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Students build engineering, teamwork skills at robotics competition

From left, Hayden Woodard, Drew Cantu, and A.J. Luck, of the Robo-Serpents, put their team's robot through a trial run during the Roar of the Robots tournament at Carroll Community College in Westminster Saurday, Dec. 13.
From left, Hayden Woodard, Drew Cantu, and A.J. Luck, of the Robo-Serpents, put their team's robot through a trial run during the Roar of the Robots tournament at Carroll Community College in Westminster Saurday, Dec. 13. (DAVE MUNCHSTAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Young engineers put their teamwork, public speaking and programming abilities to the test Saturday at Roar of the Robots, a qualifying tournament for a Lego robotics league run by the group For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Nineteen teams of students, ranging from grades four to eight, have spent three months creating and programming robots built from Legos to complete specified tasks, as well as designing presentations to solve a challenge posed to them.

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According to tournament director Rose Young, the FIRST Lego League offers kids interested in programming and robotics an opportunity to learn and improve together in an environment outside of the classroom.

Young said FLL participants learn programming languages before reaching high school, which puts them ahead if they are interested in the field.

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The teams are supported by Partnership and Inspiration for Engineering, Education and Entrepreneurship, or PIE3, Young said. "PIE cubed" is a nonprofit founded to support robotics teams through a partnership with the Freedom Area Recreation Council.

"Sometimes they fail," she said. "Sometimes they frequently fail and they learn from their failures."

At Saturday's qualifier held at Carroll Community College, five teams were selected to advance to the statewide FLL tournament, held in February. Roar of the Robots, in its sixth year, is one of 15 qualifiers held throughout Maryland, according to Young.

Most of the teams participating are community-based, according to Young. Coaches are volunteers who guide the teams through multiple meetings per week.

Joe and Lisa Thorpe are first-time coaches of The Flying Platypi3, a group of nine fifth-grade boys from Eldersburg Elementary School.

"They loved it," Lisa Thorpe said. "They get together every Sunday with their buds."

Thorpe said the group was at times high spirited, but when members needed to focus, they did. The Flying Platypi3 was one of the teams that advanced to the state tournament.

Other Carroll County teams advancing include The Sparkans, of Westminster, and the Party Hat Piranhas 2.0, of Hampstead.

Jackson Schreiner, 10, said at first when The Flying Platypi3 members were presented with the competition's tasks, each person tried to implement his own ideas rather than work together.

"We've learned how to cooperate," said Jack Bishop, 10.

Tyler Miner, 11, responded, "I wouldn't go that far."

Jackson said the presentation was stressful. The challenge for this year's teams was "What is the future of learning?" and asked teams to research and create innovative solutions for the best way to teach something.

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The Flying Platypi3 instructed judges on teaching people how to dance.

"Looking at the judges, and they don't have smiles on their faces, it's so nerve-racking," Tyler said.

Ben Musser, 11, said he found the robotics competition in the afternoon tense. Teams were given a limited amount of time to complete as many tasks as possible contained on a 4-foot-by-8-foot field.

"When you're down at the table, it's serious and stressful," Ben said.

Tyler said he knew about the FLL and the Roar of the Robots competition because he attended last year when his older brother was a participant.

"I thought that was really interesting: how to get the robot to drive on its own," he said.

Young said many students find the FLL by attending Lego Fun Summer Camps. Many campers want to get involved with FLL teams, she said, but it can be difficult to find parents willing to coach.

"If they don't know what they're doing, I can fix that," she said. The biggest obstruction is time, both for parents and their students, she said.

Young said the fourth- through eighth-graders are an important group to target for engineering because if they are not exposed before high school, they might decide they aren't interested or it's too difficult.

Young said this summer, to combat low turnout by girls, she started a camp called Girls in Engineering and had 16 young women sign up.

"They are interested," she said. "They want to try it."

Young said the girls picked up engineering skills quickly and built their confidence by learning in a supportive environment.

Jolie Feltz and Juliana Lopez, from the Eldersburg-based Super Circuits, both attended the Girls in Engineering Camp and were immediately interested in learning more about robotics and programming.

"It's much more fun than school," Jolie, 10, said. At the conclusion of the camp, she said campers programmed a robot to dance.

Juliana, 10, said she is excited to return to the FLL competition in 2015 and wants to be an engineer. Jolie said she plans to spend her time paying more attention in math class.

Juliana said her favorite part of the competition was the presentation they gave to answer the challenge about the future of learning. The Super Circuits chose to research food allergies and to design materials to help teach ways to prevent and treat allergic reactions.

Jolie said the team wants to publicize the materials they created, including brochures, for the community.

One of the sponsors of Roar of the Robots was the Robo-Lions, a team that competes in the high-school level FIRST Robotics Competition.

Young said many participants are already talking about joining a high-school team when they reach ninth grade.

Bill Cole, programming coach for the Robo-Lions, said not only do team members learn robotics and programming, but they also learn to generate funding for their creations.

"It's really like running a small business," he said. The team works with local businesses to secure sponsorship agreements and create relationships that can lead to internship and job opportunities.

"A big part of building a robot is paying for that robot," said Matt Wesloh, a former captain of the Robo-Lions and sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"There are a lot of great chances to learn," he said.

For FIRST Robotics Competition members, the season begins in January when the challenge is issued. This year's challenge was to create a machine that could launch a large ball through an elevated hole in the wall, according to Wesloh.

The challenge also includes rules and restrictions, Wesloh said, and after six weeks the teams "bag and tag" their robots and cannot touch them again until the competition.

At Saturday's competition, Wesloh said the Robo-Lions exhibited their work and made connections with the younger students.

Reach staff writer Heather Cobun at 410-857-7898 or email heather.cobun@carrollcountytimes.com.

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