Students Get Revved Up Over Lego Robots

Summerville, South Carolina

January 29, 2009 – While classmates have been blowing off steam
at recess, several DuBose Middle School eighth-graders have been
poring over the problem of moving a polar bear with their robot.

Regional competition
for the First Lego League program,
which was established in 1998 by Dean Kamen, an entrepreneur and inventor, and Kjeld Kirk
Kristiansen, then-president
and CEO of Lego, will
take place Saturday at Trident Technical College. This year’s theme is Climate Connections. Watch Lowcountry students
prepare and
test their robots.

Almost since the beginning of the school year, five eighth-graders have brought their lunches to Craig Pelletier’s pre-engineering classroom to participate in
the First Lego League robotics program. The students, and
teams from Knightsville and Newington
elementary schools and Rollings Middle School
of the Arts, have used Lego pieces to build programmable robots
to solve as many of the 18 tasks set before them as
they can.

It gets the kids excited
about what they’re doing, and it’s geared
toward their level. It gives
them something to look forward
to," said Pelletier, who is
in his eighth year as a coach and
is guiding not only the eighth-graders
but a seventh-grade team
as well.

Joe Mitchell, an eighth-grader who
wants to be an engineer, has looked
forward to joining the team since he
was in the sixth grade.

"I think it’s really good
because it gives kids an opportunity to
get experience with engineering,
and it shows Legos aren’t just toys," he said.

Rollings Middle eighth-grader Ryan Becwar had a similar view.
"I’m interested in engineering and science and
robotics. Sometimes the school-level science is dull, and I thought I’d enjoy this," he said.

The First Lego League program was established
in 1998 by Dean Kamen, an entrepreneur and
inventor, and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen,
then-president and CEO of Lego, as a way to
inspire young people to become interested in science and
innovation. The program has evolved
into an international activity for students ages 9-14.

Each year, the league chooses a theme, such as
this year’s Climate Connections. Past themes have included nanotechnology, energy resources and a mission to Mars.

A competition board based on the theme is created
where teams get 2 1/2 minutes to perform as
many scoring tasks as they can. Teams spend
three to four months building and programming their robots
to perform their tasks
at competition.

The regional competition will take place Saturday at
Trident Technical College, where teams will try to earn a spot
at the state event in Clemson.

"If it was left up to me, I’d love to have a team in every school
in the district," said Janice Jolly, career development coordinator for Dorchester County School District 2.

There are several hurdles in establishing a team. One
is being able to have a faculty member as the coach. Beech Hill
Elementary School qualified for the state competition
last year, but the teacher who ran the
school’s program got another job
within the district, and nobody else was
available to take it over. Having
a place for the team to meet and store its
equipment also gets tricky. Lucia Dantzler at
Rollings Middle reorganizes
her classroom on meeting days to clear room
for the 4-by-8-foot mission board. The Knightsville Elementary team rolls its mission mat into the school’s hallway near the computer lab.

Time and money are the other two considerations. Time is probably the biggest issue in finding a faculty member who can be available to help. As
for money, Jolly said it costs the district an average of $1,000 per team
depending on how many qualify for the state competition
and how much accommodations are at the time. She said
a new team can run around $1,250 when the cost of materials is figured in. She said awareness in the community is easing that

"Several companies
have earmarked money for elementary and middle school
programs," she

Dantzler, who is in her fifth year with the
Rollings team, said
she’d like to see robotics added
to general studies as an elective.

"I think this is a worthy project
that every school should
have for its curriculum,"
she said. "I think it’s important, but it’s hard to do after school. I know
we’ve spent at least 80 hours on it."

Building a robot or working with something mechanical is the most obvious attraction for the students. But once in the program, they find
it’s about more than that. Each year, teams are asked to perform a research project based on the theme and then give
a presentation at the competition.

The teams can
be as creative
as they want with their projects
and presentations. It almost
sounds like a bait-and-switch for getting students involved, but the teachers have found
that their teams embrace the research.

"Usually, the
kids who gravitate toward
this don’t mind it too much. They see it as
a challenge,"
Pelletier said.

Eighth-grader Ashani
Ranwala is in her third year on the Rollings
team and said the
research is her favorite part.

"You get to be
creative. Even though you
have guidelines, you get
to do what you want," she said. "And
competitive, which makes you want to
do better and strive to do your best."

At the competition, the teams will be graded in four categories: their research presentations,
technological expertise with
their robots, teamwork and
the scores they get on the
mission board. One of the tenets
of the program
is that the adults are there to guide but
should be involved as little
as possible in the work.
One of the goals is to help students learn how
to make their own decisions
and work in a group.

"I think the overall goal is
to instill the spirit of being challenged
and teamwork.

fight; they discuss," Knightsville teacher Michael O’Neill said.
"I love it — the sportsmanship it’s
instilled. They’ve become an excellent team. They love working with each other."

other goal is to allow the students to take ownership of
their work.

"I enjoy watching their faces light up when
realize they’ve done something right,"
said Newington coach
Debbie Polk.