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Cornell Engineering

Lego Man

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A robot that caps a volcano about to erupt; a floating mini-electricity plant which powers neighborhoods during floods; a robotic rock crusher to clean up after rock slides—these are the devices being dreamed up in the Duffield atria these days, but they’re not brainstorms of graduate engineering students. These are the ideas of elementary school children, prototyped in motorized LEGO® bricks, and spurred by their participation in the Junior FIRST LEGO® League Expo (Jr.FLL).

WoodieThe Jr.FLL is hosted by the Cornell NanoScale Facility and organized by Dan Woodie M.S. ’08 ChemE, a third generation engineer who oversees safety for Cornell Engineering. After earning his bachelor of science in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech, he spent five years at Lockheed Martin as a process engineer, where he made chips for the Cassini space probe. He came to Cornell in 2000 to take a job as the lab use manager for CNF and to earn his master’s in chemical engineering via the employee degree program.

An eager student, one evening he decided to go hear Segway founder Dean Kamen speak on campus, figuring he’d hear a lot about how the innovative transporter was designed. Instead, he heard about Kamen’s passion, science and technology education, and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the non-profit founded by Kamen to bring sporting event excitement to science learning.

FIRST offers international robotics competitions for high school and junior high school students, which function much like the project teams at Cornell Engineering. It also offers an expo for elementary school kids, with all the fun of building, minus the pressure of competition.

Woodie tucked this information into his memory. A few years later, when he and his wife were looking for interesting activities for their four home-schooled children, he remembered it. Woodie looked into the program and decided that the elementary school level program, the Jr.FLL, was a great fit for CNF outreach.

In 2006, he launched the first expo at Cornell, during which teams of local children build motorized models in response to a yearly theme. Since then, more than 650 children from the region have had the chance to dream and build. Themes have included food safety, improving the life of older people, and moving people and goods in the most efficient way possible.

“The goal behind Jr.FLL is for the kids to learn that science and engineering can be a lot of fun,” says Woodie, who puts many hours a year into developing the expo and coaching a team for older children. “Dean Kamen says that it’s more fun to write the game than to play it. My goal is to show them the excitement of engineering and science and teach them how to work in teams.”

In January 2014, CNF hosted the 8th annual Junior FIRST LEGO® League Expo. This year’s theme was “Disaster Blaster,” asking kids to think about how to prepare for, be safe during, and recover from natural disasters. More than 120 kids on 25 teams traveling from as far away as Buffalo and as close as downtown Ithaca came together to display their models and posters explaining their creations.

Reviewers, who included director of CNF operations Don Tennant, CNF staff members, and graduate students in physics and climate science, visited each team, learned about their projects, and encouraged them. At the end, each child received a medallion, a certificate from the coach, and a high-five from the reviewers—plus the knowledge that he or she was capable of solving a serious problem.

Supported by the CNF and the Shell Oil Company, the event also featured hands-on activities organized by the Ithaca Sciencenter and the Tompkins County Red Cross. The event was staffed by volunteers from the undergraduate Society of Women Engineers.

This year’s event has just ended, but Woodie is already planning next year’s. He is truly dedicated to providing this amazing technology activity to as many children as possible.

“I’ve really gotten hooked by FIRST and their mission and approach,” says Woodie. “It’s great to see the kids learn that building something can be very rewarding. We hook the younger kids in with the LEGO®s and they learn that this really hard thing can be very rewarding. I want to teach kids that there’s a lot of technology out in the world, and that they can make it, not just consume it.”