The world is watching as NASA’s Perseverance Rover makes its way to Jerezro Crater on planet Mars to hunt for prehistoric fossils in the next six months. For local professor and FIRST LEGO League (FLL) volunteer Dr. Drew Alton, the mission fuels his passion to bring science, technology, engineering and math to kids across South Dakota as a volunteer and as a program collaborator. “I want them to say, ‘I could be part of that mission,’” Dr. Alton said. “It’s exactly what FLL is all about.”
Dr. Alton, a professor of physics at Augustana University, has been volunteering for the FLL robotics program since 2011. Drew was originally drawn in by his colleague Dr. Dan Swets, who saw a need to emphasize STEM disciplines to South Dakota kids. He has been involved through the formative years that included the transition from South Dakota Robotics Association presenting FLL activity to EmBe in 2014 following the tragic and untimely deaths of Dan Swets, Kevin Anderson and Josh Lambert. Augustana remains involved today, providing resources as a part of the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium. “The grant demonstrates to kids that a career at NASA is possible for them,” Dr. Alton said.
Dr. Alton says the program is about more than robots. “It’s not just a science and technology thing,” he said. “FLL builds complete people.” While robots are one of the most unique and exciting elements of FLL programming, FLL’s core values and well-rounded approaches to team presentations and more are a great fit for the Augustana University liberal arts tradition. “It’s building excellence and community. That’s what Augustana is all about,” Dr. Alton told us. “It makes the partnership to bring NASA Space Grant consortium dollars a perfect fit for EmBe’s FLL activity.
For Dr. Alton, FLL extends beyond his professional affiliation as a professor and volunteer. It’s personal. Two of his three children (now a freshman in college and a freshman in high school) have participated in the program. He expects that his third child, a second grader, may one day be a FLL participant. While Dr. Alton encouraged both of his children to participate, he was even more excited that FLL earned high praise from his oldest child. When his son considered participation, his daughter enthusiastically chimed in: “You have to try it!”
For more information about FIRST LEGO League and starting a team click here.
FIRST LEGO League is an international robotics program for children ages 6 to 14. It is designed to get excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and teach them valuable 21st century life skills. In FIRST LEGO League, kids design and program LEGO EV3 Mindstorms robots. They research challenges facing today’s scientist and learn critical thinking, team building and presentation skills. Exercising their creativity and innovative thinking – all while having fun!