Members of the Longhorn Bots, a Basalt Middle School robotics team, use computers to program their Lego machines. Credit: Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times

ASPEN — It’s lunchtime at Aspen Middle School, and teacher Caroline Hanson is just finishing an interview with a journalist when a half-dozen kids pour into her classroom.

There are no desks in this space — just a dozen-or-so computer terminals lining two walls and several large work tables in the center of the room. The kids walk in, drop their packs, give Hanson a quick “hello,” then go immediately to work.

Within moments, as Hanson and the reporter wrap up their business, the students are spread out around the room, their backs to the teacher, tinkering with electronic toys, tapping computer keyboards or discussing gadgets.

It’s a stark contrast to the traditional classroom where the teacher stands at the front, calls the proceeding to order and directs all activity. Hanson’s room feels more like a drop-in laboratory, where students show up and dive straight into their work.

These middle-schoolers weren’t responding to a bell that signaled the start of class; they showed up during lunch for their own reasons.

What’s going on here?

First, Hanson is an enrichment teacher, meaning that she offers elective courses, primarily for gifted kids, and has more freedom than a typical classroom teacher. Her specialty is robotics and coding (or programming), and the tools she uses are computers and Lego Mindstorms robotic kits.

The work tables that dominate her room have the look of elevated sandboxes, filled with colorful Lego blocks, rods, wheels, axles, hinges, levers and more. These are the robot parts, and the computers around the room are used to program the robots’ electronic brains.

It’s a somewhat messy scene, but that’s part of the idea.

“We’ve gotten rid of so many vocational, hands-on kinds of activities, and these days kids are very screen-intensive but they’re not necessarily building-intensive,” Hanson says. “They don’t get to fiddle and mess around.”

From her lab-like classroom at Aspen Middle School, Caroline Hanson has helped create an enthusiastic local robotics community. Credit: Jeanne McGovern/The Aspen Times

The world of First Lego League

Hanson’s classroom is devoted to focused fiddling. She is trying quite consciously to create future tinkerers and inventors. The Lego kits on her work tables introduce kids to the world of creative science.

By making engineering and math into a fun activity, teachers like Hanson (who sits on the advisory panel of Lego Education, a division of the Denmark-based company) are trying to introduce youngsters — not just Americans, but children from 60-plus countries — to the wonders of science and technology.

Robotics is just one facet of the so-called STEM movement (for science, technology, engineering and math), a nationwide effort by parents, educators, universities and businesses to create a new generation of engineers and problem-solvers.

The STEM world also overlaps with the “maker movement,” in which kids are encouraged to make things with their hands, in various media from electronics to carpentry to 3-D printing. A new “maker space” at Basalt Middle School aims to foster the same kind of playful tinkering that occurs in Hanson’s classroom.

“We want to change the culture by celebrating the mind,” says inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which has launched a host of motivational and educational programs for kids. “We need to show kids that it’s more fun to design and create a video game than it is to play one.”

From Hanson’s busy classroom in Aspen, along with similar spaces in Basalt Middle School and Glenwood Springs Elementary School, teams have formed to compete in FIRST Lego League (FLL), a collaboration between Kamen’s FIRST and the Lego company that could be described as Little League for the brainy set.

The majority of FLL teams come from schools — 10 teams exist at Aspen Middle School — but many others derive from independent clubs, home schools or organizations such as Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts.

On Jan. 17 at Westminster High School near Denver, 71 of the best teams in Colorado will meet for the annual FLL statewide tournament. A number of those teams will hail from the Roaring Fork Valley, where robotics has taken off in much the same way that lacrosse did several years ago.

The participants tend to skew male, but there are many female competitors and even all-girl teams (including Gryffindor Quidditch, a team of Aspen seventh-grade girls).

“It’s a pretty awesome showing for the valley,” Hanson said. “Five teams are from the valley — three from (Aspen), one from Basalt and one from Glenwood — which is amazing given that hundreds of teams on the Front Range were vying for the same spots.”

The Wilderness Explorers, an Aspen Middle School team shown here at the recent mountain qualifier tournament in Aspen, did well enough to secure a berth in the Jan. 17 state contest. Credit: Jeanne McGovern/The Aspen Times

A community and a culture

Kara Williams discovered First Lego League about three years ago after reading a letter to the editor from Hanson, thanking community volunteers and nonprofit organizations for supporting Aspen’s robotics teams.

Seeking ways to support their son, Ben, in his academic and extracurricular endeavors, Williams and her husband, Quent, contacted Hanson about robotics.

When they began to understand the elaborate world of FLL, the Williamses dove in with zeal. For the last two years they’ve coached kids at Basalt Middle School and worked with teacher Kerry Williams (Kara’s sister in law) to build an after-school program based around First Lego League.

Kara Williams loves to watch the sensor-equipped Lego robots move about on the tables, but says the robot kits are really just the hook to get the kids involved.

Through the FLL competitions, teams of 5-10 kids must present science-oriented research projects and adhere carefully to a set of “core values.”

The coaches guide the teams but empower the children to make group decisions and resolve their differences democratically.

FLL teams are required to do the following things:

• Build an autonomous robot

• Program the robot

• Research a real-world challenge

• Present an innovative solution to the challenge

• Compete at a sports-like tournament

Members of the Longhorn Bots discuss strategy and tinker as teacher Kerry Williams looks on. Credit: Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times

The non-robot part

“It’s so much more than robotics,” said Williams, whose seventh-grade son, Ben, is in his third year of First Lego League with his team, the Longhorn Bots. “He has had to emerge as a leader, he and Cole (Ben’s cousin) are the veterans on this year’s team. Time management I would say he has learned — and compromise and teamwork, absolutely.”

In some ways, the FLL culture mimics that of athletics, with teamwork and “gracious professionalism” guiding competitors’ conduct. An ethic of “coopertition” urges teams to cooperate and share information, even though they may end up going head-to-head for a trophy.

During the fall, the Longhorn Bots worked directly with the younger team from Glenwood (GSES Grizzlies) that also made it to the upcoming state tournament.

“We couldn’t get together, so we met on Facetime,” said Kara Williams. “They showed each other their robots and showed each other some (robot) missions they’re running. They talked about their project research.”

In mid-November, Hanson held a “mountain qualifier” tournament in Aspen, where 24 teams from 13 schools and clubs from towns across the Western Slope competed for slots in the statewide tournament.

Three of Hanson’s Aspen teams qualified (Wrong Angles, Gryffindor Quidditch and Wilderness Explorers), as well as the Basalt and Glenwood teams.

“Our team was just as excited for (the Glenwood team) as they were for themselves,” Williams recalled. “It’s a really neat camaraderie.”

At a recent Longhorn Bots practice session, teacher Kerry Williams helped the team members, five boys and two girls, rehearse their research-project presentation.

She also guided them through an exercise where they were given five minutes and an assortment of objects — bubble wrap, plastic cups, dice, pencils and more — to make their own song.

Long before the bell, the team-members (all seven of whom play musical instruments) had settled into an organized, rhythmic groove of their own creation. There were smiles all around.

The Grizzlies, from Glenwood Springs Elementary School, watch their robot intently at the recent mountain qualifier. Credit: Jeanne McGovern/The Aspen Times

The Big Day

As in athletics, most of the hard work in FLL takes place in the training that leads up to the big competitions. But the tournaments are where all the pieces come together, where pressure and excitement build, where teams and fans wear their colors and strut their stuff.

In Westminster on Jan. 17, families from all over the state will gather to celebrate creative young minds. Some of the tournament events occur in closed rooms, where the teams meet directly with judges, but the most public affair will be the robotics contest, where teams direct their robots on tabletop missions lasting up to two and a half minutes apiece.

“If you can picture it, you’re in a place like Aspen’s main gym and there are bleachers full of people, there are TV screens, the scores are going up as they happen, you’ve got cameras so the audience can see close-up what the robots are doing on the tables,” says Kara Williams. “You’ve got an announcer — ‘They just got the ball in the basket! Yea for the green team!’ — it’s hilarious. And they’re funny MCs.”

Just like a parent at a baseball game, Kara Williams has cheered, laughed and even cried at these contests, where months of preparation come together in a final reckoning. There are winners and losers, of course, but the FLL core values remind participants that, “what we discover is more important than what we win.”

The takeaways from these efforts are many, but what most impresses Aspen Middle School’s Caroline Hanson is the self-assuredness gained by the kids.

“To me it’s a confidence in knowing they’ve taken on something that is very challenging,” the teacher said. “They have met with some level of success and they’ve done it on their own. I facilitate, I support, I cajole, I nag, but ultimately it rests with them.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on local education coverage. The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, January 15, 2015.