Four teams of island students enter robotics competition
Lawn Avenue School was a beehive of activity last week as a group of students prepared for a statewide robotics contest at Roger Williams University. Everywhere you looked the young people, and their adult coaches, were researching, programming and testing out their robots on platforms specially created for the competition.
The First Lego League is an international robotics competition for students age 9 to 14 that is sponsored by the well-known makers of building blocks. According to the league’s website, the competition is designed “to get children excited about technology and teach them valuable employment and life skills.”
Approximately 60 Rhode Island teams were expected to compete at the Roger Williams event last weekend, four of them from Jamestown. Each year the league develops a theme based on a reallife scientific topic for the event. This year’s theme – “Food Factor” – is related to food safety.
The competition has three parts. The robot game finds the students sending their robot around the specially laid out track attempting to complete various tasks related to food safety. For example, the robot might arrive at a station that contains several small plastic pieces that represent ears of corn. The challenge is to program the robot’s movements so that it picks up the corn and brings it back to the home area. The team has 2.5 minutes to complete as many tasks as possible.
The competition is more than just robot games. Each team is also required to research and create a presentation – the “Project” – based on the theme and appear before judges to present their findings. This is an opportunity to learn about the science behind the year’s theme.
Finally, each team is required to acknowledge that they are in compliance with the league’s core values. These include teamwork, friendly competition, graceful professionalism, cooperation and shared experience.
At one time the robotics program was part of the curriculum at Lawn Avenue, but for the last two years it has been an after-school program led by Jack Hubbard. The retired technology professional has an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an industrial management degree from MIT. Following his education he pursued a successful career in technology.
Tori Paquette, a sixth-grader at Lawn Avenue who is interested in a career in robotics, is participating in the competition for the first time. She entered because her friends are in it, and because she thought she would enjoy it.
“It sounded really fun to program some robots,” Tori said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. It’s really fun. I like building with Legos in general. We’re doing really good on the project and on the programming.”
Tori was working on programming her team’s robot to catch some plastic germs that are in a basket and bring them back to the base. The programming has to be just right to get all the germs.
By Lori’s side was her dad Richard, a naval aviator who is working on his master’s degree at the Naval War College. “I love it,” he said. “My daughter asked me if I wanted to be a mentor for her team. They have a coach, but they have a large team with seven members, and she could use a hand separating the group into smaller pieces so they can work on several things at one time.”
The father-and-daughter duo were looking forward to the competition. “The kids have worked really hard and I know they’re looking forward to seeing their robot perform on the live stage,” he said.
Peter Travers, a certified teacher, is in his second year as a coach for the robotics teams. He is currently at work on a second certification that includes robotics.
“I’m a mentor to the students,” Travers said. “I make sure that they’re on task. I try not to intervene.”
Travers was also looking forward to the competition. “I want to make sure they have fun,” he said. “That’s the biggest part. I really enjoy watching what they get out of it. If they lose, they lose, as long as they come out of it with smiles. Last year they did – I think they will this year also.”
Jay Patel, an eighth-grader, was busy programming his robot to complete two missions in the competition. His team finished fifth in a field of more than 50 teams last year.
“I like programming and robots,” Jay said. “I thought I might as well do some afterschool activities.”
The First Lego League competition at Roger Williams University was won by the Mindstorms Mayhem team from All Saints Academy in Middletown, but Jamestown teams also fared well in the tournament. The Knights of the Round Tomato team, coached by Chris Cowan and assisted by Rich Paquette, took home the strategy and innovation award. The team members are Aren Cobb, Sam Cowan, David Lawless, Frankie Lazzara, Josh Neronha, Connor Smith and Tori Paquette.
Guys in Ties won the gracious professionalism award. The team is coached by Jack Hubbard. Caellum Kerry, Findley Mulligan, Jay Patel, Noah Simmons and Gabriel Zelaya-Rincon are the team members.
“The object isn’t winning, because everybody wins,” Hubbard said. “There are no losers because everybody learns something. Hopefully some of them will be pushed along to a career in science or engineering.”
Hubbard summed up the whole competition in one word, “Fun,” he said. “One of the core values here is to not only work hard, but to have fun. That’s what it always turns out to be.”