Southington students delve into the world of robotics with LEGOs

May 2, 2014

By Lisa Capobianco
Staff Writer
FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a global robotics program that gives children ages 9 to 14 the opportunity to explore science and technology while tapping into their creativity through hands-on activities.
For ten students at Thalberg Elementary School, this opportunity serves as a first-time learning experience, which just began in March.
“I like it because I can do different things—I can do one of each job,” said Team Captain Ethan Solury, one of the fourth graders on the FLL team, noting how he first started working with LEGOS at the age of five.
As team captain, Ethan has immersed himself in a variety of roles, such as building different parts with LEGO Mindstorms robot set and programming while leading his teammates along the way. Two of his teammates, Erin O’Neill and Avery Latham, also said they enjoy getting their feet wet as they take part in the programming aspect, using different controls that allow the robot to say certain words.
Both Erin and Avery are Tech-sperts at Thalberg, and have gained extensive knowledge in that program, which inspired them to apply those skills to the robotics team. The Tech-sperts program consists of 35 fourth and fifth grade students who volunteer their time to offer technological support in the classroom as needed, and also take part in different design projects, including presentations, websites, video games, tutorials and other digital materials.
As Tech-sperts, Ethan and Avery have worked with the Nao Robot, which is an autonomous, programmable humanoid.
“I always liked building LEGOS at my house,” said Erin. “I’m also in Tech-sperts and we worked with a different robot called Nao.”
“I’m a Tech-spert too and I basically wanted to do the coding,” added Avery.
Ethan, Avery and Erin went through an extensive application process before being selected to become members of the FLL Team in March. Fifth grade teacher Chanel Curtin, who serves as a coach for the team, said students who were interested in trying out for the team were required to conduct a self-evaluation, write a story, undergo and interview and take part in LEGO build. Curtin said ten out of 23 students were chosen for the team, which allows them to grow in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at an early age.
“This is all new to us,” said Curtin, adding that the program was funded through a grant from the Southington Education Foundation. “FIRST LEGO League is big on letting them become the problem-solvers—I’m here to guide them.”
Every year FLL provides a new “Challenge” for teams, which is released in late August, reported the program’s website.  The Challenge has three parts: the Robot Game, the Project and the FLL Core Values.
“They’ll have to devise a real-world solution,” said Curtin. “The robot has to do certain missions in a certain amount of time.”
The Robot Game requires FLL teams to build and program an autonomous robot to score points by performing mission tasks, which coincide with the Challenge theme. During the missions, the robot must navigate, capture, transport or deliver objects on a printed mat (the field), and has 2.5 minutes to perform as many missions as possible, reported the FLL’s website. Through the Project, FLL teams create a solution to solve a real-world problem, learning more about the science behind the Challenge theme.
Last year, the Challenge theme was “Nature’s Fury,” and FLL teams had to design their robot to problem-solve during a natural disaster, such as snow storms. The FLL team at Kennedy Middle School took part in the Challenge last year, bringing their robot to a competition held at McGee Middle School in Berlin this past November.
“It’s good to start learning about robotics and how to take a problem at hand and how to solve it,” said eighth grader Adam Gwara, who has a sister on the Cyber Knights Team at Southington High School. “It really helps with problem-solving skills.
“I learned to work on improving mistakes,” said eighth grader Steven Cova, agreeing that getting involved with the program has also helped enhance his problem-solving skills. “Getting things done together as a team is a lot easier.”
Bill Carey, who advises the team with his wife Jennifer, said the team was graded based on four components: the overall performance of the robot, the creativity of the robot, the presentation and how well the team works together.
“This was the best year we had,” said Carey, adding that the students were well-motivated on the day of the competition.
Steven, who joined the team in sixth grade, said he played a major role in the presentation aspect of the project. Since the theme dealt with natural disasters, Steven presented an invention that showed where certain areas were unplowed during a snow storm. The team’s robot was programmed to perform various mission tasks, such as removing tree branches to help save people and reuniting pets with their owners during a storm.
“It was really thought out and creative,” said Carey, adding that the LEGO set they used had all different motors as well as light and color sensors.
Adam, who hopes to join the Cyber Knights at Southington High, helped program the robot and helped build the robot’s claw. He also created a t-shirt design with the phrase, “Eagles Achieving Great LEGO Excellence,” which spelled out the team name, “Eagle.”
Looking ahead, Carey said tryouts for the robotics team will take place later this month, when Adam and Steven will help serve as judges. Carey will observe how well students can problem-solve and work together as a team while they explore using the different LEGO parts.
As Curtin also plans ahead for next year, she hopes the “Red Eagle Robotics” team will participate in a local competition after receiving the “Challenge” in the fall. Curtin added that the Cyber Knights will work with the fourth graders one-on-one during future meetings. In March, the Southington Cyber Knights offered to mentor the team in honor of Ben Buckley who loved LEGOS, said Curtin.
“They’ve really taken this on full-storm and delved themselves into it,” said Curtin, adding that the robotics program allows children to see the number of job opportunities available in the future. “I want their enthusiasm for STEM to grow.”
“I cannot wait until the competition to see that our hard work has paid off,” said Ethan, adding that he would like to design LEGOS in the future.

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