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Lego competition has area elementary school kids designing robots

  • Mackenzie Baird, from left, Lea Udell, Caitlyn Reid and Sophia Schweik react at their robot succeeds Thursday at Wildwood School.

    Mackenzie Baird, from left, Lea Udell, Caitlyn Reid and Sophia Schweik react at their robot succeeds Thursday at Wildwood School. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Caitlyn Reid, left, and Abi Von Plinsky work on the programing of their team's robots Thursday at Wildwood School.

    Caitlyn Reid, left, and Abi Von Plinsky work on the programing of their team's robots Thursday at Wildwood School. Purchase photo reprints »

  • P.J. McNeill, from left, William Borrell, Mohan Setty-Charity and Ian Baird watch as their robot drops a ball that levels a group of bowling pins Thursday at Wildwood School. Seth Thayumanavan, background, works at a computer.

    P.J. McNeill, from left, William Borrell, Mohan Setty-Charity and Ian Baird watch as their robot drops a ball that levels a group of bowling pins Thursday at Wildwood School. Seth Thayumanavan, background, works at a computer. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Caitlyn Reid, center, aims the robot beside team members Mackenzie Baird, from left, Lea Udell and Sophia Schweik last week at Wildwood School. Parent leaders Eric Knapp and Tracy Hightower are in the background.

    Caitlyn Reid, center, aims the robot beside team members Mackenzie Baird, from left, Lea Udell and Sophia Schweik last week at Wildwood School. Parent leaders Eric Knapp and Tracy Hightower are in the background. Purchase photo reprints »

  • At Wildwood School, Mohan Setty-Charity, left, and Ian Baird check to see if a "quilt," front left, placed by their team's robot hit the mark.

    At Wildwood School, Mohan Setty-Charity, left, and Ian Baird check to see if a "quilt," front left, placed by their team's robot hit the mark. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ian Baird, leeft, and Seth Thayumanavan react as their team's robot barely misses it's task Thursday at Wildwood School.

    Ian Baird, leeft, and Seth Thayumanavan react as their team's robot barely misses it's task Thursday at Wildwood School. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kathryn Runyan, a computer science teacher at Wildwood School, monitors the robotics groups with the help of parents.

    Kathryn Runyan, a computer science teacher at Wildwood School, monitors the robotics groups with the help of parents. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mackenzie Baird, from left, Lea Udell, Caitlyn Reid and Sophia Schweik react at their robot succeeds Thursday at Wildwood School.
  • Caitlyn Reid, left, and Abi Von Plinsky work on the programing of their team's robots Thursday at Wildwood School.
  • P.J. McNeill, from left, William Borrell, Mohan Setty-Charity and Ian Baird watch as their robot drops a ball that levels a group of bowling pins Thursday at Wildwood School. Seth Thayumanavan, background, works at a computer.
  • Caitlyn Reid, center, aims the robot beside team members Mackenzie Baird, from left, Lea Udell and Sophia Schweik last week at Wildwood School. Parent leaders Eric Knapp and Tracy Hightower are in the background.
  • At Wildwood School, Mohan Setty-Charity, left, and Ian Baird check to see if a "quilt," front left, placed by their team's robot hit the mark.
  • Ian Baird, leeft, and Seth Thayumanavan react as their team's robot barely misses it's task Thursday at Wildwood School.
  • Kathryn Runyan, a computer science teacher at Wildwood School, monitors the robotics groups with the help of parents.

Caitlyn Reid, a sixth-grader at Wildwood School in Amherst, carefully positions Jeffrey, a little wheeled robot, on a flat table. She presses a button and Jeffrey rolls straight ahead for about five feet, turns, rolls some more, then drops a plastic ball that knocks over eight of ten small pins set up bowling alley-style.

It is exactly what a computer program Caitlyn worked on told Jeffrey to do.

She and the eight other girls gathered around throw up their arms in a victory cheer.

They are the Snap Os, the girls Lego Robotics team at Wildwood. This Saturday they will compete in the state finals in Worcester, and they will display not only their robotics skills but their ability to work together to solve a problem to assist senior citizens.

It’s all part of a worldwide First Lego League tournament, co-sponsored by Lego, with more than 20,000 teams in over 70 countries, according to the company’s web site.

Last Saturday, with over 200 onlookers cheering wildly, the Snap Os finished seventh out of 24 teams in a regional qualifier in Agawam and won the top prize for strategy and innovation. On Saturday, they’ll go up against 84 other teams from around the state, most of them with both boys and girls, as they all display both their robotics skills and their senior citizen projects. All will by vying for a trophy and the honor of being the best in the state.

Last year, most of the girls learned how to program computers. Now they’re using their skills to get the 6-inch-tall robots to do their bidding. The robots, made of Lego products, have three wheels and a 3-by-4-inch computer unit that receives instructions that team members have programmed into a larger computer.

Besides getting robots to perform tasks, part of the state competition involves creating products that solve problems faced by senior citizens, and then writing skits about the products.

Vivian Liu, a parent and coach, credits Wildwood computer science teacher Kathryn Runyan with creating the after-school club. Liu said Runyan often came in on weekends to supervise extra work sessions.

“I want to encourage girls to be interested in science and math and be open to careers in it,” Liu said. “This is a great way to introduce science and engineering in a fun way.”

Fun problem solving

Runyan invited Wildwood fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to participate in the club when school started in September, and 67 of them asked to join. Given the large number, she deferred the fourth-graders until next spring, created separate boys and girls clubs, and got commitments from 11 boys and 12 girls to spend extra time on the project and attend the competitions.

While most Wildwood students have gone home at 3 p.m. this week, members of the girls Lego Robotics team have been staying after school every day until 4:30 p.m. to refine their presentation for Saturday’s finals. They have been putting in between six and eight hours a week on the project for the past six weeks. Runyan said parent involvement, with three coaches on the girls team and one on the boys team, has made it work.

The Wildwood boys team is called BORFF, which stands for Building Out-Of-This-World Robots For Fun. The boys, who are mostly fifth-graders and haven’t been involved in computer programming as long as the girls, came in 17th in the regional qualifier on Saturday.

“I think it’s a fun way to solve real problems,” said Snap O Emily Warren, 12, of the group’s project.

She said she’s often used Legos, which are popular plastic snap-together blocks, to help her brothers build things. But Lego Robotics is a whole different skill, she said.

“It’s more advanced than Lego blocks because you have to think about giving the robot instructions on what to do, how it will move,” she said.

To scope out an idea for the second part of their project, the Wildwood Lego Robotics girls team visited The Arbors at Amherst, a retirement complex, to talk to senior citizens. Then both teams conferred by Skype online with Helen Petrides of North Carolina, the grandmother of team member Lucas McCallum. They came away with two ideas.

Petrides told them that her husband’s wheelchair is too heavy to lift into a car, and that he has trouble remembering when to take his medication.

The boys came up with the Wheelchair Pal, a device with a crank which folds and lifts the chair. The boys designed their product, which is made of metal with a gear chain, on paper, then got the help of Amherst College theater director John Doyle to build a prototype.

The girls team invented Pill Watch, a device that resembles a big wristwatch, with compartments for pills. It has a timer and flashing lights that announce when it’s time to take the medicine.

Both teams wrote and performed skits about their inventions in last week’s regional qualifier. The girls will perform their skit, which resembles a TV commercial, again at Saturday’s finals.

Three other Amherst-area teams competed last weekend. The Senior Solvers from Hadley won second place overall and will be in this Saturday’s competition. The All Girl Lego Club, made up of students at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley, and the Trillium Trogs, whose members go to several Amherst schools, also competed last week but did not advance to the state finals.

Honing skills

In Saturday’s competition, the Snap Os will be judged on the durability and mechanical efficiency of their robot designs, the quality and efficiency of their computer programming, and their strategy and innovation. They’ll also be judged on their research into senior citizen problems, the creativity of their solution and their skit’s presentation.

But Lego Robotics is also about imparting certain values, and teams are judged on these, too. At a practice this week BORFF coach Charlie Schweik asked the boys team what those values are.

“Have fun, work as a team,” said Ian Baird. “You don’t brag about how well you did,” said Henry Geffert. “It’s not just you, it’s also your team,” said William Borrell. Schweik said it comes down to “gracious professionalism.”

“It’s a good life lesson, because in practically every job you have to work together,” said his son, Max, a team member. “It can’t be just one person or you can’t get all your missions done. It took a lot of work to figure this out. And you make friends, and get to know a lot more people.”

Most of the boys had played with Lego blocks but had no computer programming experience, and through the club they were able to discover how to download software into the robot, Schweik said. Parents of the team members said the club helps them learn skills that aren’t always included in an elementary curriculum, so they don’t mind having to pick their kids up at 4:30 p.m.

“It’s been incredibly challenging and takes a lot of perseverance,” said Brenda Bushouse, who has children on both teams. “There’s a lot of trial and error; it’s not instant gratification. It’s taken a collaborative effort.”

Sudha Setty has a son on the boys team. “He has been able to engage in engineering and computer-based learning, and it’s a really great complement to the curriculum,” she said. “All the kids seem to have a lot of fun while taking on a new challenge.”

Tracy Hightower, a parent and coach, said the children are not only learning about technology but also the arts and community service. “It teaches them empathy for seniors,” she said.

For Emily Warren, being on the team is several steps beyond playing with Lego blocks.

“The robots help you learn about being more organized and working as a team.”

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