Students came together Saturday for one of the largest student robotics competitions in Carroll County.
The Roar of the Robots might not have brought Super Bowl numbers, but it did fill the gym of Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary with cheering spectators.
In the center of the gym teams placed their robots on tabletop playing fields where they worked quickly to complete tasks with fineness and rack up points.
The event was a qualifying tournament for the statewide For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO League (FLL). This year, the young tech mavens considered the problems of long-term space exploration with the theme “Into Orbit.”
Thirteen local teams came for the afternoon’s main competition event, 11 of them from in the county. More than 100 students in grades four to eight have been working on the creation of their robots since September.
The competition is hosted and planned by local nonprofit group Partnership and Inspiration for Engineering Education and Entrepreneurship (PIE3) an arm of the Robo-Lions based in Finksburg, a FIRST robotics competition team.
The program’s mission is STEM education and cooperation, and making sure the opportunity to learn those skills is open to everyone no matter their socioeconomic or cultural background, said Rose Young, lead mentor at FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 2199 Robo-Lions and director at PIE3.
Marketing volunteer Paula Scarfone said the participants have star mentors in the STEM field and that the relationships they build often continue on after participants age out of the program.
Tom Milnes, president of PIE3 and a mentor for the Robo Lions, said several of the day’s judges were former members of the program who were now pursuing degrees in technical fields or working as engineers. He himself started with the program in 2010 with his son and has stuck around.
There is the potential to learn "a billion skills" through working with the robots, from technical things like good shop skills and programming to teamwork and being able to explain technical concepts clearly to others.
"It's a real, authentic team experience,” he said, and for some participants might be an alternative way to build those skills for those who don't or can't participate in sports.
Kaitlyn Davey, who helped mentor the Boys & Girls Club of Westminster's Space Nuggets team, was one of the former Robo-Lions who came back to the program, now as a college student. She was part of the winning team at the FIRST Robotics World Championships in St. Louis in 2016.
The team of four are all first-time Roar of the Robots participants, and Davey helped them get up to speed in time for the competition, said Patrick Norton from the Boys & Girls Club.
The skills Davey learned with the Robo Lions are still useful. Presenting to judges, for example, is a lot like a job interview, she said.
"All the kids were very good and motivated," she said. "Teamwork is the key."
Team member James Hood said he already liked coding before joining the team and hopes to go into architecture and work with Computer Aided Design (CAD) int the future. The trickiest part of the robot design was programming the wheels and figuring out how many rotations were needed to get the bot to move properly. Team member Hallie Monroe said they met usually every Tuesday and Thursday to work on the project.
Marketing director Erin Bishop said the coaching support helps tremendously. Even if they didn’t take home a win, they’d seen “incredible growth” in the team members.
“We want them to be 21st-century digital learners,” she said. “You could see those critical thinking skills develop.”
Scarfone said that grants were important to the growth of the program, especially helping with the creation of the Carroll County Center of Robotics and Engineering in Finksburg as well as mentoring and providing resources to the Boys & Girls Club.
Major support came from The Kahlert Foundation and the Maryland State Department of Education.
Members of the Carroll County Board of Education Marsha Herbert, Patricia Dorsey and Superintendent Steve Lockard, along with Carroll County Commissioner Dennis Frazier R-District 3 attended parts of the tournament.
Dorsey said it was great to see that “even the little guys” were learning programming, problem-solving and design.
The youngest participants, the Jr. FLL members in grades kindergarten through third grade, started out the day with presentations as they showed off their ideas for answering the question "How would we live on the moon?"
The Galaxy Girls and the Blast Off Builders were both from Carroll County and the LEGO Ninjas were from a little west of the county line.
Made up of all second-graders, the Galaxy Girls, based in Eldersburg, focused on water, energy, air and satellite in their design of a moon base using LEGO blocks and simple programming software.
Through research, they learned that if you drill on the moon you can find ice, so their moon base included a drill and an area for boiling the ice down into water.
They didn't neglect fun though. One member invented a game called rock ball, that included throwing a rock from one side of the moon to the other and calculating where to got to catch it.
For the LEGO Ninjas,made up of third-graders, it was their first year participating. Though they go to different schools, they all play soccer and became better friends through the project.
The fist things they considered were "water, energy and air" said Jay Bihde as he described their moon settlement. Those are the most pressing needs, followed closely by food. Their design included greenhouse for growing food and a rover for exploring the moon landscape. One of the team’s favorite features of the design was the working sliding door.
Bihde said they worked hard to make sure it was nicely presented without randomly colored LEGO blocks or drippy glue.
Roar of the Robots awards went to:
Best Dressed — Hexagonies
Youth volunteer — Mat Erickson
Against All Odds — Boys & Girls Club of Westminster