2008-01-04 / News

Robotics competition inspires Lawn Avenue students

By Michaela Kennedy

Jack Tregenza, left, and Matt Demieri test their Lego project in Stephanie Pamula's robotics class. Photo by Michaela Kennedy Jack Tregenza, left, and Matt Demieri test their Lego project in Stephanie Pamula's robotics class. Photo by Michaela Kennedy One robotics team member presses buttons on a remote control, which maneuvers a robot around a miniature field course. Fellow teammates coach the operator while another workmate resets the student-made machine at the starting line.

Lawn Avenue School seventh and eighth grade students, 18 in all, bubble with excitement as the FIRST Lego League (FLL) Nano Quest Challenge draws near. FIRST is an acronym meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The youngsters will compete with over 40 teams from around the state in the challenge held at Roger Williams University in Bristol on Jan. 12.

The FLL is a hands-on, interactive robotics program for middle school students. The curriculum, which is taught in classrooms around the world, involves students in advanced technological concepts. In an eight-week course, teams of up to 10 students design, build, program, test and refine an autonomous robot. The instrument is capable of completing a list of missions from the FLL International Robot Game, using Lego Mindstorms technology.

In addition to using programmed gadgets to master a set of tasks, each team gives a presentation to a panel of judges on the investigative problem solving they must complete. Contestants are also questioned about their teamwork.

An integral element of the enrichment class is research, notes robotics teacher Stephanie Pamula. The students made trips around the island to see how technology can be used for economic advancement and energy efficiency. The group visited the Jamestown Windmill, hosted by the Jamestown Historical Society, as well as a residence located on Hull Cove outfitted with renewable energy devices. William Smith, owner of the home, showed the students how his solar and wind energy generators create energy efficiency.

The robotics course is so successful in training young minds that it is now incorporated into the regular curriculum. "It's one of the most engaging, high-order thinking projects I've ever seen for children," said Pamula.

The instructor admits that a surprising

number of parents complain about the program, suspecting that it is "a waste of educational time." But when those same critics go to watch the competition they witness first-hand the high-tech and advanced scientific concepts that are woven into the project. "They tell me they had no idea what was involved, and become supporters of the program," Pamula adds.

Some complaints also come from students in the required course. Yet the protests are whines typical of grade school pupils: too much problem solving, math strategies, and homework. "You have to have a love and commitment for the subjects involved in the project," Pamula stresses. Upon reflection, nevertheless, the young minds agree that the competition is their reward for many weeks of multi-faceted work.

A few days before Jamestown schools closed for the Christmas vacation, the three teams, The Babooshkas, The Obsessed, and Team Kool, tweaked their performances in practice for the upcoming challenge. Pamula drilled each team for glitches in their routines as Joseph Logan, a semi-retired engineer, looked on. Every year Logan teams up with Jack Hubbard, also an engineer, to mentor the youngsters in their quests for technical artistry.

Addressing the energy efficiency section of the statewide competition, each team chose a building in which to investigate and make energy-saving designs. The structures picked for designs were one of the schools, the East Ferry Deli, and the home of a student, Elliot Roberts.

In kid fashion, class excitement culminated at the announcement of the pizza party winners, those who gave the most refined robotics presentation. When asked what the best part of the class was, James Mastrostefano shouted, "We get to play with Legos!"

Pamela invited everyone to the Rhode Island FLL Robotics Championship at Roger Williams University in Bristol next week. The competition runs from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information on the event and the FIRST Lego League, visit www.firstlegoleague.org on the Internet, or email Stephanie Pamula at ride4308@ ride.ri.net.

Return to top