Students compete by learning to think small

Robotics contest gives lessons in nanotechnology

January 19, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Brik Wisniewski hit a button on top of a homemade robot and it began gliding across a table, pushing a small box. He wanted the contraption to release a load of "dirt" from a dumper into the box, but the robot steered off course.

"Almost!" the Deep Creek Magnet Middle School sixth-grader said, as he picked up the robot. "I think it needs some pieces replaced."

The robot, the box and the dumper were all made of LEGO bricks. They are the work of the Deep Creek Nano Eagles, a team set to compete in the Maryland FIRST LEGO League competition scheduled for tomorrow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"What the members of this team have accomplished this year is amazing," said Sharon Gallagher, magnet program coordinator at the Essex school.

Made up of eight students, ages 10 and 11, the Deep Creek team is one of four teams in the state competition sponsored by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, of Linthicum. Two Northrop Grumman engineers and an undergraduate student from UMBC helped the team.

FIRST LEGO League designed the program for students 9 to 14 years old. It is a collaboration between LEGO Group and For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a Manchester, N.H.-based nonprofit organization, founded by inventor Dean Kamen, that fosters children's interest in science and technology.

FIRST LEGO League has reached more than 90,000 children in about 45 countries. The winners of the state competition will travel to the FIRST World Festival Robotics Championship in April at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The Nano Eagles and teams from around the state built robots programmed with a software program called RoboLab. This year's challenge - called Nano Quest -explores an application of nanotechnology.

"The idea is to get the children thinking about things at a microscopic level," said Anne Spence, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UMBC who coordinates the state championship at the school. "We think it's important to connect what children learn in school about math and science to the real world."

But creating a project with LEGO bricks isn't as easy as the children thought, said Gallagher, the Deep Creek Middle educator. It's time-consuming, she said.

"The children come in and they learn problem-solving persistence," said Gallagher. "They work on their robot, think they have it right, test it and it doesn't work. Then they have to rework it. They have to have the persistence to understand it and then make it better."

Yesterday, young Brik Wisniewski said the work is complicated.

"There are a lot of codes that I didn't understand and I had trouble with the light sensors," he said. "And programming this robot is intense."

Gallagher also said the children are afraid the assembled robot might fall apart, so they created rules for handling their entry.

The ultimate test comes at the competition.

Each team gets five minutes to set up their project and complete at least four of nine challenges. They receive points in several categories for their efforts. Then the team with the most points wins the competition.

Prizes are awarded for robot design and performance, research quality, most innovative solution and teamwork. But whether the team wins or not, the youngsters recognize the value of the project, said Gallagher.

"They have all come to the realization that they can be successful," Gallagher said. "They have completed a working robot and that gives them a sense of accomplishment."

Also the students are becoming more vocal, and motivation is high, she said.

"Some of these students have found their voice on this project," said Gallagher. "They are stating their opinion and defending it."

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