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Fourth-graders turn Legos into robots

Five days ago, the fourth-grade students participating in the first Project LIFT Robotics Camp had never used computer programming software or built a robot.

But Friday, 25 children eagerly gathered at the One Wells Fargo atrium in uptown to present robots made of Legos they built themselves using a coding program.

The children proudly sat behind their projects – beaming at people passing by, tugging at the suits and dresses worn for the occasion.

The camp is part of the One Laptop per Child initiative, an effort to provide low-income youth with laptops, and was made possible by a $30,000 federal innovation grant.

Rebecca Thompson, an instructional technology facilitator for One Laptop per Child at Bruns Academy, applied for the grant. She designed the program’s curriculum that aims to integrate literacy, science, math and technology in an effort to bridge a digital divide in schools.

More than 50 students participated in the camp’s two one-week sessions held in classrooms at UNC Charlotte.

As part of the program, students read the book “Martin’s Mice” by Dick-King Smith, which tells the story of a cat who catches mice not for food, but to keep them as friends. The students then designed friendly mouse traps using Scratch, an open source coding program created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that powered interactive robots built of Legos.

Nine-year-old Lenell Firms Jr., who attends Bruns Academy, created a robot called “Tom the PugCat.” When a mouse travels under a sensor operated by his laptop, Lenell pushes a button to lower a lever that traps the mouse – in this case, a stuffed version.

“People might like it and compliment it,” he said, “and that’s going to make me happy.”

Lenell added his parents are proud of him, but, “I don’t think they’ll like it because they don’t like to kill mice.”

Thompson said students were selected through an application process and teacher recommendations.

“It speaks toward the goal of Project LIFT – to give kids the opportunity to acknowledge talents they probably never knew they have,” she said.

Project LIFT, which stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation, is an effort to improve public schools with private money, targeting students at West Charlotte High School and the eight schools that feed into it.

Taniya Johnson, a 10-year-old who attends Bruns Academy, said she didn’t think Scratch was hard to learn.

“I felt proud of myself like I … accomplished something,” she said.

Sean Markwith, One Laptop per Child technology facilitator at Thomasboro Academy, said fewer than 10 percent of schools in the nation offer coding courses. He added Harvard University uses Scratch for its engineering instruction.

“These kids could walk into a introductory coding class at Harvard and be with those students,” he said.

Thompson said they expect the program will continue in the future, and that teachers in the Project LIFT zone will bring the concepts into their classrooms. Legos used for the camp will be donated to robotics courses and after-school activities in the area, she said.

“I asked what their least favorite part was, and they said ‘nothing.’ They exceeded our expectations,” she said.

Ayanna Massey, 11, said she felt good about her project, titled, “Ah! Mouse in the House!”

“This is my first robot and the only robot that I ever built,” she said. “I learned if I could build one thing I could build anything I want.”

Crampton: 704-358-5112; Twitter: liz_crampton
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