What may look easy now wasn’t at all when we came to WakeEd Partnership asking for a grant two years ago.

ballentine1Ballentine Elementary is a small school in southern Wake County. The school began using First LEGO League (FLL) four years ago to teach science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) with academically gifted 5th graders. From a small circle of students and volunteers, we have grown a program encompassing more students, volunteers, community mentors and business partners.

Each year, the FLL Challenge, consists of teams presenting their unique solution to a real world problem, demonstrating their teamwork abilities, and exhibiting robotics programming skills by completing a problem-solving mission on their competition mat. Every year an overall theme is announced, and past themes have touched on aging (Senior Solutions), weather (Nature’s fury) food safety (Food Factor) and other themes.ballentine2

Ballentine’s FLL program initially started with two teams and two parent coaches, and a borrowed NXT robot. Every year since the program has expanded and today, the FLL program has grown to include 14 teams spanning Kindergarten (in Jr. FLL) through 5th grade and 21 parent and community volunteer coaches and mentors. 27% of the Ballentine student body participates in FLL. Just this year, there have been grants from the TE Connectivity Foundation, John Deere, The LEGO Foundation and United Theraputics.

This year, North Carolina’s FLL program is sending four teams forward to compete at the international level. Out of the hundreds of teams that participated, a Ballentine team won second place Grand Champion and will be going to LEGOLAND California to the FLL Invitational.

Ballentine3To many, this would already be a success story, but this is only a small indicator compared to the personal impacts this program has made. There are many more success stories with the students involved:

  • One third grader was so shy that other students had learned to speak for her.  She would cry as soon as anyone called on her for an answer.  After she joined an FLL team, she participated in the naming of her team robot.  That very day she began sitting with her teammates/classmates talking and laughing.  She later participated in a project skit and at the end of the year, she was in the school talent show.  The next year, she became the team leader, speaking for the team.
  • Another child experienced a personal tragedy. In spite of what happened, he skyped and facetimed into the classroom to work with his team, programming the team’s robot remotely from a hospital room.
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The stories don’t end there. Through FLL, the students learn to think about ideas and solutions and present them. They have presented and spoken to town councils, rotary clubs, churches, and mayors. They also have written news articles and created surveys and petitions to make change.

This year’s theme was “Trash Trek” and teams had to select a trash problem and find an innovative solution to solve the problem. The teams responded by inventing a reusable plastic bag created from fabric material from plastic bags, recyclable pizza boxes, and even a “compactonator” to eliminate flyaway plastic bags in landfills.

The team (Phenomenal Bricks) traveling to the LEGOLAND Invitational researched the uses of tires and plastic  and created a flip-flop completely out of recycled plastic and old tires. They contacted local companies and a non-profit to share their shoes with kids in need in third-world countries.  As the kids say, “It’s a win-win.” Ballentine5

This year, for the first time, we encouraged ESL students to join FLL. Our ESL teacher joined our coaching staff. Our goal was to expand the lens of our school and community providing engaging, challenging opportunities for our ESL population. When we first called those students to come work on robots, other students told them to sit down because it wasn’t for them. So they sat down. The coaches told them it was for them and they stood back up and came.  It took a few weeks for the other students to recognize and begin to appreciate the skills in everyone.  Also, the LEGO Foundation selected the ESL team to go to the World Competition. Students, staff, our community, and their parents all see them in a new light.  The students, while participating in the state competition at A and T University in Greensboro, commented that they weren’t going to college.  Their coach asked them to consider it.  For the first time, higher education is now on their radar.

These are just a few of the stories that make up the Ballentine FLL program. And while some stories have moved on to new and bigger ponds, many more are beginning, just as the first ones: with an idea and a LEGO robot. They just need support to start their story.Ballentine 6

Sonia Clark, AIG Resource
Ballentine Elementary School