Building Blocks: Helping Chicago Youth Learn Life Skills with Legos

“Mr. G — I figured it out!” Courey Harris shouted, as a small car built from Legos and other mechanical parts sped along a large table scattered with colorful block structures.

Courey, a 7th grader at Charles P. Caldwell Middle School, is one of about 15 students who meet twice a week after school to build and program robots in the computer lab of Gary Comer Youth Center, a United Way community partner in Greater Grand Crossing. There, the group of fifth through eighth graders from the South Side Chicago neighborhood learn the building blocks of academic success — critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

On that Monday afternoon, Courey was determined to program his robot car to drive forward and lift its arm attachment. Using a desktop computer program, he created a sequence of motions to download to the robot’s computer.

Mr. Alex Guzinski, technology coordinator at Gary Comer Youth Center, gives instructions to Courey Harris to program his car.

Upon further inspection of Courey’s car, Mr. Alex Guzinski, the center’s technology coordinator, sent him back to the drawing board to tweak his programming. “You’re so close!” Mr. Guzinski said, encouraging Courey.

Robotics Club and Classes Teach Students Critical Skills

Upon arriving at the youth center after school, the students enjoy a snack and then shuffle upstairs to Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class, where they work on a range of projects, from robot building and coding to 3-D printing. 

Students especially interested in the program stay after class for Mr.Guzinski’s robotics club. Together, the teammates use a robotics kit of Legos, wires, motors and sensors to design, build and program a robot to compete in local and statewide competitions. The team’s robot must accomplish tasks on a mission map, a large table with structures made from Legos and other parts. To make that happen, the students program the robot to drive, lift, turn, spin and more.

“They’re getting a real boost in practicing problem solving,” Mr. Guzinski said of the skills students acquire in his robotics classes and club. “Something new students struggle with a lot is knowing how to go about solving a problem. Something will go wrong, and they’ll be like, ‘It’s broken. There’s nothing I can do.”

“A lot of what the students have to do is constantly figure out why this isn’t working,” he added. “‘What do we have to do? What do we have to change? What are the ways I have to think about solving this problem?’”

Ajani Clanton researched other designs to get inspiration for his team’s robot.

Last year, when the Gary Comer Youth Center team put their robot to the test, they made it to the state championships. The team, evenly made up of new and returning students, hopes to take home a win again at this year’s qualifying tournament in December. 

In addition to demonstrating their robot, the students will also present a research project about space and accomplish an activity that will require them to show off several core skills, like innovation, inclusion and teamwork.

Though they were at first reserved about sharing their newfound knowledge, the students are enthusiastic about the opportunity to build robots together and compete.

“I really like the fact that I get to build things. I don’t really use the computer at home because it’s old,” said Ajani Clanton, an 8th grader from Gary Comer Middle School, of having access to resources in the computer lab. He’s always taken an interest in engineering, as he looks up to his mom, a bridge inspector.

“You get to meet new people, and it’s fun to work together to create something new,” added Ja’mari Redwood, a 7th grader from Avalon Park Fine & Performing Arts School.

Youth Center Activities Launch Students Into the Future

Opened in 2006, Gary Comer Youth Center stands as a pillar in the South Side Chicago communities of Auburn Gresham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore. Nearly 450 students from local middle and high schools participate in classes after school every day until 6 p.m. 

Ja’mari Redwood picks Lego blocks to create an “Alpha Rex” robot during the after-school robotics class.

Activities ranging from culinary and visual arts to civics classes and sports programs expose youth to a range of new skills and opportunities, while providing a safe space for students to congregate until their parents finish the work day. 

Like Gary Comer Youth Center, we at United Way prioritize local students’ academic success. We believe every young person in every neighborhood should have access to high-quality middle school programs and after-school enrichment opportunities. By helping children build a strong foundation in education, we can ensure that kids have the skills to be successful in school and in life.

For Mr. Guzinski’s students, the lessons taught in robotics club aim to do just that. Their lessons in teamwork and problem-solving can be utilized in the students’ everyday lives and will serve as a springboard for their future success in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. 

“[The program] gives them an inside look and head start into actual STEM-based careers,” Mr. Guzinski said. “They’re doing a lot of engineering and coding, but also a lot of research. And they’re following the engineering process, which can be applicable to other kinds of fields, as well.”

Students work to build their robot during the robotics club’s Monday meeting.

Nathan Randall, a 9th grader from Gary Comer College Prep, is a shining example.

Mr. Guzinski’s mentorship in the robotics program is preparing Nathan for his future career in video-game design, while providing him with a fun environment to learn.

“I really like the atmosphere here. Even though we act silly, we get work done,” Nathan said.

In 7th grade, Nathan joined Mr. Guzinski’s basic robotics class. Now, he’s returned to design a fantasy video game and help the younger students, like Courey.

While Nathan plugged away at his coding his game, Courey, still determined to make his robot move forward and lift its arm, sat across the room brainstorming how to correct his robot’s programming.

“Why is it turning?” he groaned loudly after another failed attempt. “I gotta figure it out!”

On his sixth try, he returned to the mission table with a grin. “Look! I did it, Mr. G. Look!” he exclaimed as the robot’s wheels squealed forward and its arm raised.

Mission accomplished.