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Building a community of young learners

ASU LEGO competition builds a community of young learners.
December 29, 2015

Fulton Schools' LEGO competition sees rapid growth

Numbers attest to the impressive growth of the Arizona FIRST LEGO League (AZ FLL) robotics and research competition.

In 2015 the program designed to ignite youngsters’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields — drew about 3,000 9- to 14-year-old students to join 358 teams throughout the state.

Each of those figures are record highs, adding up to almost four times the numbers of students and teams involved in AZ FLL since Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering took over management operations in 2008.

But what tells the bigger story about the program’s success is the spirited ambience that pervaded the recent annual mid-December AZ FLL state championship tournament at ASU’s Tempe campus.

See the list of award winners at the 2015 Arizona FIRST LEGO League state championship tournament.

Jubilant scene during competition

Nearly 600 students on the 62 teams that earned their way to the championship — along with team coaches, mentors, teachers, parents and competition judges — created a festive atmosphere of joyful intensity at the event.

They were joined by many of the more than 100 ASU staff members, faculty and students who volunteered to facilitate activities on the day of the tournament or had helped make preparations for the event. ASU students built each of the 23 LEGO field kits used to stage the robotics competition.

What the scene made evident is that AZ FLL is not just expanding an educational outreach enterprise but is nurturing a growing community dedicated to fostering the excitement of learning, discovery and creativity.

Empowering experience for students

“This is about building a culture of STEM education, and I am seeing it transform these kids,” said David Thompson, a professor who helps lead the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University.

For about a decade Thompson has coached AZ FLL teams in northern Arizona, helped organize regional qualifying tournaments and served as one of the masters of ceremonies at the championship tournament.

“The robots are what catch the kids’ attention at first,” he said. “But once they get into the hands-on interaction with technology and they learn to do research and problem solving, it can empower them with a kind of confidence they’ve likely never had before.”

Taking on the Trash Trek challenge

AZ FLL requires teams to work throughout much of the year to design, build and program small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits. Those skills are put to the test at tournaments, earning teams’ points for how effectively their robots perform a variety of technical maneuvers.

Teams also make presentations to competition judges on research projects based on a different theme each year. It requires youngsters to identify a real problem in their communities and apply basic science and engineering principles to develop potential solutions.

The 2015 theme was “Trash Trek,” which assigned students to come up with ways for society to cope with the pressing challenges presented by the growing amounts of trash and related pollution being produced around the world — with a focus on recycling and reuse of waste materials.

The championship tournament Platinum sponsor — most appropriately, given the research challenge theme — was Republic Services, the waste collection, recycling and disposal service company.

Sponsors for the qualifying regional tournaments included Salt River Project for Winslow, Raytheon for Tucson, and Intel for Chandler, along with Cisco Systems and Arizona Western College for the Yuma area.

student competing in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League

Student teams learn some of the basics of engineering, science and math by designing, building and programming small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS kits to compete in Arizona FIRST LEGO League tournaments. Photos by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Focusing on core values

The program is operated through FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international organization founded by Dean Kamen, the renowned inventor. FIRST develops and supports programs throughout the United States aimed at motivating students to pursue opportunities in STEM education and careers.

FIRST puts special emphasis on its “core values.” Teams are judged on how their efforts exemplify teamwork, respect for fellow competitors, friendship and appreciation for learning, and on sharing their discoveries with other students and their communities.

Promoting those values has been a strong point of AZ FLL under the leadership of the Fulton Schools of Engineering, said Kathy Vachon, a partner services manager for FIRST. She attended the recent state tournament to observe the event, as well as meet with AZ FLL leaders.

“It’s good to see the kids adopt the attitude that the competitions are more important to them for what they discover than for what they win,” Vachon said. “You see a real sense of camaraderie not only within teams but among the teams and the coaches.”

Teaching real-world lessons

The Fulton Schools “are doing a wonderful job developing a contingent of well-trained coaches and mentors and volunteers,” she added. “And by bringing a quality program to more communities each year, they are enriching their investment in the future of Arizona through providing these STEM education opportunities.”

Others echo that assessment.

“It’s the best outreach program I’ve seen to teach STEM subjects to kids,” said Laura Wittman, a former hydrogeologist. She and her husband, Craig Wittman, have been involved with FLL in Arizona and elsewhere for 16 years. She’s now an adviser to tournament judges.

They said the FLL competition mirrors the real world of technology development and business.

“You need to have teams with people who can do more than just make the technology,” said Craig, an engineer with Raytheon Company, an aerospace and defense technology company. “You need to have people who can explain how and why your product works. Your customers look at your team’s teamwork, and they take into consideration how they will interact with your team. It is not just the technical side of things used in their decision making.”

Picking up problem-solving skills

Erik Von Burg, a teacher of gifted students at Johnson Elementary School in Mesa, has coached more than a dozen FLL teams in the past eight years. He said the program is particularly valuable for teaching youngsters how to be professional.

“They face time constraints. The work can be a grind at times. They get stretched out in a lot of different directions,” he said. “So they have to learn to perform under pressure and put their best foot forward even when they are not as prepared as they want to be.”

Charlotte Ackerman is the teacher leader for scientific and engineering practices for the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson. She has coached more than 60 student robotics teams in the past 13 years, including the Local Legends team that won the 2014 AZ FLL championship.

“Coaching FLL teams is demanding, but I’ve seen robotics inspire students to work like they’ve never worked before,” Ackerman said. “It’s work that stretches those valuable problem-solving skills.”

Competition encourages creativity

Katelyn Keberle was among the volunteers who helped manage activities at the state tournament. She was the Fulton Schools of Engineering outstanding graduate in the spring of 2014, when she received her bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering.

“I really like volunteering, especially when it supports STEM education,” said Keberle, who is now a process engineer for W. L. Gore & Associates in Phoenix. “I participated in many science competitions in middle school and high school. It was a big reason that I went into engineering. I loved the teamwork and the creativity and the challenge. So it was exciting to support the FLL organization and all the parents and teachers who support their kids doing this.”

The FLL challenge is “the best way I’ve seen to have fun and learn at the same time,” said Daja Harris. “Teachers say they can tell which students have been in FLL because they all have really good presentation skills.”

She and husband Russell Harris, an engineer at General Dynamics, have coached seven FLL teams of students from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies. Five of the teams have made it to a state championship tournament.

“The kids see these robots, and they want to jump right in and learn how to make them work,” Russell said. “They learn that to be competitive they also have to be cooperative.”

Learning about leadership

They also learn planning and organization, project management, time management and public speaking,” said Christine Sapio, a science teacher at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. She has been one of the state tournament’s masters of ceremonies for eight years, a coach of numerous robotics teams and an organizer of regional tournaments.

“It’s not just about building a robot. I’ve had students who were too shy to talk in class, and after being in FIRST robotics programs they would speak about their projects in front of schools boards and city councils,” Sapio said. “We’ve got kids who are excited about being proactive in their communities and helping people.”

Seventh-grader Dylan Maki and sixth-grader Jamie Ledbetter are confident that at least one accomplishment of their FLL team project will have some lasting impact. Team Toxic from Sonoran Science Academy in Tucson created an interactive game designed to teach children about recycling and why it’s important.

“It teaches them how to recycle, and it’s fun to play. It will make them want to recycle,” Maki said.

He and Ledbetter said they’re now hooked on robotics for the foreseeable future. Maki is looking forward to learning advanced robotics programming. Ledbetter, a rookie on the team this year, sees herself taking on a leadership position in the years ahead.

“I learned about being on a team,” she said. “You see how there are different people with different roles and ideas. Not everyone gets along perfectly all the time, but you learn how to compromise and keep going.”

Bright outlook for future growth

AZ FLL is poised to not only keep going, but is picking up steam. In 2016, the number of students and teams participating is expected to rise once again.

team competing in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League

There are moments of high intensity
at the tournament, as participants
concentrate on preparing their robots
to perform a variety of technical maneuvers
necessary to win points for their teams.

In 2015, thanks to support from the Cisco company’s sponsorship and a first-time partnership with Arizona Western College, a new regional qualifier was established to handle a rapid rise in the number of teams in Yuma area. The event drew about 250 youngsters on 35 teams.

An outlook for similar growth in other areas of the state has set plans in motion to add one or two more regional qualifying tournaments to the 14 held in 2015, and to extend the championship tournament into a two-day event.

More importantly, AZ FLL will be extending its reach geographically, especially to rural, remote and underserved communities, said Jennifer Velez, a senior K-12 outreach coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the managing partner for FIRST LEGO League in Arizona.

“Word has really gotten out about all the ways that being in FLL is benefitting young students,” Velez said. “Schools and teachers and parents, especially in the communities that don’t have a lot of resources, really want their kids to have this kind of inspirational experience that can give them an educational advantage.”

Of course the selling point for AZ FLL is a bit different for the youngsters. The attraction is made clear by the buzz of exhilaration exhibited during the championship tournament, and articulated point-blank by Team Toxic members Maki and Ledbetter, emphasizing every word: “It is just so much fun.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Year in review: Department of English edition

Take a look back at ASU English faculty and alumni 2015 book releases.
ASU English faculty and alumni explore universal themes of life in recent works.
December 29, 2015

Faculty and alumni from ASU's Department of English enjoyed a year full of new book releases

Arizona State University’s Department of English has no shortage of talented alumni and faculty, as is evidenced by the latest crop of novels, short-story collections, memoirs and poetry to come out of their ranks. In this look back at some of their most notable releases from 2015, ASU Now delves into a literary mash-up of such universal and persistent themes as death, birth, love, betrayal, humor and hopelessness.

2015 alumni releases

Karankawa,” University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015, by Iliana Rocha (MFA Creative Writing, 2008)

Winner of the 2014 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, “Karankawa” is a collection that explores some of the ways in which we (re)construct our personal histories. Rich in family narratives, myths and creation stories, Rocha’s poems investigate passage — dying, coming out, transforming, being born — as well as the gaps that also reside in our stories, for, as Rocha suggests, the opportunity to create myths is provided by great silences.

Rocha is now a PhD candidate in English with a creative writing emphasis at Western Michigan University. While earning her MFA at ASU, she served as poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her work has been chosen for the Best New Poets 2014 anthology and has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Yalobusha Review, Puerto del Sol and Third Coast.

Fortune Smiles,” Random House, 2015, by Adam Johnson (BA Cronkite, 1992)

Johnson’s “Fortune Smiles” is a collection of surreal and comic short stories that deal with natural disasters, technology and politics, and take place in settings ranging from Palo Alto, California, to New Orleans to North Korea. A winner of the National Book Award for fiction, the collection was hailed as “surprising, wondrous, comic and devastating” by competition judges, who called Johnson “one of the most talented writers of his generation.”

Johnson is also the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed novel about North Korea, “The Orphan Master’s Son.”

A Teacher’s Tale: A Memoir,” iUniverse/True Directions, 2015, by Joe Gilliland (PhD English, 1979)

In Gilliland’s inspiring memoir, he recounts how it was never his intention to become a teacher but how that has been the path he has followed for more than 50 years. Beginning in 1932 with Gilliland's first experiences in schooling, “A Teacher’s Tale” concludes in the summer of 1955 just as he is about to become a qualified instructor in a small college in east Texas. Throughout the story Gilliland brings together a philosophy of higher education based on the importance of arts and humanities in today's fast-paced, high-tech world.

Gilliland earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in English from the University of Texas, Austin, before earning his doctorate in English from ASU. He is now retired and currently resides in Bisbee, Arizona, with his wife, Bettie.

The Porcupine of Truth,” Scholastic/Arthur A Levine, 2015, by Bill Konigsberg (MFA Creative Writing, 2005)

In this epic road-trip novel, Konigsberg explores themes of family history, gay history and discovering oneself. The novel is at times funny, poetic and enlightening.

Also the author of critically acclaimed “Openly Straight,” Konigsberg was a sportswriter for the Associated Press and before he began writing novels. The winner of a GLAAD Media Award for a coming-out essay written while working at, he lives in Chandler, Arizona, with his partner, Chuck.

2015 faculty releases

The Quotations of Bone,” Copper Canyon, 2015, by Norman Dubie (Regents’ Professor of English)

Called “one of our premier poets” by the New York Times, Dubie is known for his powerfully imaginative work in which he often assumes historical personae. In “The Quotations of Bone,” his 29th collection of poems, Dubie elicits a rich, vibrant vision of the world that leads the reader to uncommon ways of understanding humanity.

Dubie has been a part of ASU’s Creative Writing program since the 1970s and has given poetry readings throughout the United States.

Ball: Stories,” Soft Skull, 2015, by Tara Ison (associate professor of English)

“Ball” is the debut collection of short fiction by Ison, acclaimed author of the novels “Rockaway” and “A Child Out of Alcatraz.” In it, she explores the darker side of love, sex and death, and how they are often intimately connected. The stories, set mostly in contemporary Los Angeles, feature a recently bereaved young woman, a cancer-stricken best friend and a dying uncle.

Ison recently released the memoir “Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies.” Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Publishers Weekly; O, the Oprah Magazine; the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and Book Review; and the Chicago Tribune. Ison is also the co-writer of the cult film “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.”

A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (The Art of the Essay),” Bellevue Literary Press, 2015, by Melissa Pritchard (professor of English)

In an essay contained in “A Solemn Pleasure,” Pritchard poses the question, “Why write?” The collection attempts to answer that question, among others, by proving the power of language. The various essays explore themes of imagination, literary figures past, Pritchard’s personal experiences and finding inspiration in our own lives.

Pritchard’s writing has received the Flannery O’Connor, Janet Heidinger Kafka and Carl Sandburg awards and two of her short fiction collections were New York Times Notable Book and Editors’ Choice selections. She has worked as a journalist in Afghanistan, India and Ethiopia.

Scrapper,” Soho Press, 2015, by Matt Bell (assistant professor of English)

Author of the well-received novel “In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods,” Bell returns to tell the tale of a post-apocalyptic Detroit in “Scrapper.” A devastating reimagining of one of America’s greatest cities, it forces the reader to confront the consequences of one’s actions, even when they are made with the best intentions.

Bell has written book criticism and coverage for the Los Angeles Times, PEN America, the Quarterly Conversation and the Brooklyn Rail, where he writes a monthly interview series. He is also the former senior editor of Dzanc Books and the founding editor of the Collagist, an online literary journal.

To see more of what ASU English alumni, faculty and staff have to offer in the way of literary entertainment and enlightenment, check out the links below.

Recent alumni publications:

Recent faculty and staff publications: