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Lego Robotics Club places teaches Catonsville students about solutions for seniors

Among placing among the top three of 14 teams at the First Lego League Qualifier, the Hillcrest Elementary Lego Robotics Club took on the best from around Maryland in the First Lego League's Statewide Competition on Saturday Jan. 19.

Though the school did not place or receive any special recognition at the event, the experience proved a valuable one for the students.

Ann Spence, professor of the practice with mechanical engineering at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that First Lego League is an opportunity for children ages 9 to 16 to solve real world problems.

"The whole idea of First Lego League ... it's a robotics competition, but it's more than that," Spence said.

Spence said that the competition not only challenges students mentally, but also allows them to develop valuable life skills, like teamwork and cooperation, for later in life.

"They're all learning all of these kind of 21st century skills that we want our students to have before they go into the work force," Spence said.

This year's theme, "Senior Solutions," focused on the issues that senior citizens, aged 60 years and older, face on a daily basis and the Hillcrest students focused on activities of daily living, such as sleeping, eating, dressing and bathing, that are more difficult for seniors than others.

"We were trying to figure out how to solve each of them, and the best way was to make a robot that could manage all of those things without the person having to do them themselves because they can't," said Isabella Landriscina, a fifth-grader in her second year on the Hillcrest team.

"And helping them with other activities, like walking the dog if they have one, feeding the cats if they have cats," Ethan Balbier, another fifth-grader also in his second year on the team.

The students spent one hour a week for 10 weeks researching, programming and preparing for the annual qualifier competition.

"I like learning about how to program the robots, and figuring out solutions to the problem that you're doing that year," Isabella said.

The students presented their findings in three categories: the Project, a skit and presentation that detailed their research and findings; the Robot Game, in which they programmed a Lego robot to perform pre-assigned tasks; and Core Values, during which students discussed their application of the year's assigned values to the project.

"The way I look at it, it's more teaching critical thinking, and exposing them to outside-the-box thinking and technology and computers and programming and robotics," said Matt Balbier, the Hillcrest assistant coach and Ethan's father. "All of that bundled together with the teamwork and the fun and everything."

The coach said he admires the way the competition allows the students to learn and practice skills that will be applicable in their future careers.

"These are the next engineers, these are the next designers that are doing this stuff," he said.

Balbier stressed that the coaches and mentors are only present for support, and that the students do all the work themselves, and they were vocal about how much they enjoyed the opportunity.

"It's fun, because I didn't know about any of this stuff, and I learned a lot of new stuff this year," said Ellie Schumacher, a fifth-grader in her first year on the team.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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