Robotics competition inspires youngsters to be self-educators

December 4, 2012

Innovative learning environment attracts award-winning teacher to Arizona FIRST LEGO League program

Erik Von Burg sees hope for improving the education of the nation’s youngsters in a “fundamental paradigm shift” in teaching and learning methods. Erik Von Burg AZ FLL Download Full Image

There must be a break with conventional concepts of education “where the teacher spouts and the students simply absorb,” says the elementary school teacher. “Students must no longer simply be consumers of knowledge. They must become creators of new knowledge and understanding,” he says.

Von Burg works with students from kindergarten through sixth grade in three public schools in Mesa, Ariz., including teaching grades three through six in the MacArthur Elementary School Gifted and Talented program.

He employs what is known as the constructivist method –  focusing first on schooling children in critical thinking skills and then allowing students relative freedom to pursue their own paths to learning.

“Teaching people how to think rigorously is truly the only universally applicable lesson we as teachers can provide,” he says.

His belief in the value of this approach to education is why he’s made a commitment to get his students involved each year in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League (FLL) program.

The program seeks to teach young students the fundamentals of engineering, science and math through competitions that involve designing, building and programming small robots (constructed with the use of LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits) as well as problem-solving projects related to real-world societal challenges in areas such as health, energy and environmental sustainability.

FLL is managed by Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, which coordinates operations for FIRST LEGO League regional tournaments and an annual state championship tournament.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international program founded by renowned inventor Dean Kamen to ignite young students’ interest in engineering and science.  Since ASU’s engineering schools became the FIRST LEGO League operational partner in Arizona in 2008, the state’s program has more than tripled the number of middle schools and student teams participating.

This year’s Arizona FLL program has seen participation from a record number of about 300 teams of students from middle schools around the state. The state championship tournament on Dec. 8 at ASU’s Tempe campus will feature more than 50 of the top-performing teams.

Von Burg has coached FIRST LEGO League teams from Mesa schools for the past four years, and says he understands what is attracting more schools. “FIRST LEGO League embodies the mindset” of cutting-edge innovation in education methods, he says, “and its adherence to this philosophy of teaching and learning makes it so rewarding and valuable.”

FIRST LEGO League “provides authentic problem-solving situations” that prompt students to do some deep thinking, he says.

The complex challenges energize the youngsters. “If you attend only one tournament, you will see why it’s appealing to kids,” he adds. “For accomplishing tasks that develop their technical knowledge, these students are put on a pedestal that is typically given only to athletically gifted youngsters.”

Getting involved in the FIRST LEGO League competitions has had an impact on his classroom environment. There’s now more “authentic collaboration” and an “atmosphere of mutual learning” between teacher and students, he says.

His successes in the classroom have led the Arizona Science Teachers Association to recently select Von Burg to receive its 2012 Elementary Science Teacher of the Year award. His work “exemplifies what it means to teach science to the next generations,” says Vicki Massey, president of the association of more than a thousand members dedicated to improving science teaching in the state’s K-12 schools.

Von Burg, an ASU graduate with a degree in psychology and education, has been teaching in Arizona for the past 12 years. His future teaching plans include continuing to mentor FIRST LEGO League teams for years to come, he says, with the hope of one day coaching a team that includes his two young daughters.

Written by Rosie Gochnour and Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Essay by honors faculty fellow on scientific literacy selected for publication in 'Fields of Reading'

December 4, 2012

An essay by Thomas Martin, honors faculty fellow at ASU's Barrett, The Honors College, has been chosen for publication in Fields of Reading, a well-known edited collection of essays and texts considered to be key curriculum readings from the arts and humanities, social sciences and public affairs, and sciences.

Martin’s essay, titled "Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse," gives an argument for teaching students to set aside personal bias and think critically based on evidence when wrestling with scientific quandaries. Thomas Martin Download Full Image

“Scientific literacy isn’t just about theory," Martin says. "It’s about inculcating habits of critical thought. 'Habits of thought' refers to a mental commitment to put evidence over your own preconceptions and practice an inner critical discourse that is more focused on evidence."

Martin says critical thinking isn’t limited to the sciences, that it is useful in any discipline, and adds that he and his Barrett Honors College faculty colleagues imbed this concept into their teaching.

“We spotlight critical thinking skills," he says. "We’re not just trying to fill heads with information, but (we’re) focusing on acquiring critical thinking habits that will begin in the classroom and go on throughout students' lives.”

Martin’s essay was originally published in Seed Magazine in 2007 and was picked up by the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. The latest publication of the essay is a welcome surprise to Martin.

“I’m in there with the likes of Plato and, more importantly, Tina Fey,” Martin says with a smile. “But seriously, it’s surreal to have my name in a table of contents with authors we actually teach here at Barrett. I’m gratified to know it will be used by thousands of students throughout the country and the world."

Nicole Greason

Public relations and publicity manager , Barrett, The Honors College