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Eldersburg robotics team wants to bring fruit, vegetables to Baltimore food deserts with indoor greenhouse

An Eldersburg robotics team, the Astro Jelly Dogs, is competing for a $20,000 prize that would further the squad’s idea to convert an abandoned row home in Baltimore into an indoor greenhouse. Pictured in the front row are: Sam Perretta, Jack Stauder, Ben Richards, and Tyler Carney. In the back are MJ Gibson, Molly Richards, and Ryan Vollmer. At right is a model of their invention.
An Eldersburg robotics team, the Astro Jelly Dogs, is competing for a $20,000 prize that would further the squad’s idea to convert an abandoned row home in Baltimore into an indoor greenhouse. Pictured in the front row are: Sam Perretta, Jack Stauder, Ben Richards, and Tyler Carney. In the back are MJ Gibson, Molly Richards, and Ryan Vollmer. At right is a model of their invention. (Courtesy Photo)

An Eldersburg robotics team is competing for a $20,000 prize that would further the squad’s idea to convert an abandoned row home in Baltimore into an indoor greenhouse.

Seven students ranging from 11 to 13 years old make up the “Astro Jelly Dogs” team. They compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League, and are semifinalists in the world competition.

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While building robots is part of the league, coach Kelly Vollmer said the other component of this year’s competition was to use engineering or architecture to solve a problem in the community. After vetting many ideas, the team chose to help people in cities who don’t have easy access to food. These places are known as food deserts.

Vollmer’s 11-year-old son Ryan, who is a member of the team, said they wanted to address a problem that isn’t getting as much attention as other issues.

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During a trip to Baltimore to learn about food deserts, the team noticed abandoned row homes and thought about repurposing them. They invented “The Grow Home,” an indoor greenhouse full of cucumbers, cabbage, strawberries, blueberries, peppers, squash, and more. The outside of the home would maintain its original architecture to match the community, and inside have irrigation and lighting for crops, plus a room for locals to pick up their food. The team wrote a 2,000-word essay to explain the concept and built a 6-by-4-foot scale model, according to Vollmer.

“We just came into this robotics group just to originally have fun, but it’s become much more than a just a fun time,” Ryan said. "This is possibly a vision that can help many people in the world.”

The team’s work began in the fall, then they presented their project at the state competition, held Feb. 23 at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The team won the Global Innovation Regional Nominee award, Vollmer said, which allowed them to apply for the world semifinals.

The Eldersburg robotics team, the Astro Jelly Dogs, is pictured with their award at the state competition in February. From left to right: Ryan Vollmer, Tyler Carney, Jack Stauder, Ben Richards, Sam Perretta, Molly Richards, and MJ Gibson.
The Eldersburg robotics team, the Astro Jelly Dogs, is pictured with their award at the state competition in February. From left to right: Ryan Vollmer, Tyler Carney, Jack Stauder, Ben Richards, Sam Perretta, Molly Richards, and MJ Gibson. (Courtesy Photo)

Twenty teams were selected as semifinalists from more than 100 countries, according to a news release from FIRST LEGO League. Vollmer said 40,000 teams competed, but not all applied for semifinals. The members of the Eldersburg team learned they made the cut during a FIRST LEGO League live broadcast on May 2.

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From June 24 through June 27, teams will compete for the Global Innovation Award by presenting their project to judges online and answering questions. In addition to the winning team earning the $20,000 top prize, two runners-up will each take home $5,000, according to the FIRST LEGO League release. The winners will be announced June 27 at 10 a.m. on the FIRSTtv Twitch channel.

Next week is not all about competition, though, as the teams will virtually meet Disney “Imagineers” — people who work in creative engineering ― and learn how patents work and how to make a pitch to investors.

“Our team came up with all these great problems they wanted to solve, but they ultimately read a newspaper article about how there were places in some cities that didn’t have enough food, and that the problem was getting worse,” Vollmer said. “So they started researching food deserts and found that Baltimore City has lots people that don’t have access to foods and they got really inspired to fix that.”

This is the team’s third year with FIRST LEGO League, but its first time advancing this far into the competition, she said.

“I’m very proud of them," Vollmer said. "They are amazing, amazing kids. They come up with these ideas that adults would never think about.”

During the course of their project, they visited Whitelock Community Farm in Baltimore, spoke to city officials at the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, and talked to farmers and nutritionists. Their next step was to meet with community members to find out what they thought of the idea, but Vollmer said the pandemic halted that part of the plan.

Said Ryan: “We mainly just want to help people.”

A group of Eldersburg youth designed "The Grow Home" for a robotics league competition. The indoor greenhouse would provide fresh fruits and vegetables to people who live in cities.
A group of Eldersburg youth designed "The Grow Home" for a robotics league competition. The indoor greenhouse would provide fresh fruits and vegetables to people who live in cities. (Courtesy Photo)
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