Building block futures

For young students, Legos are a lure for computer savvy

A group of fourth-graders hovers around a large table on which several odd contraptions rest idly. The table is enclosed like a hockey rink, suggesting that it was built for moving parts. There are weighing stations and loading docks, see-saws and conveyor belts — all made of Legos, all waiting to be put to use.

For 15 students at Big Timber Grade School, Legos are becoming a lunchtime routine. A mix of fourth through seventh-graders, the Lego team is divided into builders and programmers. The fourth-graders who convene on Tuesdays are mostly builders. They follow blueprints handed down by the First Lego League, an organization that hosts Lego competitions all over the world. 

Almost all of the work is finished before a competition starts. The programmers code robots to complete the tasks the builders designed. The tasks are based on themes set forth by the league each year. For this year's hydrodynamics theme, the robot's duties include moving barrels of water, adjusting pipelines and extinguishing fires. To receive a perfect score of 575 points, the robot must complete all its assignments without human intervention. 

For BTGS students, the Legos are something of a baited hook. The buildings are composed of them, but the actual machines — the levers and axles which set things in motion — call for other materials. Cindy Glavin, who's in her second year coaching the team, said that Legos are a good way to attract students into the field of engineering.

“All kids love Legos, they really do. Being able to combine them with robotics is a natural fit,” Glavin said. 

First Lego League has grown tremendously in recent years. Glavin said that 75 teams with a total of 750 students were registered for last weekend's Bozeman competition, which her team missed because of the snow. Along with school programming clubs and software challenges, the league's growth reflects a broader economic shift toward computerization. Glavin pointed to one economic forecast estimating that 100,000 new programming jobs will be added in the next decade. Many of them will not require a college degree. 

For more of this story, pick up a copy of this week’s Big Timber Pioneer on newsstands now, or subscribe online at

PHOTO CAPTION: Fourth-graders at Big Timber Grade School take turns demonstrating the function of their Lego water facilities on Tuesday.  (CHRIS AIKEN / Big Timber Pioneer)

By CHRIS AIKEN / Pioneer reporter



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