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Making Juan Smile: A Profile in LEGO® Confidence

The A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering is the fulfillment of a promise made almost 40 years ago to a community with a long history of poverty, crime and unemployment.

As the only elementary school in South Carolina with a school-wide engineering curriculum, LEGO Education products have been involved from the start.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a LEGO Education product that's not in our building," said Lynn Mann, the school's Programs Director. The school has also formed partnerships with many companies that have made Greenville a hub of engineering and research including Michelin, where Mann worked in corporate communications for 12 years before coming to the school.

Mann has fully embraced the role, coaching one of the school's FIRST® LEGO® Robotics teams and founding "Innovate!"—an intervention program with the primary goal of helping at-risk youth succeed in the 21st century. One of those children is Juan. Lots of schools have a "Juan"; the kind of student who is incredibly quiet and so shy that making friends is nearly impossible. Starting in his first-grade year, Mann saw a child with challenges to overcome, who needed an advocate and an opportunity to shine. In the summer before his third-grade year, Mann got Juan into the "Innovate!" program.

Juan's nearly non-verbal presentation isn't helped by the fact that English isn't his first language; it was a real barrier to his confidence and definitely played a role in his reluctance to speak. With parents from different Central American countries, Juan spoke both Spanish and Mayan at home. Couple that with instances of being alienated because of it, and you come away with quite an emotional burden for any eight-year-old to carry. Mann and the school counselor took it as an opportunity to help Juan to find his voice. The following summer, Mann asked him to join her LEGO robotics team, and that was it.

"That was the moment I saw Juan smile for the very first time," she said.

Juan was named "Master of the Mat" for FIRST® LEGO® Robotics team #233, the Agents of Fury. He took his new role seriously becoming a leader on the team, collaborating with his peers and helping to develop solutions on team missions.

"That's what I love about LEGO Education," Mann said. "It meets you where you are, but challenges you to surpass that and take it as far as you're willing to go."

Juan was ready for the challenge. In his fifth-grade year, he told Mann he wanted to be an engineer.

The Agents of Fury had a terrific season, making the State Championship and taking home a big LEGO trophy. Juan was ecstatic.

"He's just holding the trophy the whole way home. I said 'Juan, you've got to let me come to the door so we can show your parents your trophy!'" When his parents answered, he translated in a mix of Spanish and Mayan as Mann told them how amazing Juan did in the competition. "I said 'we're so proud of him, he's such a great leader and engineer' and I could see how proud he was for his family to hear this, and that he was filled with a sense of accomplishment and confidence."

Juan hadn't just transformed the way he saw himself, his family had changed their perceptions, as well.

Now in eighth grade, Juan is thriving at a STEAM-focused middle school. He made the A/B Honor Roll in his last quarter. This summer, he was back at "Innovate!".

"He speaks in a clear voice, and if you ask him what he wants to be, he still says an engineer," Mann said proudly.

Juan's story perfectly illustrates the immeasurable impact of dedicated teachers combined with hands-on, experiential learning tools. When students like Juan can build confidence not only in learning but in their personal value, the potential for success in the classroom and beyond is limitless.

Courtesy of LEGO Education.

Photo courtesy of LEGO Education.