Doing the robot

Doing the robot
Team Dynamite, comprised of schoolchildren from around Alexandria, work on their robot for the science and technology competition sponsored by Lego and Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. (Courtesy photo)

When a mixed team of students from Alexandria’s public and private schools departed the FIRST LEGO League state tournament in Harrisonburg, Va., they’d gone against 59 other squads and finished in 18th place.

Not bad for a bunch of robotics rookies

A joint venture between FIRST, a science and technology competition designed and founded by Dean Kamen of Segway fame, and the LEGO Group, the competition has participants present a research project and design, build and program an autonomous robot to complete tasks.

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes student Abigail Henshaw wasn’t new to the world of FLL when her father formed a team for her and several other students from SSSAS, Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, Browne Academy and Burgundy Farms. Like several of her teammates, Henshaw has an older sibling who previously participated in the national program.

But this was Henshaw’s first year competing against other teams from across the commonwealth.

“It’s all very nerve-wracking while your robot is moving,” she said. “You can’t do anything and you really have to hope for it do [the assigned tasks].”

The team of fourth and fifth graders worked on their robot through much of the fall. Since the automaton isn’t remote controlled, they had to program it to complete basic tasks using a computer program.

At the same time, the team had to put together a research project on food safety. Not surprisingly for a bunch of 9-year-olds, they chose chocolate, said Abigail’s mother, Ann. The group learned where the treat comes from, how it’s manufactured and shipped, and how to improve the process.

When they weren’t learning about science, math, computer programming, robotics and chocolate, they were learning how to work together.

“We learned also about how important it is to work as a team and how we should be thankful for each other to be there,” Henshaw said. “In case something messes up, you have people helping you through it.”

Teamwork was just one of the more intangible skills the group picked up during the FLL season. There’s also learning from past mistakes, particularly when it came to programming and reprogramming their robot, said Laura Cunningham. Her son, Jay, was one of five SSSAS students on the team.

“The whole strategy and patience, of laying out a plan and working on it step by step, is a big leap for kids that age,” she said. “I just think that whole process of reiterative design is something new to them and yet I think they liked it. It’s very collaborative. They could watch each other’s efforts and combine their ideas.”

Their combined teamwork, critical thinking skills and research ability meant the squad was the only group of newcomers to make the statewide competition in their division. Most other teams were on their second or third appearance at the annual event.

They may not have finished first, but now that Henshaw’s had a taste, she’s already looking forward to next year’s challenge.

“I’m going to keep doing it until I can’t,” she said.