My Experience as a STEM Ambassador and FIRST® LEGO® League Mentor


Category: Education

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Gerald McCusker, Marketing Executive, shares his experience of being a STEM Ambassador and FIRST® LEGO® League Mentor.

“How old are you?”,
a question I was not particularly prepared for, but quite happy to answer.

Evidently, my first meeting with Carr’s Glen Primary School FIRST® LEGO® League team was a memorable one.

On route to the school, I remember feeling nervous and slightly niggled by the usual doubts that accompany a first encounter, but primarily I was troubled with the question, “Am I going to be a good mentor?”

Experiencing what can only be described as an epiphany, it suddenly occurred to me that these children are actually learning to build and programme their own robot.

When I went to school the closest thing we had to a robot was an unreliable vending machine in the break room. Yet I digress.

I was amazed and impressed that a primary school class were embarking on such a technologically ambitious competition such as the FIRST® LEGO® League and, this is what I find fascinating about education today.

Technology has evolved to the point where it is making education more interactive than ever before.

And this is exactly what I found when I was invited to become a STEM Ambassador and to mentor a class for the FIRST® LEGO® League.

What is the FIRST® LEGO® League?

The FIRST® LEGO® League is a global science and technology challenge, inspiring school children to develop the skills necessary for careers within STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics).

The participating teams are asked to research a real-world scientific topic, this year’s theme being HYDRO DYNAMICS in which students learned all about water – how we find, transport, use and dispose of it.

The challenge has three parts: the Robot Game, the Project, and the Core Values.

Each team must design and build a robot, prepare a project presentation and demonstrate their understanding of the Core Values.

This isn’t your normal downtime with traditional LEGO blocks - the FIRST® LEGO® League is clearly pushing the boundaries of traditional EdTech and, it’s all very exciting.

Preparing for the Robot Game

Now, getting back to my first interaction with the children of Carr’s Glen primary school.

I arrived at the school to a warm welcome and the enthusiastic class introduced me to their robot, a robust assortment of LEGO blocks combined with a motor and adorned with a variety of wires and cables.

We discussed the logistics of the game and, in a flurry of raised hands and passionate verbal brainstorming, we deliberated their understanding of the game and the progress they were making thus far.

Suitably enthused, the class worked collectively to overcome the respective challenges on the game board.

A fusion of youthful energy ensued and it was quite clear to me this class were up to the challenge ahead of them and, what’s more, they were having enormous fun into the bargain.

My role as a mentor was to help the children to work through the complications of each task on their own. My intervention was limited to guidance only, directing channels of thought rather than assisting with a fix.

And there’s nothing more satisfying, for pupil and mentor alike, to witness your team overcome the difficulties of each respective task using the full power of their own initiative.

The project

With this year’s theme centred around ‘water’, the Carr’s Glen team were inspired by the story of a turtle that was adversely affected by mankind’s pollution of the ocean and, the class had a very clear vision for their project presentation from the onset.

It was great to see the class so concerned with the environment and passionate about protecting and preserving nature. With ideas popping and whizzing overhead like a veritable fireworks display, there was no shortage of inspiration with this group.

The challenge for me was to guide their creativity and help them focus on completing one aspect of their presentation at a time. A timeline and structure was required in order to help them achieve their goal.

Keen to listen and willing to learn, the class applied themselves with admirable determination and an infectious enthusiasm.

Invited to the Capita offices to deliver their presentation to members of our Senior Management Team and a representative from NI Water, the class excelled themselves, delivering a colourful presentation with a strong, ethical message.

I was not disappointed with the final result. In fact, I was extremely proud!

The regional tournament

The Regional Tournament took place at the W5 in Belfast on Wednesday 6th December 2017, a fitting venue being an interactive education centre that’s been inspiring the minds of young people since the turn of the century.

The tournament attracted primary and post-primary schools from across Northern Ireland, each competing for a chance to be crowned regional champions and to go on to represent the region at the UK and Ireland finals in 2018.

Arriving at the venue amid a fine December drizzle, the wintery weather on the outside stood in stark contrast to the atmosphere within the building.

There was a buzz in the air with pupils, teachers and mentors eagerly decorating their presentation boards, prior to the opening ceremony and commencement of the robot games.

A pervading tone of mutual respect and support flowed from one team to another. Each school seemed to embrace the very ethos of the FIRST® LEGO® League, creativity and camaraderie flowed from the pit areas to the gaming arena.

Carr’s Glen achieved their goal of improving upon their performance in the 2016 competition. They delivered their presentation to the judges with the same enthusiasm they brought to the Capita offices, and superbly demonstrated the Core Values of team work, unified learning and friendly competition.

At the end of the day, I think we all felt a sense of achievement and, it was such a satisfying feeling to know that we experienced it together.

As I bid farewell to my team from Carr’s Glen primary school on the steps of the W5 in Belfast, I realised they will individually embark on new journeys in the year ahead, transitioning from primary to post-primary education.

However, I’ve no doubt in my mind that their futures are bright and the possibilities endless for a generation of children who possess such infectious energy and refined talent.

For me, the experience of being a STEM Ambassador and a FIRST® LEGO® League mentor has been extremely rewarding and supremely uplifting.

‘But what age are you?’, I hear you ask. Well, that’s between me and the pupils of Carr’s Glen primary school…

If you’ve been inspired, visit the STEM Ambassadors and the FIRST® LEGO® League websites for information on how you can get involved.

Author: Gerald McCusker

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