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LEGO Robotics – More Than a Challenge

March, 2013
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The First LEGO League (FLL) Senior Solutions Challenge was held on 2 February at Shanghai American School’s (SAS) Pudong Campus, with 17 teams from SAS, Concordia International School Shanghai, Hangzhou International School, and Shanghai Community International School. The FLL challenge is divided into three parts – the Robot Game, the Project, and the Core Values, with over 200,000 children aged 9 to 16 years old competing in over 60 countries around the world.

This year’s theme, Senior Solutions, requires each team to get to know a senior citizen, identify a problem in their day-to-day life and develop an innovative solution to allow them to lead a more independent life. This part of FLL has a strong emphasis on empathy as they will first need to step outside their bubble and thoughtfully consider what life might be like for the elderly or for themselves later on in life – a truly sobering thought.

Some examples of the tasks presented on the obstacle course for the Robot Game include “grabbing the correct medicine,” represented by a large stack of LEGO with a convenient hoop on the end, an exercise machine (turning a wheel), turning the stove off (a reversed lever), as well as more involved goals that require the robot to take a ball and bowl it down an alley, knocking over as many pins as possible for maximum points. Students will have two-and-a-half minutes to accomplish as many tasks as possible, switching out attachments, wheels, and programs to suit whichever missions they are attempting to complete.

The three scoring metrics are there to reinforce the idea that this competition isn’t only about engineering and programming abilities, but it’s also about cooperation and problem solving. “The Robot Game and Project are what teams do, and the Core Values guide teams through the experience.”

“Robotics is really interesting because you meet a lot of new people you wouldn’t normally meet,” confessed Drabbits team member Maggie. The SAS Pudong team, consisting of 7th grade Maggie, 7th grade Xingchen, 7th grade Amogh, and 6th grade Alice, discussed how many other extracurricular activities are available that made you think, but were actually appealing, ultimately deciding to pursue the “frantic fun” of LEGO robotics instead of chess. “Once you add the NTX brick and the motors, it becomes a lot more fun,” declared Maggie.

What brings their soulless LEGO contraption to life is the LEGO Mindstorm programmable brick that employs a few proprietary languages like Robolabs and NXT to tell the motors that propel the robot forward what to do, ideally making use of the sound and light sensors that can be strategically incorporated into the robot’s design.

Christian, Mission Leader for the Pro-Active Procrastinators, explains that the programmable brick uses an intuitive, visual drag-and-drop interface that shouldn’t scare away potential competitors. “Once you get down to the basics, it’s all fine-tuning. It’s not that hard, you just need to find the right sequence,” says Christian, who is responsible for the bulk of the programming.

The team certainly lived up to their name; amidst a battlefield strewn with LEGO, the five-man, 7th grade team from Concordia could be seen playing multiplayer FPS games on the sidelines while waiting for their next chance to beat their previous high score.

Calvin, the ever-confident Master Builder, says their robot’s strength is in how user-friendly it is, giving them the ability to change out arm attachments quickly in order to get the robot ready for the next task.

The programmable brick can only hold so many programs, so it’s important that each time the robot leaves the home base, it can accomplish multiple missions with whatever attachments it has at its disposal before returning. 

“I came into robotics because I was interested in LEGO and to learn the basics of programming,” says Rodney, leader of the group who acts essentially as a manager, and now their go-to PR guy.

In the Robot Design interview with Jim Happer and Joan Leuth, both teachers at SAS Pudong, the group demonstrated the thought process behind their creation’s design, as well as the utility of their attachments, with Happer and Leuth trying to ascertain how much teamwork went into their decision making. Rodney explained that at one point their robot was programmed to drive forward for an indefinite period until a shout that exceeds the requisite decibel level would trigger it to turn.

Tim Boyer, Head Referee for the event, later clarified that the robot must act completely autonomously, meaning no outside interference, whether physical, sound, or even telepathy!

The team still had two more opportunities to challenge their robot and receive a higher score, so it was now time to fine-tune their robot, improving one of the previous design flaws that caused the crane attachment to be inhibited by the wires. This is where 10th grade Collin Bauer’s expertise came into play, acting as a practice table judge and utilizing his experience as a member of Team Rush, who won 2nd place for the Chairman’s Award in the next level of LEGO robotics called the First Robotics Competition.

Last-minute changes at the practice table are what made the difference for League of LEGOS, a team from SAS Pudong. Their robot’s final iteration switched out a troublesome swivel design for the back wheel that prevented their robot from accurately moving in a straight line, as well as reversing the orientation of their bulldozer attachment and attaching it to the motor from the top. This made the difference between scoring 135 points and losing points in all previous attempts.

“When we were at the table to show what we could do, nothing worked, but immediately after when we were practicing, everything worked for some reason,” recalled Danny, a member of the League of LEGOS.

Over at the Robot Game table, the competitive passion can be seen as the referees count down and various teams frantically prepare for the next mission, attaching a long hook arm with the precision of a surgeon. Well, a LEGO surgeon. On the right, triumphant kids celebrate as their robot comes to a perfect stop on the balance bridge. On the left, a seemingly angry robot drunk with power ravages a LEGO old folks home while its distressed masters can only look on from afar, fearful of stopping their robot’s rampage because of the touch penalty. There were some spies from SAS Puxi who were hoping to start the program next year, so I wouldn’t completely rule out sabotage!

The Pro-Active Procrastinators won the Research Award because of their new type of pill dispenser that would help the elderly keep track of which pill to take, even bringing a 3d printed prototype along. The highest accolade, the Champion’s Award, went to NXT Generation, who not only had the highest score for the Robot Game, but also upheld the core values that the event is founded on.

“It went from the brain-child of Evan Weinberg, HS Science teacher at Hangzhou International School, last year to three events at Concordia, Shanghai American School, and Hangzhou International School,” said Tim Boyer with pride. 

For more information on the Shanghai First LEGO League Robotics Association, interested persons can contact Barbara Boyer (Head Coach of SAS Pudong) barbara.boyer@saschina.org, Craig Gingerich (Head Coach of Concordia) craig.gingerich@concordiashanghai.org, or Evan Weinberg (Head Coach from HIS) eweinberg@scischina.org.


By Charlie Cooper



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