LEGOs are building blocks of imagination. The colorful plastic cubes interlock to create castles, pirate ships, rockets, and even a wastewater treatment plant. The latter being something designed by a student on a Portland-based Junior League team of Southern Maine Gearbots coached by Woodard & Curran’s own Rachel Osborn and Cassidy Wallitsch (along with a third coach, Julie Anderson, Behavioral Health Professional). For Rachel, a project technical specialist, this is her second year volunteering as coach on her son’s team. This year she recruited Cassidy, a wastewater engineer, who has been involved with various robotics teams as student and volunteer coach since 2004.
An Early Introduction to STEM
Southern Maine Gearbots Junior League follows the program model of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO Jr. Its goal is to engage young learners immediately with something they love – LEGOs – and weave in lessons about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Each year there is a new theme for teams to be inspired by. These first, second, and third grade students are presented with a real-world challenge, which prompts them to create a unique solution through research, critical thinking, imagination and teamwork. Rachel, Cassidy, and Julie serve as resources for the team members as they assemble LEGO elements, design moving parts, and build ideas and concepts.
“For the kids, it’s fun to play with LEGOs, but they’re learning a lot and they have no idea they’re learning,” says Cassidy. Rachel adds the program is a good supplement to what the children learn in school at this age, which admittedly does not include a lot of science.
When Cassidy first became involved in LEGO robotics teams, she never thought she would become an engineer. However, in 2018, she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in environmental engineering and joined our firm. “The overall goal is to get kids thinking about science, different technologies,” says Cassidy, and her personal experience with robotics is what sparked her interest in her profession today.
Cassidy’s first year in robotics was themed “No Limits.” She recalls her group creating a model of her school’s actual playground and remodeling the playground equipment so it was accessible to all students regardless of physical ability. Last year, the Gearbots teams were challenged to think about aquatic adventure. With a pool of professionals to call upon, Rachel invited coworker Lauren Swett to one session – Lauren brought a hands-on filtration activity that helped the kids think through which materials worked best to clean the water.
This year’s theme is Moon Mission and participants are encouraged to consider what would be necessary to sustain human life on the moon. Cassidy recalls early discussions about what is necessary to live on the moon. “They were all talking about their video games. We then discussed how entertainment would be important, but that you need air to breath and water to live.”
The group suggested a pump station to get water from earth to the moon. Rachel says, “These problems seem more daunting to us as adults in a way, but the kids just keep thinking up ideas, doing research, and understanding solutions.”
Then one student took to building a wastewater treatment plant. Cassidy says, “He asked me to check out the components. I was so excited because he just seemed to get it without me explaining it to him.” She adds, “No problem is too big for them to solve. They don’t get overwhelmed by it and it’s great to see them come up with solutions.”
Rachel and Cassidy’s coaching culminated at the beginning of April when the team attended the District Meet. The students presented a poster and the moon base they created and technical aspects incorporated to survive on the moon, which included a mobile truck carrying mined material around the moon. Cassidy says the meet introduces another valuable skill at a young age – public speaking. She says, “The technical aspects of what they did is important, however, being able to talk about what they created adds a whole different value to the experience and it’s something that will help them as they grow up.”