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Taylorsville Journal

Calvin Smith Elementary Lego League solving problems, earning trophies, serving the community

Mar 02, 2020 03:50PM ● By Carl Fauver

Lego League members earned a pair of trophies earlier this year. Between them is one of the robotic vehicles members built for the competition. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected]

An energetic group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders at Calvin S. Smith Elementary School in Taylorsville is active in an innovative community service organization, dedicated to problem-solving and having fun.

The 35 to 40 student volunteers are members of a group called the “First Lego League,” or simply “Lego League,” for short.

The Calvin Smith Lego League teams (a morning group and an afternoon group) don’t really spend much time manipulating the building blocks we all know and love. Instead, they are about engineering and problem-solving, under the direction of their school’s literacy coach, Michael Marcrum.

“While working with the kids, I try to stay as hands off as possible, so they can grow and problem solve on their own,” Marcrum said. “When I do that, these kids step up to the plate every time. It’s not me. They come up with great ideas. It’s fun to watch.”

Before discussing what the Taylorsville kids are up to, a little background may be helpful.

Legos were invented in 1932, in Denmark. The name “Lego” comes from the Danish phrase “leg godt,” which means “play well.” 

Meantime, an organization called “First Nonprofit Foundation” was established in Pennsylvania to provide funding grants to nonprofit service organizations. The foundation’s creator, Dean Kamen, 68, is an American engineer, inventor and businessman. His most famous invention, the Segway, is that two-wheel, motorized personal vehicle, consisting of a platform for the feet, mounted above an axle, with an upright post and handles. The Segway has made Kamen a millionaire, 500 times over.

In 1998 Kamen’s First Nonprofit Foundation joined forces with Lego to create the First Lego League. The league’s website,, claims there are now 320,000 league participants, ages 9 to 16, on 40,000 teams across 98 countries. 


“When students are engaged in hands-on STEM experiences, they build confidence, grow their knowledge and develop habits of learning,” the website states. “When adults coach these students, they encourage them to try, fail, and try again, while connecting STEM concepts to real-world examples. First Lego League is the most accessible, guided, global robotics competition, helping students and teachers to build a better future together.” 

That is the Lego League’s jumping-off point. The teams at Calvin Smith Elementary build robotic vehicles, designed to move through a course, performing various tasks. To do this, the kids write their own computer coding.

“I like the robotics coding,” said Lego League member Zoey Whitney, as her twin sister Zaylee nodded. “You have to get it perfect, or the robot won’t work right. I enjoy the challenge.”

In January, the two Calvin Smith teams entered a pair of robotic vehicles into the Granite School District Lego League finals, held at Granger High School. Each of the teams emerged with a trophy. One team’s robot placed in the top 10 — from among 40 vehicles — to qualify for the state finals the following weekend. Meanwhile, the other team earned a “Core Values Award,” for adhering to those values during the competition.

The First Lego League core values are Discovery, Innovation, Impact, Inclusion, Teamwork and Fun.

“This was our second year in a row to earn the Core Values Award at the district competition,” Marcrum said. “I believe both our morning and afternoon teams were successful at district because they were willing to work with others. These students are learning the importance of teamwork.”

At the Lego League state finals, held at Weber State University, the one Calvin Smith team whose robot qualified did not place. Instead, the Taylorsville team earned another award for “Gracious Professionalism.” 

However, the robot building and computer coding is just a part of what the Lego League youngsters do. Another key component of the program has the students identify a community problem, and then devise a project to address it.

This year, Marcrum’s two teams selected two = different issues. One of them chose to encourage more recycling of household waste, while the other wanted to assist local animal shelters to have more success in adopting out dogs and cats. But despite those being two different issues, the problem-solving kids found a way to combine them into an innovative, schoolwide project.

“Once our kids decided what issues they wanted to address, the first thing I wanted them to do is hear from experts in those fields,” Marcrum said. “And for help in finding experts on animal shelters and recycling, I spoke with Meredith Harker.”

Like Marcrum, Harker is a member of the Calvin Smith faculty. She also happens to be the Taylorsville City Council chairwoman.

“I was happy to recommend a couple of people to speak to the students,” Harker said. “That is what the Lego League is all about: identifying problems, learning about them and doing something. I was glad to help them.”

For the animal shelter “expert,” Harker recommended Lynette Wendel. In addition to serving on the Taylorsville Planning Commission, Wendel is also a dog owner, animal advocate and member of the Humane Society Advocacy and Legislative Coalition.

“I was so thrilled and inspired by these young kids, working to attack multiple problems at once,” Wendel said. “I was happy to talk with them, and I was very proud of them.”

Wendel told the Lego League team, one reason dogs and cats can be a challenge for animal shelters to adopt out is they sometimes become depressed or hyperactive while in captivity. And, she added, one thing that can help solve that problem is for the animals to have toys to occupy their time.

However, dog and cat toys can be expensive, particularly for funding-strapped animal shelters that often have to rely on donations just to feed the animals.

That’s when the Lego League students, including sixth grader Brooke Vanderlinden, put on their thinking caps.

“I have been in the Lego League for three years, since it was first started here, and this has been my favorite year, because I love animals,” Brooke said. “We talked about ways to provide animals with toys so people would want to adopt them more. And then we came up with the idea of involving the other (Lego League) team by making pet toys out of recyclable things.”

The students’ fact-finding and brainstorming led to a massive schoolwide toymaking project on Feb. 25. All 750 Calvin Smith students were scheduled to rotate through 45-minute sessions, class-by-class, taking turns making toys. Dog toys consisted of empty plastic water battles being stuffed into old socks. The animals enjoy chewing on them because of the “crinkle” sound they make.

Meantwhile, cat toys featured empty cardboard paper towel or toilet paper rolls stuffed into socks, with a tiny bell placed inside. Animal shelter officials say the sound of the ringing bell can keep cats playing with the toy for hours.

Calvin Smith students donated the paper rolls, worn socks and water bottles. Wendel provided 900 small bells for the project, the one item not normally found in home recycling bins.

“All 900 bells cost only about $30, and I was happy to make the donation,” Lynette said. 

“My highlight this year has been identifying a problem and then working to solve it,” sixth grader Jason Glad said. 

Calvin Smith Elementary sixth graders will bid adieu to the Lego League at the end of this school year, because the program is not offered at nearby Bennion Junior High School, where they will enroll this fall.

However, another of the sixth grade team members and her mother — Natalia and Mariana De Souza — are doing some of their own problem-solving to address that issue.

“Since they don’t have Lego League at the junior high, my mom looked into it and learned we can have our own team that is not affiliated with the school,” Natalia said. “She attended the state finals in Ogden and got so excited about it, she agreed to host a team next year.”

Students or parents interested in learning more about First Lego League can contact Granite School District Educational Technology Specialist Cherie Anderson at [email protected].

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