When Legos Take Over

Colonial Trail Elementary's "Bionicle Brains" team.
Plastic robots took over the Deep Run High School gymnasium Nov. 13, as 24 teams of local students competed in the annual FIRST Lego League (FLL) Robotics Tournament at the school.

The teams sent their Lego robots into competition against others in the event hosted by the Deep Run Blue Cheese Robotics Team 1086, which annually competes in the high school FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge.

The FLL tournament introduces students in grades 4-8 to real world engineering challenges in which the students must design, build and program their own robots using “LEGO MINDSTORMS” technology. The competition is split into two categories, Division 1 Teams for elementary school students and Division 2 for middle school students.

“The purpose is to get kids excited and interested in science, technology and engineering and prepare them for the future,” said Ann Kutz, judge and volunteer.

Each year there is a different challenge – this year’s being “Body Forward,” which focused on biomedical engineering, or ground-breaking ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions and increase the body’s potential.

Teams are judged in four competition categories – each worth 25 percent – including Robot Performance, Project Presentation, Robot Design and Teamwork. Besides construction of a Lego robot that performs tasks on a playing field, the teams are asked to research a problem facing today’s scientists and present their findings.

The Bionicle Brains (pictured above), a team of fourth- and fifth-graders from Colonial Trail Elementary in Glen Allen, created a solution for poor circulation in the body as part of their project. “They came up with a made-up ‘button’ that would help monitor and increase blood flow in the body,” said Deb Gribbon, coach and fifth-grade teacher for Colonial Trail.

The Lego-robot battle – the “main event” – was held in the school’s gymnasium, where a few members of one team, consisting of 10 players, battled another team to see whose robot could complete the most tasks in two and a half minutes.

“It’s really fun, and you get to learn a lot about robotics,” said Elle Rosenbaum of the Bio Bots team. She’s a seventh-grader at Goochland Middle school and has participated the past several years.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization that helps students 6-18 foster an interest in math and science, learn life skills and prepare them for future career paths through their programs and annual competitions.

In addition to the FLL, the FIRST program also has a junior league for children in kindergarten through the third grade, and two high school competitions, FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

“We had six weeks to design, prototype, and build a 120 pound robot,” said Deep Run senior Matthew Petrie, a member of the Blue Cheese team, describing the FRC competition. During the FLL event, the team displayed last year’s robot – a four-wheeled machine that could kick around a soccer ball, which was inspired by the World Cup.

The Blue Cheese Robotics Team 1086 has been the regional winner at VCU for the past three years and won the North Carolina regional this year. It also won the Chairman’s Award last year for its ability to build and demonstrate robots to the community.

Fran Nolen, assistant coach of the Blue Cheese team and a high school physics teacher for 12 years, said the culture of the program has taken hold at Deep Run.

“I have an engineering background and have slowly made this a part of the curriculum here,” Nolen said.

FIRST was founded 1989 by Dean Kamen, an American entrepreneur and inventor. FIRST involves over 212,000 students, 19,134 teams, 57,376 mentors, over 34,000 volunteers and more than 3,500 sponsors including LEGO, NASA and many others. The program educates students in 57 countries about science and technology while building skills in innovation, leadership a nd self-confidence.
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