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opinion

The Ontario government will spend $20-billion it doesn't have this year, a deficit equal to its annual funding for K-12 education. Why, then, will the government spend almost $700-million more this year than it spent last year in per-pupil funding? And why is it spending $3-million for Lego kits? When it comes to schools, is more never enough? Can't these folk ever say no?

This is not to say that the Danish-based Lego Group doesn't make a fine toy. Founded in 1932, the company produced its first plastic interlock bricks in 1956 - and now sells them by the billions. Indeed, the company expects to sell 160 million Lego kits in 2010 - five every second of the year. With battery-operated engines and light-motivated sensors, master builders now construct amazing Lego structures. In the company's theme park in San Diego, seven scenes of plastic countryside (scale 1:20) required 20 million bricks. And that's not counting the replica Volvo XC90, "official car of Legoland."

Segway inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989, as a non-profit organization teamed with Lego to sponsor Lego-robot competitions. For $1,000, a team of 10 high-school students can buy enough Lego bricks and associated gear to build a remote-controlled five-foot robot - under the supervision of a volunteer teacher. More than 210,000 students from 56 countries participated this year in local, regional, national and international competitions.

It's a great program, but why should the deeply indebted Ontario government subsidize it? Major Canadian corporations (Bombardier, TD Bank, Telus, Imperial Oil, RIM) already provide sponsorship funding. Ontario says FIRST Robotics competitions provide "hands-on technology training" - thus making it an important educational program. It also says (on its website): "Students who participate in FIRST Robotics Competitions are more likely to attend post-secondary education [and]pursue a career in science, technology or engineering." Building Lego robots, in other words, is a transformative educational experience. It cites, as evidence, "a study by Brandeis University in Boston."

But the Brandeis study says nothing of the kind. In 2002 and 2003, researchers at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis distributed 300 questionnaires to First Robotics participants; 173 responded. The results were indeed positive: 96 per cent of the participants (most of them from New York City and Detroit) said they had experienced responsibility; 95 per cent said they had experienced teamwork; 90 per cent said they had experienced greater confidence; and 97 per cent said they had experienced fun.

But the researchers concluded they had no evidence to attribute transformative educational results to the FIRST Robotics program. They determined that the students who took part in the program were already above average when they joined the program; 84 per cent of them had B averages or better. And they said they could not determine "whether the students' strong performance in high school was the result of FIRST Robotics Competition or whether FIRST Robotics Competitions attracted strong students."

In a second study, conducted in 2008 and 2009, the researchers determined (from 986 respondents, 70 per cent of them boys) that male students joined the program because they were already interested in science and technology. More interesting, perhaps, these students identified their primary roles in the competition as "the planning, building and testing of the robots." The researchers determined that the female students identified their primary role as "fundraising."

From the Brandeis studies, you can conclude that the Lego competitions offer a fun-filled experience that attracts bright kids who are already interested in science. You can't conclude that they transform indifferent students into scientists and engineers.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty takes great pride in spending ever larger amounts of money on ever smaller numbers of students. Take the government's Grants for Student Needs, the basic funding that Ontario provides to school boards. The government enthusiastically reports that it has increased GSN grants "for the eighth consecutive year" - this time by 3.6 per cent, more than twice the national inflation rate.

"The GSN [will]increase to $20.2-billion - up more than $694-million over last year," the government boasts. "Per pupil funding is projected to rise to $10,730. This represents an increase of more than $3,500 per student since 2002-2003, an increase of almost 50 per cent."

When Ontario begins its full-day kindergarten program in September (with a cost that rises to $1.5-billion a year by 2013), it will apparently become the first Canadian jurisdiction - and perhaps the first jurisdiction anywhere - contractually obliged to pay $100,000 to staff a single kindergarten classroom (with teacher plus "early childhood educator"). On the other hand, the province's Lego kits won't be used for more than six weeks a year for robot construction. Perhaps kindergarten classes could use them, too. Think of the savings.