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Young engineers create ‘Masterpieces’ at Brookline Lego robotics event

Volunteer judges Howard Shen and Josh Rizika give feedback to the Zebra Zappers team at Brookline’s first ever Lego League Elementary Robotics event on April 11, 2024. Photo by Artemisia Luk
April 17, 2024  Updated April 19, 2024 at 7:13 p.m.

About 40 elementary school-aged students, along with their families and teachers, filled Brookline High School’s science wing on Thursday night with high-tech Lego creations in tow.

Dressed in colorful team swag, nine groups of first through fourth-graders eagerly set up their Lego projects, which they programmed with code through Lego Education’s SPIKE app, to present to a panel of evaluators.

One team, called “The Ultimate Lego Duuhvinchees,” created a colorful model that displays how to sail. The model included a blue wave, made out of Legos, which moved in a way that mimics the ocean’s wavy current through code written by students. The creation also included a drone coded to move across the model, several Lego figurines and a food stand.

These models were not just school projects: This was Brookline’s first ever Lego League Elementary Robotics event — and the state’s largest one at that, according to Jacob Janssens of NE FIRST, the New Hampshire-based non-profit that created the event.

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While many of the participating students had built Lego kits before, Lucy Canniff, a third-grade student at the Lawrence School, was among those new to coding. Her team was called the Zebra Zappers, and their project included a spirograph programmed to draw images with code, a green and blue checkered floor, and more.

“It was pretty easy to learn to code and it was fun,” said Canniff, 8. “I liked when we fixed mistakes we made along the way because after we fixed them I was really proud of us.”

Students displayed their creations alongside trifold boards that described their projects. The teams were evaluated by a panel of judges in groups, and at the end, each team won an award for their respective successes.

The theme of this year’s event was “Masterpiece,” which challenged the teams to think about how art and technology come together. The teams worked over the course of about six months to brainstorm, build, and code their themed projects.

“This gives kids a long-term opportunity, over the course of many months, to really think through a major challenge that is facing the world and think, ‘what would I do to solve it?'” said Meghna Chakrabarti, team coach and the parent of one of the participating students.

Iyla Sullivan, a fourth-grade student at the Pierce School, said her favorite part of the experience was working with her team, the “Heartlake Dragons,” to brainstorm and tackle problems together. Their creation included a display of a magician performing a show on a stage, a tall structure programmed to move Lego figurines to make it look like they were flying, and a lush garden of Lego gems.

Team Heartlake Dragons poses with their creation. Photo by Artemisia Luk

“It wasn’t easy communicating, and we learned that we were really going to have to communicate well to fix problems,” she said. “I’m proud because we worked through so many problems, and it feels really good to see that we did this.”

The program also gives young students the opportunity to learn about and experience how often success only comes after iteration.

“It’s like, ‘hey, this didn’t work the first time, it may not work the second time, it may not work the fiftieth time, but you will get it to work eventually’,” said Chakrabarti.

This event was largely a product of the Brookline Robotics Initiative, an organization started by the Brookline Bots, an all-women’s competitive robotic team that consists of female Brookline High School students. The Initiative’s members have been trying to increase interest in robotics among elementary school students and families.

“I’ve always thought of engineering as this big, scary, challenging thing,” said Sophia Heinrich, a junior at Brookline High School and member of the Brookline Bots. “But I think that by starting off at such a young age by building with Legos and then leveling up to more industrial materials, you start to realize, ‘engineering is actually something that I can do.’”

Thursday’s event is one of many world-wide annual robotics competitions sponsored by NE FIRST, which was founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, and offers team robotics challenges for students aged 4 to 18.

For elementary school-aged students, such as the ones who participated in Thursday night’s event in Brookline, the events are aligned with Lego Education, a Lego product line meant for educational purposes.

Chakrabarti, who is looking to recruit more parents and students to join the team at an information session in June, said that working on long-term projects and learning about robotics is not something elementary school students in Brookline experience in their classrooms.

“It was really fun seeing our creation start as a really tiny thing and then grow into this masterpiece,” said Alana Wachter, a fourth-grade student at the Pierce School. “We had to test different solutions that might work for problems when we were building but we had a lot of fun trying them.”

Meghna Chakrabarti, a team coach and parent, right, talks with a volunteer. Photo by Artemisia Luk