South Highlands Elementary Magnet students are making history and learning in the process, but for the kids, it’s all about the Legos.

South Highlands has partnered with the Cyber Innovation Center to be the first elementary school in the state to fully implement CIC’s robotics lessons into the elementary classes’ curriculum. The goal is to engage students learning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts with hands-on experience. South Highlands’ teachers are using CIC’s curriculum not only in math and science classes, but also in English courses and to get students into a more project-based way of thinking and learning.

As part of the new program, students learn concepts in the classrooms then take to the school’s science labs weekly to use the math and science skills. Currently, every fifth-grader has worked with their groups to construct their Lego robotics then use computers to program the robots to perform various actions. After state testing, lower grades also will incorporate robotics into lesson plans. The program is funded through the South Highlands Foundation.

Principal Mary Harris said an encounter with CIC’s executive director Craig Spohn brought the program to the elementary campus.

“I was having a conversation one day with Craig Spohn and he mentioned he would really like to expand their programs to elementary classes, and I said this is something that could really benefit our kids,” Harris said. “It seemed like a perfect partnership.”

CIC has worked with schools throughout the region for years to bring its curriculum into middle and high schools; however, elementary has been a tough grade configuration in which to fully implement a truly STEM-centered robotics program throughout coursework.

“We’re working very closely with CIC to tweak their curriculum to fit at the elementary level,” Harris said. “It’s fascinating to be able to work with them and develop curriculum for future elementary school sites using what we’re learning here.”

G.B. Cazes, vice president of CIC, said this project and other school efforts are part of the larger mission of the center to bring STEM lessons into the lives of students in the region.

“It’s critical for us to not only engage students but to provide them context for what their reading in a textbook or hearing in a lesson,” Cazes said.

It is no secret that the nation has lagged in recent years in terms of science and math, Cazes said, and these initiatives are meant to turn the tide for a this generation.

“Kids see it as time to work together as a team and have fun building something without realizing the essential skills they are learning,” Cazes said.

In a tough financial climate, schools and districts are continuing to find ways to cut costs. When this program came along, the South Highlands Foundation opted to fund the endeavor to keep as many dollars in the school’s budget as possible.

“As parents we are always trying to find ways to get the next thing that is going to make a difference in the education of students at South Highlands,” said Robin Jones, a parent who serves on the foundation. “When Mrs. Harris told us about this opportunity, it seemed really cutting edge and we could see right away this was something that could really benefit the kids.”

Judy Smithson, a fifth-grade teacher at South Highlands, said teaching using the robots allows her to teach beyond textbooks and lectures to bring skills students will use for years to come.

“There is so much critical thinking and working together that comes with projects like this,” she said. “Not only are we learning things in the classroom that we carry into the science lab with the robots, but the kids teach each other skills.”

Fifth-grader Caroline Haynes is one such student who spent an afternoon programming her robot to move about the school’s science lab.

“It’s amazing to get to make something and see it move around,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun getting to work with other people to make the robot work.”