Grace Finn is not your typical teacher. Instead of using whiteboards and textbooks to inspire her students, her primary teaching tool is LEGO blocks. Finn utilizes the simple technology of plastic building blocks to teach children how to code and learn robotics.
Finn, challenge teacher at Forest Park District 91 schools, has been teaching in the district for the past 21 years, and has again been recognized for her teaching accomplishments. Officials at Lego Education named her a Master Educator in June.
The LEGO Education Master Educator Program was started in January. The program selected 100 pre-K through high school teachers throughout the U.S. who use LEGO Education solutions to be Master Educators, like LEGO Early Simple Machines which allow students to play with plastic bricks as they learn about problem solving and collaboration.
Finn said she applied to the program because she loves using LEGO products to teach and wants to spread the word them.
LEGO Education Master Educators are given opportunities to meet other Master Educators, receive news of special LEGO Education offers and give feedback about LEGO Educations products and programs.
Finn says she has already started to collaborate with other LEGO Educators to share new learning strategies.
Learning with LEGO products levels the playing field for students of all abilities, Finn said.
"You might have high ability kids, you have lower ability kids but they all understand LEGOs and it really brings them together," she said, adding: "Kids have ideas of their own, they know where they want to go. You have to trust that the direction will make sense in the end," she said.
One such surprise happened when Finn asked her fourth and fifth-grade students where they would choose to live if Earth was not an option.
She expected them to say Mars or the moon.
Instead her students responded with Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.
They told her they wanted to explore the ocean. This presented a problem.
"The ocean isn't really an ocean, maybe there's water," Finn said. "We had to come up with an idea for how to get to that spot, create this rover."
Through this experiment she and her students learned about underwater exploration and how that could be applied in the real world.
Her students sent their rovers on missions and tested how they fared on surfaces they created to resemble Titan and Europa.
Finn likens her students to scientists because they explore an unknown topic and need to problem solve to come up with solutions.
She thinks it's important that students direct their own learning and have fun while doing it.
"Today schools are starting to come around a little more to the idea of playful learning," Finn said, adding that it's taking longer than some education experts have predicted but that the teachers in District 91 work hard to bring new ideas into the classroom.
"There's some products that branch out and you can do crazy things. It's one of the things I love about LEGO," Finn said. "It's like there's no limit to what you can do because they're designed to be almost limitless."
Finn isn't waiting until the next school year to implement changes within District 91.
She is working to bring her teaching strategies to the Field-Stevenson Elementary School, Grant-White Elementary School and Forest Park Middle School (FPMS). Finn says she is currently working with a librarian at one of the schools to help teachers learn how to teach their students with LEGO.
This isn't the first award she's received.
In 2007, petroleum giant BP awarded her a $10,000 energy grant. Then in 2014, she helped FPMS' First Lego League Robotics (FLL) team advance to the state championship tournament after winning at trophy at the FLL Robotics Chicago Regional Tournament. The "E-Lemon-ators" designed a game that could improve the way younger students learn algebra. The team also designed a robot.
Finn is also involved in Model United Nations, Argonne National Laboratory's annual Electric Car Competition, and much more.
Finn says although these awards recognize her abilities as a teacher, what matters to her is improving learning opportunities for all students.