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June 16, 2021

Greenfield elementary schools use Lego bricks to teach robotics

Play becomes learning as students tackle teamwork, engineering

GREENFIELD — Students at Greenfield elementary schools have begun using Lego blocks as early as preschool to learn about social lessons and building, but also to gear them up toward learning robotics.

“Even though they’re so little, they have big ideas,” said Jacqueline Valencia, a preschool teacher at Oak Avenue Elementary School. “They’re really excited about science. It’s really important they start this young because the critical thinking and collaboration are important as the years go by.”

Students in preschool use larger Duplo blocks with large interactions on how to construct things. They not only create people and animals, but work together to solve problems, such as how to build a bridge to get figures across a river. One student built a row of robots and then explained to Valencia why they were in the particular order, going over the logic of why a larger figure would protect a smaller figure.

By second grade, the students have motorized pieces and use computers to code functions into vehicles or tools built from their blocks.

“It’s teaching them to do basic coding,” said Lisette Sanchez, a second-grade teacher at Oak Avenue. “They have a smart hub that they are in full control of. They can make it spin. They can make it talk. They can add music to it. And they are able to do it by themselves.”

Being able to control the movements of pieces allows the students to move onward to creating robots in later grades.

“They are in control of making their robots do what they want them to do,” Sanchez said. “If they want it to spin, they have to code it to spin.”

Cooperation becomes more of a component as the grades go on. In preschool, the students share or trade pieces. In second grade, the students work in duos and build collaboratively.

“As they grow up in life, they’re going to learn to work with their peers,” Sanchez said. “We build a community in the classroom.”

“I tell them there’s more than one way to build them, so they trade,” Valencia added. “They work as a team to share everything.”

Rather than playing with toys, the classrooms give students problems and have them figure out how to solve them.

“Just like every lesson, there’s an objective,” Sanchez explained. “With this lesson we did today, it’s helping them solve a problem. Mia and Max need to build a cooling fan because the science lab is too hot. So their job is to build a fan to help them cool down.”

Second-grade student Eduardo Tapia said he likes coding to make the pieces spin, and noted his favorite project was the fan.

“I enjoy that we can put in the motor and learn new things,” Tapia said, adding that the activities make him want to learn more about robotics when he gets older.

Students already learn about science as early as preschool.

“At the beginning, I just let them explore and then in the middle part I show them some of the things they can do,” Valencia said. She added, “We learn about cause and effect, science and prediction. Most of them, one day they’ll be engineers and builders.”

“The new thing to learn now is engineering,” Sanchez said. “That’s going to be the new career for the future. We want to set them up now so it’s easier for them in the future.”

An upcoming open house event in March will include an entire Lego town built by students. Even a display city will include lessons and problems to solve.

“I’m planning to build a duck. It’s going to help people,” said second-grade student Martin Vasquez of his plans for the town.

“It might be, they need to build a hospital for their town so they’ll have to figure out how to bring in tractors and help them bring in the helicopter,” Sanchez said.

“Playing is learning in here,” Valencia added.

Robotic kits were introduced to Greenfield schools toward the end of the prior school year, with all sites having kits this year. The elementary campuses also feature Lego Labs, rooms full of bricks and panels on the walls to build with, as well as large interactive screens to build virtual sets, which were introduced last school year.

Oak Avenue Elementary School second graders Cesar Ortega (left) and Alexandria Mpalanyi work together to assemble a fan.
Sean Roney
Sean Roney is the reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers education, government and general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.