STEM teacher and Ascent program coordinator, Caroline Hanson, discusses the robotics program at Aspen Middle School 


Caroline Hanson, Ascent program coordinator and STEM teacher at Aspen Middle School (AMS), is the regional First LEGO League (FLL) Tournament director and coach to eleven AMS robotics teams of 81 students. These students are 5th through 8th graders, who elected to be in Hanson’s fall robotics class and to compete in at least one local competition.  Her robotics curriculum is fun and designed to provide students with tools for success in college and STEM fields—team building, research, creativity, project design, critical thinking, programming and presentation skills.

On November 12, AMS will host the local FLL tournament with 24 western slope middle school teams from Grand Junction to Steamboat Springs. 400-500 people are expected to attend, including parents, judges and other volunteers from the community

Caroline Hanson identifies four factors unique to the Robotics program at AMS:

#1- It is not just about robots. I chose the First Lego League competition for the core values of gracious professionalism, and “coopertition” (cooperation and competition).  There is a mix of kids with technical and nontechnical interests. Kids have to learn to deal with other personalities, be nice to each other, stretch out of their friend groups, and learn to reach consensus with others.

#2- They learn real world skills. Every year, the FLL announces a different real world engineering challenge as well as a series of LEGO-based robot missions.  This year’s theme is Animal Allies.  The teams have to choose and solve a real-world problem when humans and animals interact. They have to come up with a five-minute presentation with data and professional sources. Students have been working with CDOT, exterminators and the grizzly bear test center. The kids do everything themselves—researching their solution, and building, testing and programming autonomous robots of their own design.  It’s up to them to make things work.

#3- The students learn resiliency.  An FLL project is never perfect. There is a deadline, but there is never perfection. The kids put themselves out there.  Their scores are on the board, and there is also always someone at the bottom. The project teaches perseverance in the face of failure. I have seen a child have 95 failures before one success.  He finally said, “I did great” and then went home with a great deal of satisfaction.  That’s a good life lesson. The kids also have a lot of fun. They laugh when their robots fail and destroy everything on the board.  

#4- While winning is not the ultimate goal of our program, our kids have done well in competition. Typically, 1 to 4 teams from the Aspen Middle School will advance to the state competition every year. Last year, a sixth grade team placed ninth in programming at the state level.  A seventh grade team won first place overall in the statewide competition and went on to become one of 20 semifinalists chosen from 28,000 teams worldwide.  This group of eight students presented at the Global Innovation Award Competition in Washington, D.C. and filed a patent for their innovative solution to e-waste.