TIPTON, Ind. — Tipton and Tri-Central fourth-graders are building their futures, and their doing it with Lego.

The Tipton County Economic Development Organization (TCEDO) helped bring the First Lego League to the schools as a way to improve robotics education in the county. It’s just one way the TCEDO is working with schools on STEM education, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Nathan Kring, TCEDO director, said he’s heard from employers who are looking for skilled workers who can think critically, and some employers are specifically looking for people who can work with robotics. The problem is the employers are having trouble finding those people in Tipton.

Kring said a large portion of the workforce in the county is close to retirement, and there aren’t enough skilled workers to replace them — not yet, anyway, and that’s where these educational programs come into play.

Julia Buckley, registrar and guidance secretary for Tri-Central Elementary School, is the coach for the team. She has a degree in biology, and she said if she hadn’t learned about biology at a young age she might not have chosen that field.

“STEM knowledge is built and started when they’re younger,” she said. “If they don’t have that good foundation, it’s harder as they get older to build on that.”

Her biology background allows her to guide the students through how to do research and the scientific process, she said.

The First Lego League has two parts. The students use a Lego robotics kit to build a robot that can complete different tasks, and they research a problem and try to develop a solution.

Each year, First Lego League comes up with a theme, and the students do research on a topic relating to the theme. This year’s theme is “Animal Allies.”

The students are researching how human pollution impacts the Wabash River and what they can do to help the animals that live in and drink from the river.

“It is a lot of research,” Buckley said. “They’re really getting into it. I’m impressed by how much they’ve done so far.”

She hopes they’ll not only be able to help with the problem but learn about their own community.

“I think they’re going to learn lot about their local community more than they see right out their front door,” she said. “They’ll learn about how what they do locally, even in their own backyard, can affect a bigger area.”

Buckley said it’s important to let the kids come up with everything, and the adults act only as guides for the team.

The fact the group is young isn’t an issue, she said. They’re focused on and interested in the project, and the two-hour sessions go by quickly.

Kenzie Garner from Tri-Central said she wants to work in computer programming when she’s older, so the league is perfect for her.

“I really like it,” Garner said.

Xander Tolle from Tri-Central wants to create stop-motion movies when he’s older. He’ll need to use computer programs to do some animation and to add things to the films, he said. Though he doesn’t want to work with robots, he said he’s glad to be part of the team.

“So far it’s been fun,” Tolle said.

For many of the students, the best part isn’t even working with robots at all; most of them talked about how well everyone worked together to solve problems.

Augie Mueller from Tri-Central said the whole group became fast friends despite coming from two different schools.

“We don’t get in fights,” Mueller said. “I think everybody plays their part.”

Rylea Wetz from Tipton agreed the group gets along well, and added she’s not just learning about good team work or robotics; she’s learning about core values such as critical thinking and cooperation.

Wetz wants to be a professional baseball player when she grows up, but learning to program robots is a bonus, she said.

Buckley said some members of the group get overwhelmed at times by how much there is to do, but the other members are there to encourage each other.

Haley Dunn from First Lego League said the purpose of the program is to inspire and empower students to take an interest in STEM.

“These programs inspire kids to develop those skills,” Dunn said.

It’s also about developing 21st century skills, which she described as including self-confidence, leadership and communication.

Some of the teams have gone on to patent their inventions, she said.

“These are totally unique and real solutions to these problems they’re researching,” Dunn said.

One example she shared was a team in 2011 that created a prosthetic for a girl who was missing several fingers on one hand. The prosthetic allowed her to write independently. Another team created the SmartWheel, which monitors driver behavior for safer driving.

The teams don’t have to be sponsored by schools, Dunn said, though most of them are. And the students have the opportunity to win money to patent their inventions as well as scholarships for college, she said.

Lori Hoback, mother to Tri-Central team member Aren Hoback and an employee of Fiat Chrysler in Tipton where the group meets every week, said she’s glad to see the program in Tipton.

As an employee of a large manufacturer, she sees the issue of people retiring without enough people to fill the open jobs. She said large employers have a responsibility to hire people locally, and this program will help them be able to do that.

And it’s not just manufacturers, she added. Agriculture is huge in Tipton, and computer programming is factoring into farming more and more every year, she said.

She said she’s glad to see the schools pushing STEM to a young audience. Sometimes, she said, kids believe they can only learn about these things when they’re older, but it’s important to catch their interest early on.

“If they feel like they can help make a difference, they’ll never want to stop,” she said.

Source: Kokomo Tribune, http://bit.ly/2e2WJzy

Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com

This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the Kokomo Tribune.