Girls Only Engineering Day at Northglenn STEM High School

On April 28th, 2015, we provided a Engineering with LEGO workshop at Northglenn STEM High School’s Girls Only Engineering Day.  Here is a description of the event:

“The goal of GO Engineering Day is to provide opportunities for our female students at Northglenn STEM High School to learn about different fields in engineering, to meet and talk with professional engineers and engineering students, to learn about local engineering schools, and to participate in activities to develop skills involved in different engineering fields.  We are hoping that this event will be run completely by women, for women.”  

The project was a “System Engineering Build Challenge with LEGO”.  The girls had the challenge to complete 3 separate conveyor belts (1 horizontal, 1 inclined, and 1 vertical) and then try to move a brick across all three together.  Once done with the brick challenge they had to try it with a marble and 2 groups succeeded with the marble.  The girls learned about the PROCESS of engineering and what it takes to work successfully on an engineering team with their peers.

Check out some pictures from the event:

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Can We Measure Learning Through Play?

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This look of wonder and amazement in our students is what we strive for in each of our classes.

A question was posed on the LEGO Foundation Ideas Conference Forum: How can we measure learning through play?

The background of the question was:

“Measurements of learning is currently driven by a discussion of standardized tests in schools, which comes with a risk of teaching to the test, and not focusing on the soft skills with children’s motivation for learning and lifelong outcomes. Who are measurements actually for? And how can we provide new ways of measuring the critical soft skills, like collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, at the same time as making them relevant for the everyday situations in the home, and practices in the classroom?”

We at Play-Well have been asking, answering and re-asking this question for the past 18 years. After teaching over 500,000 kids, we have come to a few truths about play:

  • You can get kids excited about learning through play.
  • Children absorb and remember information when they are fully engaged, especially through play.
  • While it cannot replace scholastic practice in the classroom, play can be used to successfully explain and exemplify complicated academic concepts.

We know that play is powerful. We see it every day in our classes and hear it from parents. One parent relayed a story to us about a kindergartener: after one of our classes, who went to the playground, slid down the slide, and said to himself, “wow, this slide has a lot of friction!”

So, how do we measure this knowledge? That is where it gets tricky. Not only because the goals of each class are unique and difficult to pin down, but also because it forces us to confront an uncomfortable truth: we shouldn’t measure play.

Do we undermine the self-direction of play through measurement?

Play-Well Students

The entire premise of play is that it is self-directed and open-ended. Kids might play to explore the world, solve problems, or express who they are. These are only a few of the reasons children engage in play, and each has its merits in creating a well-rounded child.

Our friends in Montessori education have been strong advocates for self-direction in education: children may choose an activity and work on that activity until they feel they have completed it.  They are done when they believe they have completed it, without the interference of their teacher. They understand that self-direction empowers children and that confidence helps create life-long learners.

Any attempt to measure organic play limits the open-ended nature of it; and in doing so, we may unintentionally saddle children with adult expectations or ideas of what “success” is.

How effective would measurements on play be?

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We could come up with metrics to measure some aspects of play, but we must ask ourselves: would the data we received be worth the potential harm created in collecting it?

Our most satisfying times in the classroom, as instructors, are when our students have epiphany moments. We know that we can create the environment for those opportunities to happen, but it is out of our control as to when they happen.

Let’s revisit the kindergartener experiencing friction on the slide. We had reviewed that term numerous times through playing that week, so at some point it resonated with him. How do you measure that?  When did the connection between our class and the slide occur?  Did he have the epiphany on the slide or somewhere else? Does it matter? Furthermore, in peppering the child with questions attempting to solve the mystery, we ruin the positive association that child had with learning about friction. In the journey from qualitative play to quantitative measurement, the true magic of play will be lost in translation. It will fall short of what is possible if we just allow kids to explore the world for themselves, at their own pace, and trust that learning will happen.

A teacher in the U.S. recently wrote a resignation letter, stating that she needed to step down because she believed her profession no longer existed.  With so much of her job being about standardized tests and constant measurement, her ability to actually be a teacher, allowed to play and experiment to get her kids excited by learning, was gone.  By forcing common standards of teaching in the U.S., the powers that be had stifled this teacher’s ability to do her job in a way that spoke to her children.

In the play setting, who is the better teacher? The adult or the child?

Errol Teaching

So, given all the risk, why would we evaluate play or use play as a measurement tool? We love our children and we recognize play as nourishment for young minds. We want to support that in any way possible and we want that support to be based in peer-reviewed study. This is where we hit the crux of the questions posed: who are measurements actually for?

In simplistic terms, measurements are for adults, and play is for kids.

If you were to ask a child at play, “are you having fun?” She would say, “yes.”  If you asked her to articulate why she is having fun, you’ll probably hear, “I don’t know, it just is.”  She might not fully understand why she does what she does, or what she is learning when she plays, but it is happening. Children submit their bodies, their minds and their spirits to whatever creative world they are traveling through when they play and they do so without judgment or expectation. You can see it in the way their limbs hang when they are being carried to bed after a long day of play: that child gave all of himself to his adventure today. The fullness with which children embrace and indulge in their experiences is something from which we adults can learn. So let us take an opportunity to embrace the process of play without analysis of the results. Can play be a valuable learning tool or method of measurement? Yes. How can we prove it? We shouldn’t bother trying. Or as a child would say, “it just is.”

What will save us? Perhaps Play.

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Ken Robinson, in his lecture about schools killing creativity, explains how the musical Cats almost didn’t happen. The most successful musical of all time only happened because the creator was pulled out of a regular classroom and identified by a teacher as being a dancer, instead of someone who just couldn’t sit still in class. Ken explained that world-changing potential is sitting in our classrooms, but we need to allow kids to play if they are going to understand who they want to be. We as adults must exercise some restraint and allow children to experience that process uninhibited by our desire to understand it. We must treat play as sacred and do all that we can to keep it whole. This is how we can advocate for children and also for ourselves. Because the next great solution, the life-changing invention, the cure for cancer–these things won’t come from a mind that can merely think outside the box; they will come from a mind that thinks the box doesn’t exist.

Contributors To This Article: Erik Olson, Maddy Gabor, & Jeff Harry

A CNN Contributor Wrote That LEGO Kills Creativity In Children…Here Is Our Response.

CNN Contributor, Jake Wallis Simons, recently wrote a opinion piece, Why Is LEGO Ruining Our Kids’ Imagination.  Here is our response.

Hi Jake,

I recently read your opinion piece on CNN about Why LEGO Is Ruining Our Kids’ Imagination.

As an adult who plays with LEGO, an uncle of kids who play with LEGO and as someone who is part of an organization that teaches engineering concepts to kids using LEGO as the primary teaching medium, I completely disagree with you.  In my experience, LEGO continues to expand the imaginations of kids all around the world.

Tablets, TV shows, and video games are constantly competing for a child’s attention. Surrounded by all this technology, we somehow have more children than ever before choosing to play with small pieces of plastic in a pretty similar way to what kids did back in the 1950’s.  I’d consider that a win.

Sure, kids these days now have themed sets, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars.  But when I watch my 8-year-old nephew flying Harry Potter on a Ninjago Dragon to Hobbiton, I realize that he is still using his imagination.  He just asked his grandfather to buy him a 2000-piece LEGO Simpsons House for Christmas, even though he has never watched The Simpsons.  Why?  Because the LEGO kit looks cool and seems challenging to build.  Completing such a complex, big build will not only boost his building confidence, but teach him subtle building tricks like how to build an angled roof, which I never learned with my 80’s LEGO sets.

Like a writer who needs inspiration by writing someone’s else words before starting to write their own, these kids are simply starting their creative process, and these sets help them get there.  These themed sets are bringing in more kids that otherwise may not have gotten involved with LEGO before, as they feel a connection to Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, and Spiderman.

It’s true that, for a certain kind of kid, a bin of bricks by itself can be an amazing springboard for creativity.  But that’s kind of like assuming that the Mona Lisa can be painted with a box of twelve crayons by any child with no prior experience in the arts.  Sure, someone can do it.  But there is more than one path to finding out just how creative you can be.  For some kids, continuing down that path is easier when you have something really cool to show for all that hard work.

As adults and educators we know the skills, experiences and values that we want to share with children but part of what creates a life-long learner  and a well-rounded child is empowering them to discover those things on their own. That means that to a certain degree, we have to meet kids where they’re at and not send the message that the things they like are somehow wrong or bad. The truth is that kids love Super Heroes and Harry Potter and if we can use that love to foster an appreciation for science, engineering or learning in general, we absolutely should.

When you speak of kids having their creativity stifled, it ignores the fact that kids come to building with LEGO in a variety of ways.  If you are trying to help them find their creative confidence to build, you need to know and embrace where they are coming from.

In our engineering classes, we get kids of all building persuasions. There are some kids who love to build a set and are adamant about leaving it on the shelf never to be touched. There are the kids who choose to build based on whatever pops into their heads.  And we have seen kids who aren’t confident building at all. For all of these kids, as they build increasingly sophisticated projects over a 5-day camp, you can see their confidence and creativity getting stronger simply through the sheer act of building.

I’ve watched students in our classes start by simply making the projects we ask them to do.  As soon as they have accomplished that task, they can get into the good stuff, where we provide open-ended building challenges for them to solve. Because of the small wins of building the easier projects, they are more willing to take on more difficult builds. 

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LEGO Sumerian Ziggurat built by students.

It’s easy to say that this or that thing just isn’t as good as it used to be. All the fear-driven articles we saw last year about the evolution of LEGO faces  is a good example of that.  I, like many, have a tendency to use the “kids these days…” argument when talking about popular toys.  I really shouldn’t judge though, since I grew up in the 80’s, when some of the most popular toys were He-Man and My Little Pony.  Talk about gender stereotypes.  It’s gotten better.  It’s far from perfect, but overall you have more kids building and playing.  Isn’t that what we want?

LEGO Letter to Parents

A letter to parents included in 70’s LEGO sets. Here is the story of the person who found it: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jobarrow/its-the-imagination-that-counts

As for LEGO Friends, we have seen kids who love it and kids who shy away from it.  We have learned ourselves that we must include the whole rainbow in our teaching kits because despite what “society” tells us, all kids like all colors.  This is a complicated issue, but again, you are getting more kids to build who otherwise might not.  And where LEGO may have misstepped with some of the less than stellar LEGO sets of the 80’s and 90’s, they made up for it with some encouragement (I.e. LEGO Scientist).

Kids are still kids.  Just like previous generations, they still play to create, to express themselves, and to solve problems. And there aren’t many toys out there that allow kids to do that anymore besides LEGO.  That’s why I teach with this toy and not with others.

So to answer the questions posed in your article, what sort of adults will today’s children become? What sort of world will they create? And what are their toys actually doing to them?

My answer to that as an educator would be to tell someone who is worried to first just breathe and relax.  My confidence in the future is reinforced everyday in the classes I see.  Kids amaze me constantly by coming up with solutions to building challenges that I would have never come up with.  They are just creative as kids of the past, if not more. They are curious about the world and want to be challenged.

Just like with any of us, that palpable, creative energy that children have for building just needs to be encouraged more.  And LEGO plays a crucial role in helping to cultivate that.  We witness kids building their futures worlds in our classes on a daily basis.  If what they create in class is any indication of what the future may hold, the future is going to be pretty awesome.

Respectfully,

Jeffrey Harry

Our First Ever Program In Wisconsin Got In The News

Our awesome instructor, Ray, taught our first class ever in Wisconsin at the Lake School.  The local paper wrote a piece on it.
Source: http://www.lakecountrynow.com/news/lakecountryreporter/inventing-a-focus-at-ulss-lower-school-b99398551z1-284160401.html

Inventing a focus at University Lake School’s Lower School

First school in state to try new program

Students pick out supplies to help construct a gondola at University Lake School. The after-school program at the Lower School uses Legos to help students focus on engineering principles.

Students pick out supplies to help construct a gondola at University Lake School. The after-school program at the Lower School uses Legos to help students focus on engineering principles. Photo By Evan Frank

Nov. 28, 2014

University Lake School students at the Lower School love playing with Legos.

That’s for certain. Although they may not realize it just yet, but a new after-school program at the school is teaching them about engineering and at the same time, getting the students to become critical thinkers.

The program, in its first year, focuses on engineering principles by way of Legos. ULS, according to Jen Costa, communications specialist at the school, is the first and only school in Wisconsin to offer the program to students.

When Hollenbeck met Madeleine Gabor, a Chicago Area manager of Play-Well TEKnologies, she thought the program would fit perfectly with the Lower School’s theme of inventions this year.

So far the response from students in the after-school program is overwhelmingly positive. There are two groups: kindergarten through second grade and third through fourth that will participate in the six-week program.

Second-grader Richie Dallen felt the different projects challenged him at times, while he caught on more easily to others.

“My favorite part is when we play the games after we build,” Richie said.

The students have the chance to play games with their creations after the instruction and building stage is complete.

Having fun while learning

Like most students in the program, Richie has Legos at home and enjoys the process of building different structures and objects.

“Everybody likes Lego,” Lower School Head Adriana Hollenbeck said. “It’s a common language.”

During the program’s second session, students learned from Ray Cisneros, a play-well employee who leads the class, about a gondola lift and how to create one with Legos.

“We want them to get introduced to the basic concepts of engineering,” said Cisneros. “I think the problem is it’s easy to become disconnected with science and math because it’s so abstract, but we take Legos and basically take these concepts and they’re able to learn them while building.”

Cisneros said the goal is to have fun while learning basic concepts of engineering.

“In the back of their mind, they’re going to remember gravity, they’ll remember friction, they’ll play around with torque,” Cisneros said.

According to Gabor, play-well, a California-based company, will be in the Kettle Moraine School District in January 2015.

Hollenbeck was drawn to play-well’s motto “Dream It. Build It. Wreck It. Repeat,” because it matched ULS’s goal to have students be intellectually curious and original thinkers.

“When you talk about intellectual curiosity and original thinking, a lot of that comes from playing and exploring and making mistakes,” Hollenbeck said.

The after-school program has drawn a good amount of interest, according to Hollenbeck.

“We have a waiting list,” she said. “You can see how engaged (the students) are.”

Hollenbeck noted the school, in collaboration with The Hawkins Center, will host a conference in February called Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child.

This is also part of the push to get the students to be more innovative thinkers.

Play-Well’s Halloween Costume Contest

Each year, we are amazed by the creativity of some of the Halloween costumes that we see from our students and their parents.  Check out this costume submitted by a parent last year.

LEGO Halloween 2

How we play well on Halloween: https://playwelltek.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/this-is-how-we-play-well-on-halloween/

This year, we wanted to celebrate that creativity by having a Halloween Costume Contest.  Post your Halloween costume on our Twitter Page, Facebook Page, or email it to jeff@play-well.org, and you could possibly win a Play-Well Halloween LEGO Bow Tie or LEGO Monsters Set.

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Have a safe, fun, candy-filled Halloween!

 

Tell Us How We Can Improve Our Play-Well Programs For Your Child

At Play-Well, we always strive to provide the strongest, most academically enriching engineering classes and camps for your kids. We can only achieve this by receiving feedback from parents like you.  So, we created a Play-Well Parent Feedback Survey.

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Complete our Play-Well Parent Survey here: http://bit.ly/2014Play-WellParentSurvey

By participating in this 5 – 10 minute parent survey, you are entered into our raffle to win a free PTA/PTO Engineering with LEGO workshop for your school.

To access our Play-Well Parent Survey, click HERE.

Thanks so much for your feedback!  Play Well!

Nominated As One of The Coolest Places in the U.S. to Play With LEGO

We were recently nominated as one of The Coolest Places in the U.S. to Play With LEGO by Red Tricycle.  We are honored to be part of a list that includes LEGOLAND and the largest LEGO store in the U.S.  Here is an excerpt of the article.

“Your living room isn’t the only place to play with LEGOs. Across the country, there are attractions, classes, stores, conventions and other hotspots where kids can go bonkers for bricks. From LEGOLAND San Diego to the brand new flagship store in New York to a record-breaking museum in Ohio, we have the dish on the top places in the nation for LEGO activity. Click through our album to find out what’s near you — or where to plan your next vacation!”

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Play-Well TEKnologies – Denver, Colorado. Brain gears will run well oiled over at Play-Well TEKnologies. This Denver classroom explores real-world concepts in physics, engineering and architecture by building bridges, skyscrapers, motorized cars and more. There’s even class that combines the world of Minecraft with LEGOs for an adventure that’s off-screen!