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Monday, December 21, 2009

Lego Robotics Tournament

I'm a little behind in my posts, but I wanted to make sure to give this tournament the credit that it was due. The Frenchboro Sea Monster Lego Robotics team includes every single kid at our school who is allowed to participate (age 9-14 for FLL First Lego League). That would be like every single kid in a junior high school participating, say, in cross-country running. To have 100% of kids that are able to be in a group sign up for it is pretty impressive. Some of the kids have been participating in Lego League for years, and for others, our fourth grade, this is the first year they've been old enough. Cody and Dylan started back when Alan began Robotics here at Frenchboro School. Doug came in as a new teacher and was very excited to see that the program had been started and decided to take it on himself as an after-school program last year.
This year the tournament changed and went from a smaller program, with the northern part of state meeting at Castine, to a huge, state-wide tourney held in the state capitol, Augusta (at the Civic Center). Last year there were roughly 20 teams to compete against. This year there were 50, so it was a big jump for our kids.
Robotics has two parts. One is to program your robot to do certain tasks that are worth points. Each year, you purchase a new mat and get your set of tasks that everyone will be working toward. The second part is to do a presentation on a given topic. The students need to research the topic and come up with innovative ideas to solve problems. The topic was 'smart moves' dealing with how things travel. It could be as far reaching as how germs move and to combat perhaps the spread of illness, or it could be something like what our kids to ferry people to the mainland from our island. They came up with something they called the PPEG...pedal-powered electric gondola. They made models and did research, even emailing a German company to get more information, before writing up their presentation. They then have to go in front of a panel of judges and share their designs/reports. No one is allowed to watch this part of the competition, but everyone can watch the robot competition.
Since the kids have their own mats back at home, they have been practicing on exactly the same table that their robot will be judged at the competition. They are timed and there are very strict regulations around what you can and cannot do to/with your robot. Everything means points gained or lost.
The arena itself was rather chaotic with kids being judged on their robot, their programming, their design, their presentation, and the actual robot stations. We knew what table they would be competing on, so we made sure to place ourselves accordingly so we could cheer. Yup, we were the loudest there, that's for sure, and certainly the only school team that had the entire school population and entire parent population accounted for (heck, we practically had our entire ISLAND there). And we're not ones to sit quietly and clap politely when our kids compete.
The kids have a chance to challenge the judges ruling right there at the table as their robot performs. To see our guys and gals getting right in there and advocating for themselves with things like, "Hey judge, you didn't give us the points for the robot landing in the circle, that's worth ________ points." It really did my heart good. You see, our kids are what you'd call 'wicked shy'. In general they're very reserved and have a hard time addressing adults they don't know. We work on it a lot, but it's difficult because we just don't get the chances we would on the mainland. So, to see these kids confident, articulate, and learned in the face of pressure got the old tears a flowin'.
For some reason, our robot didn't do what it has been doing for months. We had been steadily achieving in the high 200's, low 300's every single trial. Suddenly, at the first competition, the robot didn't make its turn. The kids were very frustrated, and it took two trials for them to realize that it wasn't a problem with the sensor, like they had thought, but with the actual computer programming. Though the kids said they had done nothing to the program in terms of changes or improvements, when they went back into it, they saw that the actual numbers had changed in their programming. So, they hurriedly changed what they could and did better on their final trial. But, unfortunately, there were more than one of the problems and they didn't go back into the programming deeply enough, so the robot never did make 'his' usual high score of 340. Which, sad to say, would have won them the tournament. Can you believe that? They would have won had the robot done what I had watched it do a hundred times. Just the idea of that really killed them, but they handled it really well, and were very sportmanlike. In fact, they won the teamwork trophy, which made me so proud, that, again, I was a blubbering mess. Of all the things that matter the most to me as a teacher is that they work together and support each other. They got nearly a perfect score for their teamwork and that, indeed, makes them winners.

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