Legos are more than just toys for members of Chaplegate Christian Academy's FIRST Lego League team; they're tools for teamwork and innovation.
After the winning debut of their Lego Mindstorms obstacle course robot and wildlife-themed invention at the Maryland league challenge last month, the Marriottsville school's seven-member team will compete against more than 100 teams at the 2017 FIRST World Festival in St. Louis, Mo., in April.
The world festival is held April 26 through 29 at America's Center. Sixty-four teams will represent the U.S. and Canada in the world competition, with another 44 teams participating from other countries.
Team members at Chaplegate include Stephen Aldred, 14; Pranav Bolla, 13; Abigail Cagle, 13; David Globus, 14; Brynn Laberge, 13; Eric Spisz, 12; and Aaron Zeng, 13.
FIRST, short for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," is a nonprofit public organization that offers research and robotics programs to children in kindergarten through high school, including Lego League and Lego League Jr., Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition.
According to its website, the FIRST Lego League features teams of up to 10 students in fourth through eighth grade, such as Chaplegate's team of seventh- and eighth-graders, named "White-tailed Paradox." Teams research and develop solutions to real-world problems presented by the organization. Each team is also given a Lego Mindstorms set and robot, which students must design, build and program to complete various challenges on a tabletop board.
Jamie Gurganus, a mechanical engineering professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the Maryland representative of the FIRST Lego League. UMBC became an operational partner with the league in 2007, she said, hosting the state tournaments each year.
FIRST Lego League started in Maryland in 2003 with about 20 teams, Gurganus said. Today, there are about 400 teams in the state that participate almost every year.
"In the world, there are about 27,000 teams," Gurganus said. "[The league] is one of the most diverse STEM education programs," representing all ethnicities.
Lego teams introduce science and engineering through fun concepts, she said, while introducing children and teens to the judges, who are professional scientists and engineers. During that time, professionals provide feedback to teams about their projects and how they can be improved.
There are about 50 FIRST Lego League teams in Howard County schools.
A team comprised of students who are home-schooled in Howard County, named Cubix3, will participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge at the world championships. Team members are Havish Netla and Roame Hildebrand, with mentors Bryce, Cynthia and Kaityln Davey and coach Jocelyn Davey.
Theresa Jahng, Chaplegate's team coach for the last five years, said the team met a couple of times a week earlier in the year, but scheduled meetings three or four times a week to prepare for competitions through team-building activities. Costs for the project and competition registration exceed $2,000, and the team met the costs through fundraising.
The program has been at Chaplegate for more than 10 years, she said.
"It's amazing to watch these children develop not only into programmers and robot designers, but also being able to speak to adults, explain their projects and take them all the way to implementation," said Jahng, a geometry, trigonometry and per-calculus teacher at Chaplegate. "It's amazing what this club can do for kids."
This year's project challenge, "Animal Allies," asked teams to review a problem found in interactions between people and animals and then design a solution to improve that interaction.
When the Chaplegate team began brainstorming ideas in September, Jahng said they repeatedly mentioned the growing deer population in residential and commercial areas. To combat the issue by moving deer into safer spaces, the students decided to create a robotic motion-sensored scarecrow named A.B. TED, or technologically enhanced device.
"A lot of students live in areas where deer are really prevalent around their homes," Jahng said. "They wanted to develop something that would scare deer away, but wouldn't hurt them. They figured out a way that would not cause them to be hit by cars or eat the wrong bushes."
Brynn, an eighth-grade team member, said the scarecrow received part of its name using the first initial of her first name and Abigail's first name.
Inside Jahng's classroom, a 5-foot white pole stood vertically on a plywood platform, all surfaces covered in camouflage masking tape. Two white motion sensors were built into the top of the pole, which also had a small strip of tiny lights on each side. Attached to the middle of the pole, a stuffed dummy spun around in circles, while sirens blared and lights flashed.
A little pouch was also sewn onto the front of the dummy, which contained herbs to attract deer. Brynn said the device was tested at her home twice before the state competition; however, more improvements are underway, including brighter lights.
"I helped get him done, but without the help of the rest of my teammates, I don't think he would look anywhere near to what he looks like right now," Brynn said. "I like that it screams and spins."
David, a fellow eighth-grader who helped build A.B. TED, said they started out with a small model of the device before developing a functional model. The size increase wasn't an easy task, he said.
"We had to measure the original A.B. TED [model] and figure out how big to make him," David said. "So far, I like how it's running, though I know it can run better, so we're working on improvements for the future."
On the other side of the room, the remaining team members scanned over a tabletop board, which was lined with different Lego obstacles and tasks. A two-wheeled robot – built using a programming device, gears and levers – sat at the far corner of the board, where Pranav input coordinates to guide the robot and its functions across the board.
Once the degrees were set, the robot traveled to the center of the board and latched onto a device that dispensed Legos every time the robot pulled a specific lever. Pranav said he enjoys building the attachments that work hand-in-hand on the robot as well as assisting his friends to program certain functions.
"I like the bigger attachments with gears because we spend a lot of time making those and developing them and programming them," the eighth-grader said. "I like seeing the robot perform because it's satisfying when you get your points that you need [in competition]. It's fun."
"I think it's really challenging and it pushes you to your limits," Aaron added, snapping another attachment into place on the front of the robot. "I'm looking forward to the excitement" at the world championship.
Surprised and elated by their state victory, Jahng said team members are pushing themselves a little harder to keep their winning streak next month.
"They are exactly the type of team I wanted to coach," she said. "We had coached them into a team and they did excellent work, but cared for others and showed that care and concern in ways that the [state] judges recognized. This is a solid team."
To donate to the team's travel fund, go to www.chapelgateacademy.org/help-send-us-to-nationals. More information on the FIRST Lego League competition is available at www.firstlegoleague.org.