WCU’s 2013 LEGO Summit: Improving science literacy

Students learn how to use LEGO robotics. Photo by Tanner Hall

WCU held its second annual LEGO Summit and other open house events Saturday, April 13 in the Stillwell building on campus in an attempt to improve “science literacy” by participating in the statewide science festival.

Dr. Enrique Gomez, an associate professor of physics at Western and leader of the stargazing event that kicked off the festival, said that science is constantly evolving as more research is done and as technology improves, it will become more and more important for people to stay updated. Events such as the science festival can help people of all ages better understand science and its potential impact on society.

The second annual LEGO Summit focused on reaching out to the community and making a difference. The summit, which more than doubled in size since last year, included four rooms for young students to be involved in LEGO building activities and a parent lounge for coffee, additional information and LEGO programs.

Gomez said that his favorite aspect of the science festival is working with the children that participate. He added that they never lose enthusiasm and there is a chance to make a real impact with science by mixing education and entertainment.

Pam Myers, one of the main organizers of the summit, said that aside from the enthusiasm of the kids, she enjoys the community aspect of the event.  Students of varying ages from across Jackson County, including homeschoolers and a few from Haywood County, traveled to Western’s campus to participate.

“The LEGO Summit came about by parents in our county who wanted to offer a fun and enriching activity for all local children who enjoy building with LEGO bricks and creating moving robots. Western Carolina University faculty and students were crucial in making this event successful. With use of their facilities, equipment and knowledge, WCU was truly the key partner,” said Myers in an email message. “Other vital community partners included the Jackson County 4-H program and local LEGO clubs.”

The 2012 LEGO Junior League, made up of 2 clubs in the local area, is an excellent example of the impact that Gomez and Myers talked about. This year, the league focused on using LEGO’s to learn how to improve the lives of senior citizens. Kids in the clubs interviewed their senior partners for information and then came up with all of the ideas on their own.

Both clubs presented their projects in front of the parents in the lounge. One group put together a PowerPoint slideshow with video demonstrations and the other did a live demonstration with their model.

The models of both groups exhibit how home improvements could facilitate mobility and access for senior citizens. One model included a working conveyor belt that puts food on the table and a wheelchair lift that could help seniors reach items that are high off of the ground. The other club’s model featured electronic sidewalks that could help seniors get around faster.

The league is looking to expand for next year with even more clubs. Next year’s focal point is natural disasters and might be even more compelling for young students to get involved.

Nathan Borchelt, an associate professor in the mathematics department, hopes that the success of this year’s LEGO Summit will inspire other children and adults to participate in future events and create their own LEGO clubs to compete in the Junior Leagues.

“With enough interest, there may also be opportunities for First LEGO League Competitions to be hosted in our area. These teams and events often need financial support and sponsorships, so the LEGO Summit certainly goes a long way in raising awareness of such opportunities and the potential to improve STEM education in our region,” said Borchelt in an email message.

Kids are accustomed to playing with LEGO’s, but they got a real sense of programming with the robotics section of the summit.
Sloan Despeaux, also an associate professor in the mathematics department at Western, said that when you look back as a kid, you try to remember the fun times of school.

“The kids’ energy was just great,” said Despeaux.

More photos of the LEGO Summit are available below: