Learning with Legos: Indian Creek Elementary teacher incorporates popular toy with robotics class


In Bruce Nelson’s Indian Creek Elementary classroom, students play as they learn. Nelson began teaching the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township elementary school’s robotics and design class in 2016.

Students learn about robotics, primarily using Legos.

When Nelson began teaching the class, curriculum shifted from a STEM focus to a STEAM focus, or science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. STEM doesn’t have an arts component.

“The school at that point didn’t have an art teacher,” Nelson said. “When we got the robotics teacher, the district traded an art teacher for the robotics teacher.”

Nelson started with fifth and sixth graders but now teaches students as young as second grade. Students use 3-D printers, laser cutters and other technology in Nelson’s class.

Legos entered the curriculum when MSDLT purchased enough Lego robotic kits for two grade levels to work at the same time. Now, the district has approximately 200 sets.

Nelson meets with students from one class daily for a week, then sees that class again a month later. Classes rotate weekly, so Nelson is always teaching.

Nelson, who enjoys teaching the class, applied for the Lego Master Educator program, consisting of volunteer ambassadors. He said he’s the only Lego Master Educator in Indiana.

“Kids are innately creative, and one of Lego’s big tenants is bringing play back into education and the importance of play when it comes to learning,” said Nelson, a Lawrence resident. “So, when we are doing this, we are letting the kids be creative.

“They think they’re playing, but in actuality, they are learning computer programming, they’re learning engineering skills. So, we kind of disguise it.”

Nelson said introducing robotics and STEAM education early benefits young students by preparing them for jobs that might not yet exist by teaching logical thinking and problem solving. When a student asks Nelson why they’re learning what they’re learning, Nelson tells them they’re learning how to fail.

“The whole point of this class is to fail and get back up and try again,” Nelson said. “Perseverance is very hard for a young child to understand. First graders on their first day build something, they drop it and they’re crying. I’ll look at them and say, ‘Hey, it’s Lego. You can build it again. You’ve got all the pieces. Try again. Maybe this time figure out what happened and see if you can build it so it doesn’t break again.’”

Nelson also conducts an after-school robotics club for students in third through sixth grade. The club is open to any student in those grades. There is no cost to join.

Sixth-grader Remington Hiner said her favorite part about the club are the challenges. She said she wants to be an engineer.

Hiner is the club’s captain.

“(The class) has taught me a lot about problem solving and how to do the special skills toward engineering, like how to see the problem and fix it and how to use more computer devices,” said Hiner, 11. “I’m learning how to program them and drive them.”

Robotics competitions

Each year, members of the robitcs club build a robot to compete in Indiana VEX Robotics competitions. The most recent competition was March 12 at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Indian Creek Elementary students competed against 110 teams. They ranked 54th in teamwork and 25th in skills.

Nelson said the team was the highest-ranked elementary team from the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in both areas.

Each year, the competition changes. This year, the students’ goal was to build a robot that could pick up bean bags and shoot them into a basket.

MSDLT hosts its own league in the fall.

Nelson said the team is waiting to learn if it will receive an official invitation to the world championships in Dallas.