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Building STEM Connections Brick By Brick
by Michelle Patten, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory
September 19, 2021

Richard Espinola, Ph.D., an electronics engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., spends his spare time mentoring a local FIRST® Lego® League (FLL) team.

It may sound like child’s play, but FLL participants are serious about building Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) connections brick by brick.

FLL is a hands-on robotics competition that introduces students to STEM concepts in a fun way. The program is now a global competition with more than 670,000 participants.

September 15, 2021 - This robot built by the Cosmic Cougars, the FIRST Lego League (FLL) team mentored by Richard Espinola, got first place in robot performance division 2 in a recent FLL RePLAY Regional Qualifier in Alexandria, Virginia. Espinola is an electronics engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. (Photo provided by Richard Espinola)
September 15, 2021 - This robot built by the Cosmic Cougars, the FIRST Lego League (FLL) team mentored by Richard Espinola, got first place in robot performance division 2 in a recent FLL RePLAY Regional Qualifier in Alexandria, Virginia. Espinola is an electronics engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. (Photo provided by Richard Espinola)

As team mentor, Espinola helps his team understand the year’s challenge and guides them in their problem-solving process. He also applies for DoD STEM grants on behalf of the team.

It all started when Espinola talked to neighbors and they realized that while their children were interested in a robotics team, there were none in their area. So along with another parent, he set out to start one.

Neighborhood word of mouth was enough to draw participants. Their team ranges from seven to nine students, but has largely retained the same membership.

“We’ve been competing since 2017 with a slight break last year because of COVID-19,” Espinola said.

Though the pandemic may have changed the format and processes of the competition, the challenge continued for FLL teams. Interest in participating actually increased during the pandemic, Espinola said.

“Fortunately, the FIRST program still had a virtual option so we were able to participate,” Espinola said. “It was different from the typical school day during the pandemic because they could interact with their friends and work together. I think my son and his friends enjoyed it. They really made the best of it.”

The organization’s acronym FIRST describes its mission best: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

“It’s a way for the organization to introduce the STEM field, specifically robotics,” Espinola said. “It was developed to show the kids a way to learn and apply it in a competition.”

While teams get a break over summer, the start of the school year signals the start of a new challenge. Challenges follow a theme and require each team to develop a novel solution to a problem using robotics. Past challenges have included addressing real-world topics like climate and quality of life for the handicapped population.

“It’s not just some abstract idea or science fiction,” Espinola said. “It’s factually relevant to today’s problems. They show how using robotics and technology can address real-world problems.”

The participants enjoy the sense of community instilled by working toward a common goal.

“My favorite part of FLL is collaborating with my group to find solutions to real-world problems,” said Stephan Lugovoy, an FLL team member.

One of the main ways Espinola advises the team is by helping them break down both the problem and the workload. Just like a team of researchers at NRL, the students divide responsibilities among team members. One may be in charge of background research or design, while others work on electrical components or coding.

“In the adult world, you hardly ever find an engineer strictly working alone,” Espinola said.

The team members get a head start in future careers by learning valuable STEM skills like how to make an aerodynamic design and code in Python, a computer programming language.

“Python is exactly the language a lot of NRL scientists and engineers are using,” Espinola said. “I use it in my field. It’s a great start for elementary and middle school kids to start understanding the software development now.”

While they’re learning difficult concepts, the participants are focused on the fun they’re having.

“My favorite part of FLL is the coding,” said Nikita Lugovoy, an FLL team member. “Helping code the robot was always a fun and crucial task.”

Espinola believes that the skills and lessons learned during the challenge process will stick with children.

“A lot of times you’re doing math or physics and it’s all abstract,” Espinola said. “There’s nothing that makes it practical to you, but when you apply that to a problem solving situation then you’re able to remember how to do that math problem.”

This past season, Espinola’s team had its best finish ever in a competition. Even if the primary prize is only bragging rights, Espinola said it’s exciting just to see his team’s final product in action after weeks of hard work.

“I’m very happy NRL allows its employees to do activities like this and supports them,” Espinola said. “In a way this is an extension of what I do at NRL, but in a fun approach that helps teach kids.”

Spending time with a mentor inspires students to pursue a career in STEM. Espinola should know. His own father was an engineer and his mentor. “I looked up to him,” Espinola said. “When I went to college and learned more in terms of STEM classes, it continued to inspire me to pursue further graduate education.”

Without mentors like Espinola, a program like FLL cannot function. He encourages other scientists and engineers to consider being a STEM mentor. “If you can manage the time required and you’re willing to be patient with young learners, it’s very rewarding,” Espinola said.

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About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL is located in Washington, D.C. with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; Monterey, California, and employs approximately 3,000 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.

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