North America

You led LEGO® Education North America for 16 years. During this time, you helped transform LEGO® Education from a product sales company to a leader in education, especially in STEM. What did you see on the horizon that led you to point the company toward a STEM-driven future?

LEGO® Education was founded in 1980, so it had in operation for 35 years now. The early efforts primarily were around pre-school, early hands-on products and building bricks for physical science. What really started the whole momentum for education was in an area called “industrial education,” which is now “career and technology education.” We created a product called LEGO® TC Logo, which was an interactive, software-controlled product that worked with a box that hooked to a computer, and then that box turned on motors and could measure things with sensors. This came out in 1986.

From 1986 to 1997, we continued to think about what it would look like if we could take this interface and put it into a programmable brick. This idea turned into the product LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education RCX which released in 1998. It was the first robotic LEGO® MINDSTORMS® system. From there we released in 2006 the LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education NXT and in 2013, launched our third generation robotics system, LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3.

At the time, it was seen as a toy. When I started with LEGO® Education in 1997, I said, “This is more powerful in education than anything we’ve ever seen.” It was a highly developable building system, a brick to fit inside the building system, and a software environment. As it turns out, the software created for the retail product was really designed for a child to play with in a one-on-one environment, which was different from a classroom environment.

I said, “If we can take this software and device into schools, we can create a curriculum around this notion of STEM. This could revolutionize how we teach STEM in middle school, using industry-level software that would be accessible to teachers and students.”

Were you solely focused on robotics, or on a larger vision for LEGO® Education?

While robotics was a focus, we were also promoting hands-on learning or playful learning which is the notion that engaging children is more about putting something in their hands and giving them a playful way to learn in a relevant way. We were far ahead of our time, because today it is a current debate, and we were pushing it back in 1998.

Robotics is a key way for hands-on learning because engagement is extremely high. Students interact at unprecedented levels, and children really want to engage. Also, we made the product extremely affordable, a first in its time. A basic pick-and-place robot arm was well in excess of $5,000 and ours cost $249, plus $26 of software and was relatively easy to use.

What started with LEGO® MINDSTORMS® has eventually expanded to be almost an entire ecosystem of LEGO® robotics—from branded LEGO® sets to summer camps and classes for the public. Was that the goal when you all first set out?

All of this was part of an “ecosystem-based approach,” which included LEGO® Education; National Instruments, our primary software partner; National Science Foundation and its constituents; and one additional unlikely partner, a group called FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” We were asking, what will capture children’s imagination? FIRST had a high school robotics competition, which had been in place for 10 years, and we were looking for organizations that could run a high-impact, after-school program. The partnership that resulted became the FIRST LEGO® League competition which now has more than 25,000+ teams in approximately 80 countries.

Once we created MINDSTORMS®, there was significant demand for an elementary robotics solution and we created LEGO® Education WeDo. Then, the Junior FIRST LEGO® League (JFLL) evolved when we took a look at what we were doing in middle school and realized that students needed to show up in middle school with some experience.

What are the benefits of teaching robotics to elementary- and middle-school students, as opposed to older students in high school? Do teachers face a lack of preparedness when they introduce these things to students?

Several things happen before students reach middle school that are helpful in the middle school environment. First, they start to understand and get a better feel for the academics of science and the interaction with technology. There is a part of science in elementary that is teaching cause and effect. This helps children learn to extend logic to beyond themselves. It introduces notions of time and distance. That type of thing taught in elementary school is one of the key logic strains that facilitates a middle school course in robotics or science.

Young people also often have challenges in elementary school when it comes to getting their minds around math elements, like fractions or where the decimal place goes. Fractions are things like gear ratios, and robotics allows students to get a handle on this type of thinking.

The other thing is that children need is a mechanism that teaches them tool skills or hand skills. The only place to learn the manual skills of putting stuff together tends to be at schools, and the LEGO® system brick we use allows them to develop hand skills to see what builds well. They see how to build things that are structurally well built.

Middle school is the beginning of developing 21st-century skills: creativity, problem solving, communication and collaboration. The other challenge of middle school is raging hormones. And if you have skills of communication intellectually intact when your brain abandons you to control what all is going on in your body, the foundation makes it easier to move directly into science and math and the rigor and challenge of things you see.

LEGO® Education itself is gender neutral, but STEM has a perception problem among young girls. What steps are you taking to ensure that LEGO®’s robotics products appeal equally to girls and boys?

LEGO® Education has always used a gender-neutral approach to the colors we use and the selections should be equally appealing. We use buddy building: One part of the team of two people will build one part of an assembly, and the other will build the other. We encourage boys and girls to work together, because they naturally find places for themselves within the curriculum.

One of our building sets is a motorized machine, called LEGO® Education MoreToMath 1-2, which has a video in it with two LEGO® minifigures, Max and Mia. It’s a boy and girl working through our curriculum. We work really hard to encourage children when they work together to work in teams. Similarly, in MINDSTORMS®, we encourage back-and-forth interactions between programming and building.

We also go through enormous research and testing processes. As we sit and we watch students use these solutions, girls are just as interested in it as boys are. I think that’s because robotics is so obvious in everybody’s world. A boy and a girl engage a robotic environment every day. Coming back to school, they’re naturally curious and want to engage all of the pieces in a natural environment.

So where does LEGO® Education go from here? What does the future hold?

We believed in 1998 that robotics in education was an emerging field at that time. We don’t believe it’s an emerging field any longer. We have spent a lot of time developing a second generation of the product, which came in 2006, and a third, which was released in 2013. Over that time, we’ve evolved not only the product, but the software and curriculum to meet the needs of 21st-century learning. We’ve strengthened our assessment to do legitimate formative assessment to help teachers with things like Common Core, and we still see it as a field that will continue to grow stronger.

We’re deeply committed to the idea of playful learning and enabling every student to succeed. Our underlying philosophical notion is to educate the whole child, and the best way to learn is in a playful environment. We are hardwired to learn in a hands-on way. Everything we do is built on educating the child in the school day and after-school in a playful way.

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Melissa Steffan

Melissa is the former assistant editor for 1776, where she worked on the media team to create compelling, idea-driven content and reporting. A Seattle native, she graduated from Seattle Pacific…