Programmed to succeed
Looking over a tabletop game board in Sarah Brown's room at Lexington Trails Middle School, the teacher and seventh-grader Philip Kaul had a disagreement.
The source of the discussion was what aspect of nanotechnology the red and white pieces in one of the "modules" on the board represented. Brown maintained they were red and while corpuscles, while Kaul said they were molecules.
To get the answer, they checked out the instruction.
"He's right, of course," the LTMS and Starside Elementary School gifted teacher said.
Brown is used to such one-upmanship from her nine-member For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Lego League robotics team. In fact, she counts on it for her team of seventh-graders Kaul, Caitlin Walker, Austin Showen, Rick Clancy, Parker Riley and Jessi McNaughton and eighth-graders Joseph Seidl, Tommy Strauser and Ryan Scott.
Having been appointed the team's coach last fall when the school joined the competition using funds from a Kauffman Foundation grant, Brown become concerned about mastering all the intricacies of the robotic competition. The competition required the team build and program a robot capable of manipulating seven modules on the game board. The assurance she got from organizers was, "don't worry, the students would figure it out."
Over the last three months, they have. The students built the robot of Lego blocks and wheels around a series of servos and motors. They learned to program its dance around the game table with a laptop also purchased with the grant.
"It's been a huge learning curve," Brown said. "We had some glitches in the beginning, so we haven't had as much time to work on it as some other teams.
"Even though we have a long way to go to impress anyone, it's really been a great learning experience."
The goal of the competition is to program the robot to correctly manipulate as many of the seven modules as possible in two minutes.
In practice runs Friday morning, Riley, who wants to study computer programming, fine-tuned the robot's card deck--sized control box from the laptop.
"It's a drag-and-drop program," he explained as he moved icons about the computer screen. "It controls the robots different motors and how long they work.
"I got the chance to gain experience to design a program for a robot. It was fun."
As it turned out, the robot's design and programming were winners. Brown said the team earned first place among 24 teams Saturday in the design category. The judges were impressed the robot manipulated four of the modules from a single programming, she said.
"I talked to a referee," Brown said. "He said we were head-and-shoulders above the other teams in that regard."
The key to making progress was patience, Brown said. For example, the students observed the programmed robot didn't perform the same way each time as it ran the table-top course. They deduced the charge in the batteries accounted for the change.
The robot course is only part of the competition.
The problem solving the competition involved appealed to Kaul.
"I kind of like the way you can't say 'This is the way they say this is how you make a robot so this is how you build it,'" he said. "For example, we had to build the arm thing to do what we wanted it to do. It was our design. That's kind of the imaginative thing."
The competition also gave an oral report on their research into nanotechnology. Walker said she learned more from that exercise than the flashier robot competition.
"I think as they develop the technology there will be more uses," she said. "It's amazing what they can program a robot to do."
That part of the competition was similar to two other competitions the students entered this year with the Kauffman grant. One was the "Let's Get Real" Hershey competition that had students search for a corporate world solution to competing demands for a lake the chocolate manufacturer and Pennsylvania Power and Light had an interest in. The other was an Exploravision competition sponsored by Toshiba, which asked the students to forecast what inventions would change our lives in 20 years.
All the competitions were demanding, but the robot competition had the most stress. So much, that the pool of competition kept shrinking, Brown said.
"One of the things I'm really proud of is we've stuck with it," she said. "When I first got involved in it, there were too many teams in the Kansas City area to have a tournament. When it came time to register, there weren't that many. More have disappeared since."