It is Autumn in Rolla… Time for ROBOTICS!

Since 2011, founders of the Kaleidoscope Discovery Center have been working to bring affordable robotics programming to our community by writing grants, securing equipment, and training volunteer coaches to teach coding and robotic builds to elementary through junior high school students.  This year is no different.  September marks the beginning of the international FIRST robotics season that included over 575,000 students worldwide just last year.

“What struck me most about Dean Kamen was his commitment to raising the level of enthusiasm and support for STEM academics.  He wanted to create a forum where STEM teams would be recognized and rewarded at the same level as athletic teams,” Kaleidoscope board member, Martina Hahn-Baur, recalls upon meeting with the co-founder of FIRST back in 1992.  “He was clearly committed to engaging more women and minority students in the STEM fields and felt this may be the way to help encourage all students to stay the course in these academic areas.”

With this focus in mind, more than twenty local sponsors plus grants secured from FIRST Robotics, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, AmeriCorp, the Missouri Space Consortium (S&T), the UTC INSPIRE Center (S&T) and US Bank have assisted with robotic support for over 2000 area students over the past nine years.  This is a tremendous community STEAM commitment.  It is this type of support that allows children to Discover, Explore, and Challenge themselves in robotics.

The FIRST robotics program has created a new program in its FIRST® LEGO® League.  Recognizing the developmental variances in children between the ages of Kindergarten and 4th grade (the previous FLL Junior program), a new age-level has been added to create Discover (preK-1st grade).  With the 1st grade group moving to Discover, Explore will continue with the 2nd-4th grade group, and Challenge/ FIRST® LEGO® League (4th-8th grades) will remain the same.  After that, students can apply to participate on the Rolla Robotics high school FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition teams.

Rolla Robotics teams have impressive showings at the state level, frequently earning places to compete at the World Competitions where student teams compete against robotic teams from around the globe.  Judges consider creative design and technical innovations, presentation skills, robotic performance on the field, and Gracious Professionalism.

Although the robotics programs will continue through the Kaleidoscope this year, in the interest of keeping our students and families safe we will do a few things differently.  The FIRST LEGO League teams will be encouraged to work within the family or family plus “pods” that allow for social distancing and/or easy contact tracing if necessary.  This changes some of the team dynamics, but the students and their parent/coach also have the ability to set their own hours and retain the option of flexibility so desperately needed at this time. Additional socially-distanced space will be provided for students who would like to participate but are not able to do so in a home-setting.

Once teams have been established and equipment has been properly checked out, additional robotic kits will be used to continue our virtual coding and building offerings starting up again in October.  These virtual programs afford students the time to code and build at home on their own with six-hours of guided instruction over a two-week period.  It is an ideal solution for students to learn in a safe environment while having contact with a human being to help answer questions and prompt additional technical thinking.  It is so important that our younger students have the ability to Discover, Explore, and Challenge themselves especially when much more of their learning time is now necessarily focused on a computer screen.  They need some tinker time.

It’s hard to believe that just three years ago our first group of AmeriCorp VISTAs reached over 1000 Kindergarten – 8th grade students in the region with robotics experiences.  The project was initially funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks with the additional support of many local companies who donated LEGO® robotics kits and additional pieces, and financial support for the miles that these volunteers drove to reach students from all over the region.  Here is a link to the original press release! (add link to broken link here)

This year, nine years after the first FLL Junior team began in Rolla, the Kaleidoscope robotics programs have been sponsored by the UTC INSPIRE (S&T) and the Missouri Space Consortium (S&T) in large part to continue the solid foundation laid by our community sponsors and our local volunteers.  We expect it will be unlike any other robotics season we’ve seen!

Although many organizations have had to pivot their programs to keep their participants safe in the face of uncertainty, opportunities to learn continue.  Sometimes these new settings feel strange and sometimes they feel exciting and sometimes all the changes just feel overwhelming.

As this season begins, the Kaleidoscope will continue to support the FIRST® LEGO® League programs along with virtual coding and robotic build sessions.  We are committed to providing STEAM programming in our community and beyond.  

*ROI was designed by Benjamin Wegner and Christopher Cureton during the summer of 2017.More data about the FIRST robotics program can be found here:

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