The Hannah Cole students will be some of the youngest at the state-wide MU Robotics Design Challenge in Columbia in April.

“Have you seen the new LEGO movie?” one student asked another as they pieced together their LEGO rover.

The students excitedly chattered as LEGO pieces clicked together in the library at Hannah Cole Primary during the weekly meeting of the LEGO Robotics Club. It would look just like play time if not for Cindy Spaedy and her volunteers from the Boonslick Technical Education Center running from table to table helping the students solve problems.

The students aren’t just playing, though. They meet after school once a week to learn science, technology, engineering and math concepts through working with LEGOs. Yes, everyone’s favorite build-it-yourself toy is now a tool for teaching STEM.

The Hannah Cole robotics program started with a three-day workshop at the University of Missouri. Spaedy attended and came back with five free LEGO Mindstorm kits, worth about $4,000. All she had to do was commit to starting an after-school robotics program.

Like any other LEGO kit, the Mindstorms come with plenty of blocks. They also come with an array of motors and sensors that let students build creations that can move around and navigate obstacles. Students can program their robots using an app designed by LEGO, in which they give the robot instructions.

The club’s meetings start with a short math lesson, Spaedy said. She also likes to show a lot of videos of different ways robotics are used in the real world. She says her students are going to have a leg up on others with the expansion of robotics in the workforce. They’ve also talked with engineers from Texas and MU over Skype.

After their lesson, the students open LEGO kits and build. The students learned how to program their robots on Thursday afternoon with a little more than a month before they show off what they’ve learned at the state-wide robotics challenge in Columbia.

One group was stuck with a familiar problem for LEGO kit builders: they were missing one, tiny but crucial piece. A few pieces looked similar, but weren’t black like the piece shown in the instructions. One piece was almost exactly right, but extending out from the small piece they needed was a big, black fin that looked like it should be on the Batmobile.

“Maybe just saw off that?” one student suggested.

Once they finished the rovers, the students put in the directions for the robot in the app. After that, it’s trial and error to try to complete the course.

This year, the course is based around programming the robot to turn and to pause. After crossing the starting line, the robot must turn right to cross the first checkpoint, then right again to cross the second.

After crossing the second checkpoint, the robot is in the home stretch, but that’s where it gets complicated. The robot has to pause for five seconds inside a square laid out in tape with 20-centimeter sides. Then, it moves on towards the finish line, which is actually two lines laid out 25 cm apart. For full points, the robot has to stop between the lines for at least five seconds.

Spaedy started the LEGO robotics program with 12 second graders at Hannah Cole last school year. After a successful first year, Spaedy grew the program. She went back to MU for five more Mindstorm kits, and a grant from the Boonville R-1 Education Foundation allowed her to buy less-advanced WeDo kits, so the students could work up to the Mindstorms.

The MU program started in 2006 when College of Engineering faculty, led by Professor Satish Nair, applied for a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, according to the university’s website. That grant paid for 10 LEGO robotics kits and a $2,000 stipend each for 40 teachers to start programs in 13 different schools.

The university also started a LEGO robotics camp for second-ninth grade students in the mid-Missouri area. For students in grades four through nine, a two-day camp is $175, and a three-day camp is $300. The cost is lower for younger students: $125 for two days and $200 for three. Those fees pay all the costs of the in-school program, so the cost to the University of Missouri is nothing, according to Ben Latimer, a PhD candidate who helps coordinate the program.

The program leads up to the annual MU Robotics Design challenge. Robotics students from around the state gather to compete each April at Naka Hall on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. This year, the challenge will be April 6.

Teams of two to four students build their own robots from the kits, then program to complete a challenge. After trying the challenge course, students meet with a panel of judges to explain how they programed their robot. The teams are scored based on how well their robot completes the challenge course, and on their explanations to the judges.