News Column

LEGO Bots: Next Evolution for Tots?

Jan. 7, 2013

Nancy Van Valkenburg

An even 200 Utah school kids came to Weber State University on Saturday to do robotic battle at the Utah FIRST Lego League Qualifier.

The children, ages 9 to 14, wore team T-shirts emblazed with fearinspiring names like the Ninja Robot Geeks, the Centerville Cyborgs, the Lion Bytes, the Robot Chickens and the Avengers of the Aged.

As high-energy songs, including "Kung Fu Fighting," blasted through the Shepherd Union ballrooms, the 20 teams faced off, guided by referees in silly hats. Each team ran the Lego robot it designed through a course with more than a dozen possible tasks to be accomplished within a short time span.

"We made some mistakes in the competition," said Victor Valenzuela, 12, of Ogden. "Everybody makes mistakes, but we still had a lot of fun."

Victor's team, from Ogden Preparatory Academy, was called the FeMales. "Fe," of course, is a reference to the scientific abbreviation for iron, making the children iron men, of a sort.

Learning to construct Lego robots and program them reinforces a love for science and math, said Dave Ferro, dean of the College of Applied Science & Technology at Weber State. But there are more benefits to students from participating.

"There's a bigger, more serious context," said Ferro, who was wearing a skunk hat he constructed out of a ball cap, a plush skunk toy and four safety pins. "Last year, there was a project required on food safety and storage issues. This year, there was a project on how to help the elderly with problems they face."

Building the robot and researching problems of the elderly were two separate projects for teams involved, but both were required as part of the competition, and both were scored by judges.

"The students learn about robots, but they also learn about the larger world and the role they can play in making it better," Ferro said. "That's what we try to do here at the university, too. We try to put better people out there to build a better world."

The students interviewed elderly family members or residents of nursing homes, asking about daily challenges that might be fixed with innovative technology. One team came up with an idea for a combination Bluetooth and hearing aid.

The Horace Mann Falconbots researched the functions a robot might perform that could be helpful.

"The helper robot is theoretical," said Garth Tuck, Horace Mann Falconbot coach. "The students had an idea for a robot that could help reach for things, help keep track of prescriptions and provide companionship and safety.

"The robot portion seems to be less and less of the program each year. It's the most exciting part and the most visual part, but the real gain for the students is in learning to do research and strengthening their core values, and understanding they can solve problems and play a bigger part in the world."

Rainie Ingram, a WSU College of Applied Science & Technology (COAST) recruiter, said only four teams who attended Saturday would advance to the next level of competition.

Some younger teams were thrilled to accomplish one or two robot maneuvers. For older competitors, top scores seemed more important. All teams were also rated on their project work, on their professionalism and their cooperation and teamwork.

"If there was a kid who was not mechanical on the team but who was good at research, he or she would focus on the research. If another child was better at public speaking, they could focus on the project presentation," Ingram said. "It helped team members understand that it takes people with different skills to make things happen, and it teaches them to respect each other."

More than 60 people volunteered to make the event run smoothly, with a large number from Hill Air Force Base and from Weber State. Other community members also pitched in.

"In Utah, we have a great pool of volunteers willing to help kids learn," Ingram said.

Braxton Carr, 11, was a Robot Ninja Geek, a group from the Davis County 4-H Club.

"It was fun programming a robot, and we made paper Ninja stars," Braxton said. "It is fun to advance in the competition."

Braxton's dad, Rob Carr, said being on a team was special to his son.

"He likes robots, but it's also a chance for him to have his own thing, different from what his brother and sister are doing. He's more interested in being a pilot and designing planes, so for him, it was exciting that the Air Force was a big part of this event."

Pam Mattinson, who coached a Farmington team, said she liked the emphasis on sportsmanship and working as a team.

"It's a super-positive experience for the kids," she said. "It taught my son to keep trying, even when he gets frustrated. It's great for problem solving."

Horace Mann Falconbots and friends Avery Parrish and Kaibry Tuck, both 11, enjoyed working together.

"That was the funnest part," Kaibry said. "I like robots, but I think I would rather be a school teacher when I grow up.

Avery liked the problem solving. "I like how people working together can make a difference in the world by finding solutions."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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