By LINDSAY CAREY
LEGOs are more than just blocks these days. For children growing up today, LEGOs offer a whole new educational experience unlike the way they were used among previous generations.
The opportunity to participate in this new educational activity has risen for 10 fifth graders at Thalberg Elementary School.
The Red Eagle Robotics Team is a part of the FIRST Robotics Lego League and will be competing for the first time in a state qualifying competition on Saturday, Nov. 22 in Berlin.
This is the first year Thalberg has had a robotics team and it is one of only two robotics programs at the elementary school level in Southington.
The supplies required for the team were funded by an educational grant from the Southington Education Foundation.
“It’s so expensive for the robot and the kit, so that really jumpstarted us,” said Chanel Curtin, the team’s advisor.
Last year, fourth grade students applied to join the team and began learning how to build their LEGO robot in March.
The group typically meets on Mondays, but as they prepare for the competition some members have been meeting after school on other days.
The Red Eagle Robotics Team will be competing among 23 teams ranging from age 10 to 14. The FIRST Lego League competition is held two different weekends at five different locations to accommodate all of the teams.
“We’ll be the rookie team this year,” said Curtin.
According to Curtin, the competition will be challenging for the fifth graders because as elementary school students they don’t have as much experience as some of the other teams.
“Some of the kids in the competition are eighth graders and have been doing this all throughout middle school, but this is only our first year,” said Curtin. “It’s not going to be easy competing against teams with a lot of experience.”
Using the Mindstorm Education program, the group has built their own robot and programmed it to complete missions, which is the objective of the competition.
Each mission is some task that the robot must complete like picking up a ball and throwing it in a net. There are different ways to do the missions, so points are dependent on the difficulty of the mission.
“It’s been a unique experience to see them develop over this time, to see how they’ve programmed the robot to do so many things already,” said Curtin. “It’s really all about engineering. They built this robot from scratch and programmed it from the beginning. It’s been a lot of trial and error.”
The team has been testing their robot’s ability to complete certain missions and then reprogramming it as needed.
During the competition, the group will have one minute to set up their table and 2 1/2 a half minutes for each round with three rounds total.
There are only two team members allowed at the table during the rounds and they’re called the drivers because they will be the ones controlling the robot.
However, these drivers are not allowed to touch the robot while it is in the middle of a mission. They can only touch it when it is at the home base, before and after completing a mission. If the drivers do touch the robot for whatever reason the judges will put a penalty piece somewhere on their table, which can become an obstacle while completing other missions.
Another aspect of the competition is a research project. Each team must create a research project and present it at the competition. The Red Eagle Robotics Team is working on creating a tutorial on how to build and program a robot for the next team at Thalberg because they will move on to middle school.
According to Curtin, this group of 10 basically taught themselves how to make the robot so their advice will be beneficial to next year’s team.
“It’s all about self-discovery,” said Curtin. “I’m more just here for guidance and support.”
Besides their technical and engineering skills, each person in the group has learned to be a team player. They have learned to listen to everyone’s ideas and take it into thoughtful consideration.
Curtin said it was also helpful to divide responsibilities within the group of 10 so that everyone wasn’t working on top of each other and ideas could be discussed in smaller groups.
Some of the students worked on coming up with a plan for the robot, some worked on programming the robot to complete the missions and others worked on the research project.
“I’m proud of our accomplishments since March,” said Curtin.
The team has also had some help from high school mentors Abby Wallace and Jesse Rasten from FIRST Robotics team at SHS team, the Cyber Knights.
Curtin said she believes that students who participate in the Red Eagles Robotics Team will be more prepared to compete on the robotics team in high school, because they will already have some experience with the FIRST Robotics program.
“It’s going to be amazing to see what their robots will be like when they have experience going as far back as elementary school,” said Curtin.
For now, the Red Eagle Robotics Team is just hoping to make it to the next round at their upcoming competition. There will be nine awards given out at the competition from robot design to team work.
However, there will only be 6 golden tickets given out of 23 teams as an invitation to go to the states. Despite it being their first year, the Red Eagle Robotics Team at Thalberg Elementary is hoping to get one of those tickets.
The competition is on Saturday, Nov. 22 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at McGee Middle School Gymnasium, 899 Norton Rd, Berlin.
“Be prepared to expect the unexpected,” Curtin advised her team during an after school session.
Comments? Email lcarey@BristolObserver.com.
By LINDSAY CAREY