Snohomish librarian learns that LEGOs aren’t just building blocks anymore

Kathy Smargiassi has many strengths as a children’s librarian.

Until a few years ago though, robotics wasn’t one of them.

Smargiassi was working at the Marysville Library, when she was put in charge of the LEGO® Club and challenged to expand the library offerings to include a robotics component using LEGO Mindstorms® kits.

Snohomish Librarian Kathy Smargiassi helps kids turn this jumble of parts into a LEGO Mindstorms robot.

“I was surprised because I had zero background in robotics,” Smargiassi said.

Besides the familiar plastic blocks that middle-aged parents played with long ago, LEGO Mindstorms use a variety of sensors, gears, wheels, motors and a programmable controller that make small robots follow specific commands. Users can write the command codes on a tablet or laptop.

So Smargiassi and Assistant Library Manager Jill Wubbenhorst applied for and received a grant to bring the Mindstorms kits into the library. Once the kits came in, Smargiassi learned how to build some robots and explored how various software coding commands control the attached LEGO hardware. She studied the technology teaching tips of Dr. Damien Kee. She learned enough to teach other librarians how Mindstorms worked.

Smargiassi started monthly LEGO Mindstorms meetings at the library in addition to the regular Lego Club. Eventually, she led a 3-week series to build a more-complex robot and challenged four teams to each build a robot that could sort items by color.

In 2016, she and Marysville Teen Librarian Marta Murvosh organized a Robot Rally that attracted more than 50 participants, including supportive parents, robotics teams from Cedarcrest Middle School and Lakewood High School, and engineering students from Washington State University.

In early 2017, Smargiassi moved to the Snohomish Library and hit the ground running with the library’s LEGO Lab: “We let them play. We just say, ‘Build.’ ”

She also continued to work with LEGO Mindstorms and wrote another grant, this time to purchase a kit for the Snohomish Library.

Smargiassi says she Lego Mindstorms programs make students think and analyze. “I would challenge them to make their robot stop on a color, or sense something in front of it and not crash,” she said.

Now with a few years of robotics experience, Smargiassi remains modest.

“I’m still not a robotics expert, but I can get kids started,” she said.

One of the kids Smargiassi got started is Minoru Madero, now 11.

“He’s always loved building things,” said Minoru’s mom, Gaby Madero. “He loves figuring out how things work and how to put things back together.”

Smargiassi said Minoru inspired other kids in the Lego Club to build “huge creations. That was just him.” But Minoru wanted to do more and he wanted to do it with a LEGO Mindstorms kit.

“He asked and asked and asked for a Mindstorm of his own, but you know, they’re very expensive,” Gaby Madero said.

Smargiassi said Minoru checked out the library’s Mindstorms kit and attended her Mindstorm programs. He learned how Mindstorms work.

“I like that they do stuff as you control them,” Minoru said. “I like that you can build them.”

In May, Smargiassi organized a Robot Rally in Snohomish that brought in a couple of high school teams and several Snohomish School District teachers with their robots. She challenged attendees to program Mindstorms robots to navigate through a maze. Minoru came and was enthralled.

Minoru’s passion for robotics has now led him to the Sonic Squirrels with FIRST Robotics, a nonprofit group that advances STEM education.

“I like to think that the library programs he attended inspired him to find success in robotics and will lead him to an exciting career,” Smargiassi said.