They’re more than little plastic bricks

When I began doing FIRST LEGO League in 2001, lots of people commented that it must be fun to play with LEGO bricks and cute to watch kids play with toys for a job. There was much to be done to alter perceptions of K-12 STEM programming. (science, technology, engineering and math)

Now, don’t get me wrong, LEGO kits make great toys and it’s highly recommended you pick one up for that favorite kid (age is relative) on your shopping list, but the engineering kids I know are “playing” with toys like astronauts get to “play” in space –designing, creating, programming, and researching. K-12 outreach mixes up a batch of STEM edutainment for kids with crazy smarts and innovative thinking – I’m so ready for the future, these kids are amazing.

It used to feel like screaming from a roof top to anyone who would listen that STEM outreach was super important to our future vitality. My colleagues must have been screaming in unison and loudly, because K-12 STEM outreach is booming in Iowa and elsewhere. You can hardly go anywhere in the education arena without hearing about the importance of STEM. The Lt. Governor, Kim Reynolds, and UNI President, Dr. Ben Allen have been making the Iowa STEM road trip talking about the efforts of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, Executive Order #74, and the Scale Up programs that are bringing opportunities to all parts of the state. I’m proud to be a part of that with FIRST LEGO League and Jr.FIRST LEGO League receiving the nod as one of the 12 Scale Up programs this year. It’s also great to be a part of the North Central STEM Hub Advisory Board where we can put funding into action and make broader impacts across our region and the state.

Spotlights are shining on K-12 STEM outreach, but I’m still struck that so many are in the dark on its importance. It isn’t about playing with toys or being a total LEGO geek (admittedly, I am)- it is about inspiring young people to engage in engineering for their future, enhancing the opportunities for educators, parents and communities, partnering with companies, or explaining what engineering even is. It’s about engaging a group of girls who have received global attention and get to hang out with President Obama and folks from the UN…yeah, they already have scholarships and in their spare time are working on a patent. It’s about seeing a freshman aerospace engineering student on campus and remembering him from engineering kids camp four years ago. It’s about hiring engineering students because they’ve been through our outreach program and are now so invested that they want to give back to the next ‘them’.

We’ve come quite a way, but the spotlight has more shining to do. I hope you will engage in your community, read about what is going on, or simply reach out to a child that needs some innovative ‘toys’ to engage them.

The 2012 Iowa FIRST LEGO League Championship will be held January 19th, 2013 on the Iowa State University College of Engineering campus and is open to the public. If you still think they’re playing games, come see firsthand how much work and thought these teams put into it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Camille Sloan Schroeder oversees Engineering K-12 Community Outreach for Iowa State University College of Engineering. She also serves as director of Iowa FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and affiliate director of Iowa Project Lead the Way (PLTW). She has worked for ISU College of Engineering for over thirteen years building precollege programs, as well as serving in roles related to recruitment of incoming undergraduate and transfer students. She has extensive experience in K-12 STEM program creation and implementation, leadership, and works with K-12 schools, informal education sites, corporations and community organizations to inspire the next generation into STEM careers and fields of study.

Camille volunteers time to community organizations, is a school board member, member of a statewide rural education taskforce, and Governor appointed member of the North Central STEM Hub advisory board.