By Beth Barrett, director of library and museum services, city of Louisville, Colo.
It was March, we had staff vacancies, we were gearing up for a complete redesign of our summer reading program, and spring break was upon us — it was time for a challenge! So when we were asked if we’d like to be a pilot site for a public library-centered version of Jr. FIRST Lego League, we didn’t hesitate: “Sure!”
Designed for children ages 6 to 9, Junior FIRST Lego League (Jr.FLL) captures young children's curiosity and directs it toward discovering the wonders of science and technology. The program features a real-world scientific concept — for our library, it was natural disasters — to be explored through research, teamwork, construction and imagination. Guided by adult coaches, teams use Lego bricks to build a moving model and develop a Show Me poster to illustrate their research.
Although the planning time was short (less than a month), we were down to one children’s librarian, and we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into, we had a great program and Expo that kids and the public loved. Initially we were most concerned about recruiting coaches on very short notice, but five very qualified adults volunteered quickly. (Getting the kids was no problem!) The materials Lego sent were superb: the building sets were very complete, including motors and other mechanized pieces; the instructions were extremely thorough and easy to follow; and there was a budget from Lego to purchase things like plastic tubs to hold each team’s evolving project.
Our five groups met once a week for five or six weeks, usually for two hours at a time. Their challenge was to build structures and machines that could help in dealing with a natural disaster of their choice. The kids, who ranged in age from first- to fifth-graders, and their imaginations took off. As one coach put it, “When they had Legos in their hands, they were happy.”
The culmination of the program was an Expo where all the teams presented their projects using boards describing what they’d learned about disasters and how to deal with them, as well as their Lego creations. The Expo drew an amazing crowd: it was packed with families, friends and others from the public.
Here’s what we learned:
• Kids loved the challenge of having a lot of Legos and no picture of what they were trying to build. They had to imagine, design and build what they wanted. They got to play and experiment.
• The organizers of this pilot hoped that moving Jr. FIRST Lego League out of schools and into public libraries would encourage broader participation across age and gender levels, and that’s what happened: we had boys and girls on teams together, little kids working with older kids, and mostly groups that didn’t initially know each other.
• Parents were especially excited by all the mechanized Lego pieces in the kits, since those tend to be expensive. Parents also said they were inspired by the creativity they saw and wanted to go home, put away the pictures that accompanied Lego sets they owned, and just let their kids build things from their imaginations.
For libraries that are considering hosting a Jr. FIRST Lego League program, we’d recommend:
• Recruit coaches early so they have time to digest all the information Lego sends out about how to organize their projects and teams.
• Gather your coaches together before the program starts and share the big-picture view of the program.
• Take lots of pictures as the projects develop!
• Find a space that’s big enough to accommodate a crowd for the Expo so visitors can hear the kids’ presentations. This also allows kids to easily circulate among the other teams to learn what others did.
• Prepare to be amazed at the creativity and enthusiasm of the coaches and kids.