ERDC site Lego Teams shine in competitions

Published Dec. 18, 2012
Robo-Ninja team members, coaches, and families look on as their robot performs during the winning table run.

Robo-Ninja team members, coaches, and families look on as their robot performs during the winning table run.

Students from Walt Whitman Middle School and their coaches show their first place trophy won during their first competition in the FIRST LEGO® League tournament.

Students from Walt Whitman Middle School and their coaches show their first place trophy won during their first competition in the FIRST LEGO® League tournament.

Dec. 18, 2012

Public Affairs Office

CHAMPAIGN, Ill., ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Lego Teams at ERDC’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) and Topographic Engineering Center (TEC) garnered awards at the FIRST LEGO® League (FLL) Regional Qualifying Tournaments in November.

An ERDC-sponsored Robo-Ninjas team comprising students from Urbana, Ill., won two trophies at the Urbana Middle School tournament.  The team was sponsored as part of the National Defense Education Program (NDEP).  The FLL tournament is part of the “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST)” Robotics Competition for the 2012-2013 season.  A non-profit organization, FIRST was founded in 1989 with the goal of making hands-on problem-solving fun for middle and high school students.

Team members included 10 sixth-graders from Urbana Middle School and Next Generation.  In the Robot Design and Engineering category, the students won for best design and programming.  For this part of the competition, they collaborated to design, program, and build a robot that competed over specially designed courses. They scored the highest for Robot Performance in the table-run competition.

“We met for two hours or longer on two nights a week and weekends since school started in September,” said CERL’s Peter Heinricher, who is serving as a FLL team coach for the fifth year.  “This is a global competition focused on building and programming robots to achieve specific tasks, but there is much more to it than robots.”

The competitions also promote:

Teamwork -- learning how to be a contributing team member

Researching real-world problems and coming up with workable solutions (the Project), which requires extensive contact with the local community; this year’s theme was Senior Solutions

Core Values:  Gracious Professionalism – Inclusion, Respect, and Cooperative Competition (“Cooopertition”) with Other Teams

The team also won the peer-voted prize for best give-away memento, origami shuriken (throwing stars), inscribed with good luck wishes for the other competitors.

During the qualifying event, the team was judged on: (1) presentation of their research project – Addressing Loneliness among Senior Citizens; (2) quality of the robot’s design and construction; (3) the programs they wrote for the robot; and (4) overall demonstration of FLL Core Values.  CERL researchers Giselle Rodriguez and Mariangelica Carrasquillo-Mangual participated as judges in the competition.

The Champaign Robo-Ninjas’ performance at the event qualifies them for the State Tournament, which will be in Chicago during January.  The winner of the State Tournament advances to the World Festival in St. Louis in April, along with representatives from throughout the United States and Canada and around the world.

Several firsts for TEC and students

TEC’s first venture into robotics competitions began with the center hosting the FLL tournament and sponsoring a team from Walt Whitman Middle School in Alexandria.  TEC is the first ERDC laboratory to host a tournament.  The Whitman team earned first place in the Project Presentation category in their division – the first time the school has competed.  The overall tournament was sponsored by James Madison University, NASA and several other operational partners.

TEC Management Analyst Shardey Mitchell served as the tournament director – a first for her.  “I didn’t have any knowledge about robotics or competitions, so I contacted Rick Tillotson at the Vicksburg site and Susan Koh at CRREL.  Both sites sponsor robotics teams, in addition to CERL,” she said.  Mitchell is TEC’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic) and Student Outreach Coordinator.  She identified this competition as an opportunity for TEC scientists and engineers to become more involved with young students in similar interests.

Her first challenge as tournament director was to organize 17 Division I and II teams. Responsibilities included ensuring volunteers were available to judge robotic teams, register participants, set up and break down the competition areas and provide crowd control, among other duties.  More than 30 volunteers and 75 parents who did not have students involved in the competition helped during the event, which was attended by more than 170 student participants.

“Whitman teachers Michael Sweeney, technology education, Mary White, science, and Lakeyta Smith, mathematics, volunteered to coach the eight-person winning team.  Their help was invaluable to me, Mitchell said.”

For her effort, Mitchell received the tournament’s Outstanding Volunteer Award from the judges and volunteers.  “It was very rewarding for me to receive this award because it was an acknowledgment that my work was appreciated.”

The superintendent for Cluster Four of the Fairfax Public School System, who attended the event, expressed an interest in TEC expanding their participation in next year’s robotic team competition.

While no TEC scientists or engineers volunteered to participate in the competition, Mitchell is hopeful the team’s first-time win will generate interest for volunteers next year.  “Now that the TEC-sponsored team did so well in its first competition, we’re hoping more team members will volunteer and become engaged with the students.”