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    Some serious toys

    Elementary school students compete in building robots and creating a computer program to guide them.

    By JILLIAN BANDES
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 30, 2002


    EAST LAKE -- The results are in from the war of the Lego robots, and the Androids were victorious.

    In eight weeks, 50 students from Cypress Woods and Brooker Creek elementary schools designed, built and programmed their computerized Lego-bots to battle robots from other schools.

    Thunder Rumble, the regional competition for such combat, was held Dec. 14 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. There, the Androids, one of three teams from Cypress Woods, placed third out of 16 teams.

    That is virtually unheard of for a team in its first year, said volunteer coordinator Linda Wahnish, whose son, Mark, 11, is a leader in the program.

    Known as the Lego League, the new program is so popular that more than a dozen kids were turned away at the beginning of the school year. There are still two teams of 10 students at Brooker Creek, and three teams of 10 at Cypress Woods. Each team put together a robot for the competition.

    "We had no idea it would be this popular," Wahnish said. "The response was just incredible."

    The students had to build a robot from a kit of Lego machine parts. Lego League competitions take place on a 32-square-foot playing surface. Teams try to do as many of the eight "missions," or defined tasks, as possible during each 21/2-minute round. The team that completes the most missions wins.

    The missions address themes based on current global problems. This year's theme is City Sights, and it explores urban issues such as mass transportation, housing, and energy resources. There are missions such as Food Harvest, where the robot collects plastic food pieces from Lego trees, and Clean Energy, where the robot makes a windmill spin.

    Along with building the robots, the students must create a computer program to control their automatons during the competition. Precise movements and exact timing mean the difference between successfully completing a mission or missing it by a centimeter.

    For example, in the Food Harvest mission, the robotic arms must be long enough and must move upward exactly at the moment when the robot reaches the Lego tree, so that it can snag a food loop hanging from it.

    "It sounds incredible that they can really do this in just eight weeks," said Cathy Ordiway, parent volunteer at Brooker Creek Elementary. Her son William, 10, is in the fifth grade and was one of the first students to become involved with the program.

    FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, the nonprofit organization under which the Brooker Creek and Cypress Woods programs operate, promotes Lego League as sports for the mind.

    With more than 31,000 students involved, FIRST extends across the United States and into Canada and Brazil. Started in 1989 by Dean Kamen, known for his Segway human transporter, its sponsors include Motorola, Xerox, and Compaq, as well as universities and agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation. Its mission is to promote science and technology in students while promoting self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.

    FIRST also organizes high school robotics programs, the big leagues of student robot engineering. Seniors on last year's robotics team at East Lake played a key role in getting the Lego League programs started at Brooker Creek and Cypress Woods.

    "We saw some robotics teams who had started Lego League at our national competition last year, and we thought it would be a great thing to start here," said Jamie Stuart, 18, who was on East Lake's robotics team last year and is now a freshman at the University of Florida.

    "We met with the principals (of Brooker Creek and Cypress Woods) and told them how wonderful our experiences with robotics were, and how there are a lot of kids who are interested in science and don't have the opportunities or resources to learn more," Stuart said.

    With more than 25 high school volunteers, East Lake's robotics team has done more than urge the creation of the teams at Brooker Creek and Cypress Woods.

    Every Tuesday and Thursday, these mentors leave after school and help out their younger counterparts for nearly two hours.

    With more than one mentor for every two children, there are ample assistants for the wide-eyed elementary school students. From interpreting the Lego instruction guide to making sure the kinks are out of the computer program, the high school mentors are essential.

    "The mentors are truly how this program exists," said Wahnish, who also runs East Lake High School's robotics team. "They run the entire afternoon sessions at both schools, know exactly what to do with the materials, and can really get in touch with the kids. They are wonderful role models."

    The robotics team has its own competition in the spring, where 135-pound robots made from real mechanical parts go to battle in an 800-square-foot playing field. Held at the Epcot Center, the national competition had more than 750 teams last year, which were housed in an air-conditioned tent big enough to hold three 747 jets.

    Major engineering firms and schools such as MIT, Georgia Tech, and the Rochester Institute of Technology attend the competition, and more than $1.2-million in scholarships are awarded to the participants. Honeywell sponsors East Lake High School's robotics team, and their engineers serve as mentors.

    "Robotics really boosted my confidence," said Leslie Moore, 18, a member of last year's robotics team. "I would never talk to anybody, just go through my day, but at the competitions you would be in situations where you had to talk to people and interact."

    After graduating from East Lake, Moore has gone on to study mechanical engineering at the University of North Florida.

    "It really helped me decide what I want to do with my life," she said.

    Wahnish and her husband, Paul, who runs the pre-engineering, science and technology program at East Lake High School, also are trying to start similar groups at several local middle schools.

    "If we get these kids when they're really young, we can carry it through to the middle and high school level so that when they go into high school, they have experience working with FIRST and experience in engineering," Wahnish said. "Their interest is piqued. Many of those kids went on to engineering programs in college and wouldn't have if not for their experience with the robotics program."

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