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Optimal Learning for Children: Embracing LEGOs and Robots, According to a Tacoma Educator

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The bell chimed, signaling the start of the day as students filed into the classroom in small groups, their chatter filling the air under the direction of a booming voice.

Around 60 students gathered for Ian Chow-Miller’s biannual Robotics Carnival at Mason Middle School on Thursday. It marked the third carnival hosted by Chow-Miller at Mason, providing students with a platform to showcase their creations from his robotics classes.

“Everything is awesome. Just go with it,” Chow-Miller encouraged the students, noting that none of the adult visitors that day had likely built a LEGO robot before, possibly referencing the popular LEGO movie song in his email later.

The robots, each themed around carnival games, sported names like “Dropper Thing Mo-Bob-Er,” resembling a pinball machine, and “The Epic Maze,” a rolling ball maze game. Wires linked LEGO brick constructions to computers displaying the students’ coding efforts.

For Chow-Miller, this carnival represents a culmination of nearly three decades in teaching, during which he has developed a deep appreciation for fostering creativity in children.

“What’s most rewarding about teaching robotics is that there’s no single correct answer,” Chow-Miller explained. “When your robot fails 22 times, that’s a better learning experience than simply being told you’re wrong or getting a red mark on paper.”

Originally a social studies teacher in New York, Chow-Miller transitioned to Pierce County in 2008. His robotics curriculum, initially implemented at Frontier Middle School in the Bethel School District, eventually became mandatory for seventh graders there. He later moved to Mason Middle School as a career and technical education teacher. His interest in robotics was sparked during his tenure in the South Bronx when he attended a teacher training and started coaching FIRST Lego League, a global STEM education and robotics program for children up to age 16 in the U.S.

In his Robotics II class at Mason, students are graded based on meeting minimal robot requirements, such as having at least one motor and one sensor, emitting lights or sounds, and featuring a screen for feedback.

Chow-Miller is recognized as one of four LEGO Education Ambassadors in Washington state this year. LEGO Education, distinct from the LEGO retail division, collaborates with schools to integrate LEGO into curricula. LEGO Education Ambassadors, who are early learning to middle school teachers, utilize LEGO Education products as teaching tools and share best practices among their peers.

According to LEGO Education Key Account Manager Amelia Crespo, schools or districts cover the cost of LEGO bricks, while the curriculum and coding software like SPIKE Prime for middle school students are available at no charge to educators. A class of 30 students working in pairs with 15 SPIKE Prime kits costs approximately $6,000. Schools can acquire these kits through grants for sustained use over multiple years.

Students at the carnival enthusiastically discussed their projects, applying skills acquired in Chow-Miller’s class.

“The teacher is really good, and you just get to experiment with what works and what doesn’t,” remarked Nolan Mattson, part of the team behind “Dropper Thing Mo-Bob-Er.” “Each of our projects is different, and I think that’s cool.”

Seventh graders Madison Croke and Violet Stanfill, who collaborated on the “Friend Hunt” robot, a game inspired by Duck Hunt, shared how their teamwork had deepened their friendship. In this game, miniature paper cut-outs of Chow-Miller’s face and classmates moved along a conveyor belt as targets for a projectile.

Reflecting on her experience, Croke expressed her intent to sign up for robotics again next year.

“This has really made me think a lot more,” she said.