Brick by Brick

Release Date: 2012 08 10

How one Edmonton teacher uses Lego to build knowledge Top of page

By Earl J Woods

Children today have a seemingly innate ability to use the technology that surrounds them, often outstripping their parents’ skills when it comes to navigating smartphones, tablets, PVRs and computers. To many adults, it often seems as though kids know more about cutting-edge technology than we do. How can today’s teachers connect with children who are growing up in the digital era?

According to Mike Somkuti, a young teacher of science and career and technology studies (CTS) at Monsignor Fee Otterson Elementary/Junior High School in Edmonton, you connect by building bridges—in his case, bridges made from plastic Lego bricks.

For Somkuti, it’s not enough that students know how to use technology; he’s teaching them how technology works. And to accomplish that mission, he’s using a beloved child’s toy not only to help students understand technology but also to help them discover their own talents and aptitudes.

Somkuti’s tools include Lego Mindstorms robotics kits, which he uses to teach problem solving and the logic of computer programming to Grades 7 and 8 students. Students first assemble the kits—with or without the instruction booklet, depending on their aptitude and the complexity of the kit—and then experiment with the associated software to program the finished robots to perform simple tasks.

"The software, a graphic programming language, helps students understand how computers think," Somkuti explains. "They learn the logic of if-then statements, for example. If they program something and they try the robot out, they see that robot do the thing they programmed in the real world, which is much more gratifying than just seeing a line of code change."

Somkuti describes Lego as the window he uses to introduce students to the fundamentals of technology, but it doesn’t stop there; he also teaches students to use more sophisticated programming languages, such as Kodu, which is used to program Microsoft’s Xbox video game system. One assignment challenges students to achieve certain goals in virtual amusement parks while working within Kodu’s limitations, and Somkuti has been delightfully surprised by the results: "Sometimes they even surpass the teacher. I remember one girl who initially showed no interest in computers. She made this extremely sophisticated, multilevelled program where one character would walk through this magical kingdom and then she’d disappear and end up somewhere else. . . . I don’t know how she did it, but she did. It was really, really neat to see."

How do students respond to the robotics kits and programming exercises? CTS is a mandatory class at Monsignor Fee Otterson, Somkuti explains, so naturally some students love it while others are less enthusiastic.

"Kids that struggle in other classes can excel in Lego robotics, and they can become leaders," Somkuti says. "They can really shine in these classes." And he notes that the student who programmed a magical kingdom in Kodu may have never discovered her aptitude for computers had CTS not been mandatory.

Somkuti’s methods work at younger grade levels, as well. He relates the tale of a Grade 4 student working with a standard, non-robotic Lego kit: "This kid—who can barely write a sentence, who has struggles expressing his learning in that way—tells me how he’s building an elastic band car, and how this car was going to convert potential energy that’s stored in the elastic band into kinetic energy to make the car move. He used those words! That’s the power of giving a student the right tools to show their learning."

"It’s awesome to see kids who struggle in other subjects light up and become leaders in their own classrooms," Somkuti adds.

Ultimately, Lego is merely a tool Somkuti uses to achieve his primary goal.

"My job as a teacher is to prepare students for the world and their future," Somkuti says. "That’s why I want them to understand how this technology works. Ultimately, my goal is to make them less passive users of technology and more active users of technology. I’m giving them tools that they’re going to be able to use for the rest of their lives."