At Beverly Woods Elementary, Legos, the beloved interlocking building blocks, are being used to instill a love of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM.
The effort started in January 2010, when Liz Daniel, a former teacher with two sons at Beverly Woods, was chaperoning a field trip. She and fourth-grade teacher Jay Menkin were eating lunch and discussing how much money they spent on Legos for their kids over the holidays.
That's when they had the idea to start a Lego club.
Daniel started looking into what the plastic-construction-toy giant had to offer.
The name Lego comes from "leg godt," Danish for "play well." Founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, the company has been passed down father to son, generation to generation, growing from a carpenter's workshop to the fifth-largest manufacturer of toys in the world, with 45 stores.
Thirty years ago, the retail giant started Lego Education, designed to help children experience technology in a new and fun way. The company designed simple machines and more complex robots that children could program and operate through a computer.
The initial Lego club at Beverly Woods was open to second- through fifth-graders, and the Lego Education equipment was paid for by club dues, about $70 a child. A Beverly Woods parent who wishes to remain anonymous donated $1,000 to help cover operational costs.
Nearly 85 boys and girls signed up to meet for an hour-and-a-half after school on Thursdays for nine weeks.
Teachers volunteered their classrooms and supervision, and parents and community members helped out.
"To them, it's so amazing the first time you realize you can write a program that causes something to happen," said Daniel.
But the club soon became an administrative challenge for the Beverly Woods office assistant. The club also wanted to purchase more expensive Lego Education equipment, such as complex robotics that cost about $350 each, and dues alone wouldn't cover the costs.
Since schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system aren't allowed to apply for grants, the Beverly Woods club decided to break away from CMS and apply for nonprofit status in fall 2010.
To make sure the application was done correctly and effectively, the club got resourceful. Meredith Jeffries, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law and Beverly Woods parent, sent an e-mail to a few colleagues, who then had a student working for the free law clinic draft the Lego club's bylaws and articles of incorporation.
At the end of October, the Beverly Woods Lego club became the registered nonprofit South Park Engineering and Robotics Club.
Daniel noticed mostly boys signed up for the fall 2010 session. So in January 2011, they started a six-week session just for girls called She Lego.
There was some reluctance at first. A group of third-grade parents signed their daughters up, but the girls were less than excited. The parents told the girls they had to go twice before they could quit the program.
But it wasn't long before they were programming a robot to drop a red ball on a target.
"After the first day, I was getting e-mails from parents, saying, 'They love it. Thank you so much,'" said Daniel.
The She Lego session will finish Feb. 17, and a new co-ed session for all grades, kindergarten to fifth grade, will run March 3 to April 14.
Daniel hopes the Lego club will pique students' interest in STEM and give them confidence to excel in those areas.
Daniel said she's happy to talk with anyone at another school interested in starting a Lego club.
"I really believe in this enrichment," she said. "And especially with everything that's happening with the public school budget, I think we have to get creative as parents to make sure our kids are still getting the 21st-century skills they need."