Lego 'surgeries' are no snap; Robots: High school students take the popular building blocks to a new level -- and encounter new challenges -- for a Johns Hopkins engineering competition.


Grace Frankenhauser anxiously rubbed her hands together, as her brother, Christian, watched a needle powered by a robot they had built out of Lego blocks move above its target. Their other lab partner was too nervous to watch.

With a small crowd gathered around and video cameras rolling, the needle zigged and zagged across a square of strawberry Jell-O. The needle stopped directly atop a grape buried a few centimeters below -- successfully completing the first stage of their mission.

"Yes, we did it!" the sibling duo from Baltimore's Greater Grace Christian Academy gasped in relief yesterday afternoon during the waning hours of a four-day computer-integrated design competition for local high school students.

The competition, sponsored by the Engineering Research Center at the Johns Hopkins University, featured seven teams, with two to three members each. Their charge: to build a robot that could locate a tumor in a body and manipulate a needle to puncture it.

Each team received a Lego Mindstorms robotics invention kit -- a toy that costs about $200 in most toy stores -- to build a computer-based operating tool. A grape suspended in Jell-O served as a simulated tumor.

The teams were graded on how they developed their robots and on execution, said Randy Goldberg, a master's degree student at Johns Hopkins and a member of the Computer-Integrated Surgery Student Research Society (CISSRS), an interest group that ran the competition for the research center.

"It's a very challenging program and similar to what we face as graduate students," he said.

No team successfully completed all the tasks, but after more than 30 hours of intense instruction, construction and, sometimes, deconstruction, everyone cheered for each team's project at the final presentation.

"I had a good time building it, but ," sighed Karin Banks, a junior from Southwestern High School, as she presented her not-ready-for-operation robot to a crowd of parents and fellow participants.

By the end of the day, the team from Greater Grace Christian Academy took first place honors, earning each member a scaled-down version of a Mindstorms kit. Two teams from Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County took second and third place respectively, earning each a gift certificate from Toys 'R' Us.

"We had it working since this morning," said Chris Monti, a part of the Greater Grace team, who had walked out of the room during his team's trials muttering that he brings a "bad vibe."

The biggest challenge, Monti said, was creating a computer program to guide the needle by light sensor. Building the machine, which his team called, "Cancerous Tumor Removal," was easy, he said, because Christian Frankenhauser is a "Lego genius," who has built toy F-18s and tanks out of the tiny, plastic blocks in his spare time.

This weekend's competition was the second for the society, a group of about 50 Johns Hopkins students who are keenly interested in computers, mechanical engineering and medicine. A trial competition was held in October for three local high school teams.

Those teams could only manage to get their robots to place the needle above the target.

Admittedly, Goldberg said, building a robot out of blocks that can locate a grape in Jell-O and lower a needle into it without piercing the other side is tough. So, he said, the society judges the robots' abilities on three levels: whether they place the needles on target, whether they pierce the grapes and then whether they can insert the needles exactly inside the so-called tumors.

"This is what they have to learn, and hopefully it will get them excited about engineering," Goldberg said. "A lot of people don't get a chance like this until they go to college."

Jamal Bruce, a junior from Baltimore City College, said what he learned the most was patience.

He and his partner, Krisden Mondie from Forest Park, spent about 12 hours building a robot that moved forward and backward and side to side on two tracks. But Bruce and Mondie never got to give it a test run.

"It sort of fell apart on the way over," Bruce explained.

One sympathetic woman in the audience offered some condolence, shouting, "But it was awfully cute."

For the students from Woodlawn, the difficulty was building their vision of a robot with Legos.

"You have to find different ways to make the Legos work for you," said 11th-grader Jobert Dobson.

Added teammate Gerald Gantt: "We had a couple rebuilding processes."

At their trial for phase one, the needle stopped moving after a few zigzags, thus ending their quest for first place.

Patrick Enekwe Jr. summed up the frustration many of the students were feeling by the end of the competition.

Said the Woodlawn junior: "This was way more advanced than I am used to working with Legos."

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