Practical STEM to augment classroom learning

How do  things move? A question which so many of us are faced with from time to time and most of us cannot answer.

A decade ago during one of my volunteer sessions with my daughter’s robotics club I was fascinated by how an answer could be provided to this question using LEGOs attached to electronics!

Back then robotics was a club that was mainly run for children in middle and high school and I was a stay at home mom who was trying to get back into the workforce after having worked for a few years in the software industry.

So I started exploring ways of introducing it at the elementary school level. I bought the LEGO WeDO kit and through my first company Tiny Techs Club taught our first class as an after-school enrichment activity.

We teach the science of movement - how simple machine concepts like gears, pulleys, cranks, cams can be demonstrated using an everyday fun toy like the LEGO brick and how linkages and connectors create a cause and effect in any mechanism.

We believe that young children can be taught basic science concepts in a fun-hands-on manner by mimicking movements that they already see in their everyday life.

Flags are hoisted in elementary schools - a pulley system.

See-saws are played on at parks - levers

Most classrooms have clocks, lots of kids have bikes- gears

Grocery doors open automatically, bathroom faucets start when you place your hands under it, smartphones change orientation of an image when you rotate them - sensors.

We designed our models and curriculum around 7 core concepts of simple machines  and we taught by asking questions - what is a pulley, how does a crank work, why do we need gears etc?

Each model we designed has a primary focus and most importantly - every single model was made using the same set of bricks. From this one kit we have over 100 different models, with a range of complexity and focuses.

So why should we learn Science or STEM?

To put it simply - Science is present in everything we do and is all around us! Even in supposedly “non-science” careers like sales, marketing, economics, art - STEM is always an underlying presence. Math and engineering formulas, chemical properties of paints, biological composition of soil…no matter what you choose to do knowledge of science is integral. So why isn’t science more popular as children grow older? 

A recent US News article points out that at the elementary level there is a “a large sense of wondering how the world works”. As kids move into middle and high school that goes away - and the reasons are varied.

One perception amongst young students is that science is “nerdy”

Students - especially girls - lack role models. The expenses associated with learning STEM both inside and outside of school make it difficult for the average family to encourage their children to continue with science.

School districts have definitely stepped up the efforts - whether it is distributing STEM kits to students or participating in the annual “Hour of Code” campaign started by tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook.

But all of this doesn’t address the fundamental reasons - how to make STEM learning simple, practical, affordable, accessible and most of all integrate it easily into the everyday routines and lives of students at home and school, which is what we have aimed to do through our program.

One of the problems with STEM proliferation that we noticed is that students in low income schools do not have easy access to STEM based programs and resources. Since 2015 TTC has collaborated with several agencies that run after-care centers on school campuses in low income schools to bring our program to their students. Students are offered our program free of cost and an opportunity to discover the practical side of science and possibly motivate them to pursue that as a career option.

We have also run a pilot program that integrated our classes into the school day at Venetia Valley Elementary School in San Rafael. For three years, each student from K-5th grade received one hour of robotics enrichment once a week. The experiment was highly successful  - it was hugely popular with not just the students but every single class teacher gave us consistent feedback that having such a program during the school day helped the students tremendously.

The pandemic brought about challenges - our program so far was always in person because the kit that we used from LEGO was not easily available and too expensive for the average family to own. So we sought out a more affordable option and were pleasantly surprised to discover that as a company we were able to successfully pivot and create moving models using another product called Circuit Cubes and far fewer LEGO bricks than our original kit. Using this kit we could now hold Robotics classes online - and were able to once again offer our classes as part of the school day to all K-3rd grade students in the Lake Oswego School District in Oregon virtually for 6 weeks!

Ten years of creating a curriculum, teaching, training and offering our classes in so many different demographics across 3 states and over 50 schools, has been a wonderful journey of discovery into how young children learn, think, play, create and are eager to discover new worlds of science.

This has led us to the next stage in the life cycle of Tiny Techs - our own product! We spent two years designing and manufacturing a motorized power hub that is compact , simple yet versatile to allow for unlimited building opportunities using model designs uploaded to our website. Introducing ViNee - the next generation robot toy that is much more than just a toy!

Vinee is the culmination of all our experiences of teaching and designing robot models that are best suited for young learners. Our goal in launching this product is to offer parents, children, school and enrichment teachers an affordable, versatile, scalable learning tool that will not just complement STEM education but become an invaluable asset in supporting fundamental science learning in a hands-on project based manner. We plan on creating a community using our website which will have an extensive gallery of designs to encourage, motivate and ignite a child’s interest and curiosity in how things move!

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