Baltimore City

Students compete with robots built of Legos

Minutes before their motorized robot made of Legos was to be judged in a competition, the students from Cecil Elementary School ran into a big problem. The front-loader plow that enabled the robot to push objects over a tabletop course had disappeared, temporarily removed, then nowhere to be found amid a high school cafeteria overflowing with Lego pieces.

The timing could hardly have been worse.

But it proved a temporary setback for the Cecil fourth- and fifth-graders, among 10 teams of elementary and middle school students competing Saturday at Digital Harbor High School in an opening round of FIRST Lego League of Maryland's annual competition.

The competition, aimed at sparking elementary and middle school students' interest in science, technology and engineering, shows ways to apply technology in the real world by teaching problem-solving and teamwork to kids ages 9 to 14.

On Saturday, members of the team from Cecil, in Northeast Baltimore, quickly put their newfound skills to use, digging through plastic bins of spare Lego parts to build a new plow and pushing a button to send their robot out for a successful test run. The team erupted in cheers. Despite the brief setback, several team members said they now have visions of careers in science.

"They picked me as team programmer, and when I grow up, I might want to program things," said Breya Heggins, 10, a Cecil fifth-grader.

In Maryland, as elsewhere, interest in the event has soared: Twenty teams competed in the annual competition when it came to the state eight years ago. Today, 192 teams in Maryland vie for trophies and a chance to go on to state and national competitions.

League teams around the state have been meeting for weeks during school or in after-school programs to build robots out of Legos and program them to complete tasks on Lego-built courses. Students also must research and report on a topic that this year relates to biotechnology and bioengineering. Judges score teams on teamwork, technical ability and research as well as how well robots perform tasks. Over the next two months at events such as Saturday's, teams will have a chance to compete to be among 64 that will advance to a state championship in February. The winners of that will go to the world championship in St. Louis in April.

The program is the brainchild of medical device inventor Dean Kamen, whose nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) designs educational programs with a focus on science, technology and engineering.

"Kids relate to it really well," said Jamie Gurganus, who runs engineering education programs for the University of Maryland Baltimore County's College of Engineering, which is FIRST's state partner in Maryland. "Who doesn't love Legos?"

Each year, the course challenges and research projects are geared toward themes such as space exploration or disabilities. This year, robots had missions relating to the human body. Students had to program robots to glide over a tabletop and use Legos to simulate inserting a stent into an artery, sorting pills and placing a pin in a broken leg.

Students in David Brelsford's Lego league class at Civitas Middle School have learned to use a computer to tell their robot exactly where and how to move along the prescribed course, which students also help build. Students figure it out by trial and error, he said.

"It's not traditional schoolwork," he said. "We don't use paper and pencils. We use computers and Legos. The kids have to do it all. I just stand by and be an adviser."

Civitas students Daquan West, 14, and Melvin Chisholm, 13, spent hours Saturday practicing running their robot over the course before the competition.

"You tell it what to do and what not to do," Daquan said of his robot. "It's fun. You don't see a lot of kids doing this."

The program is new this year at the middle school, where it is taught as an elective. Brelsford said he hopes it will grow there and at other city schools.

"Some schools are known for football," he said. "I want our school to become known as the robot school."

One unexpected challenge has been helping students keep track of kits that can include hundreds of parts.

"I have nightmares about losing the pieces," he said.

Alex Newman, who runs an after-school program for YMCA at Rippling Woods Elementary School in Glen Burnie, where he leads a Lego league team, watched Saturday as two of his fifth-grade team members practiced setting a robot precisely enough to travel over the course and release a "syringe" Lego to roll down a ramp. The robot missed, and the students tried again and again.

"I'm not allowed to tell them how to solve any of the problems," he said. Instead, he urged the students, to "think about why it's not working. Think about what it needs now. Why did it work that time and not other times? Let's make it work every time."

He watched as team members made suggestions. One boy controlling the robot adjusted its placement, and it hit the mark. Newman said he believes the students may not realize they're learning more than how to complete a robotic mission.

"Teamwork is everything," he said.