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Education: Students’ robot rolls into first competition

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A robotics program that began this year at Waccamaw Intermediate School was expected to give math and science skills a boost. But the robot that 10 students will take to a competition this week also demonstrates a flair for English.

“Oxy” is a pint-sized powerhouse in gray plastic with two motorized tracks and a mechanical arm.

“They’re called mega-minibots. That’s an oxymoron. We kept finding more oxymorons as we went along,” said Carey Given. She and Kathy Hirsch teach the gifted-and-talented classes at Waccamaw Intermediate and are the coaches for the First Lego League team.

Oxy will compete in a qualifying event Friday at Coastal Carolina University that first step in a worldwide competition. However, the First in the league title comes from a nonprofit that supports technology programs for students. It’s an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Lego, of course, is the toy manufacturer.

The fifth-graders from Waccamaw Intermediate say the experience has taught them how to program a robot. The instructions are created on a computer and downloaded to Oxy’s memory.

Principal Tim Carnahan said they’ve learned much more. “They don’t even know how much they’ve learned,” he said. He wants to see the program expand to every school in the district.

There will be 26 teams at the Friday event. They will put their robots through a series of 14 missions, which all need to be completed in two and a half minutes. The missions are designed around the theme of challenges faced by senior citizens. These include planting a flower, organizing medicine bottles, turning on a stove, bowling and exercising.

Another component of the competition required teams to identify a problem faced by seniors and come up with a solution. Students interviewed grandparents, consulted with physical therapists and trainers at HealthPoint and talked with a doctor. “They zeroed in on mobility,” Given said.

Then they came up with the “Walkerciser,” a small cushion with elastic bands that allows seniors to exercise while seated on a walker.

“They can be part of an exercise group even though they’re in a walker,” she said.

“I learned a bunch about arthritis and mobility problems,” said Hannan Mackey, a team member. “It’s a lot more than Legos.”

A third part of the competition is called Core Values, which the league defines as “gracious professionalism.”

So while operating their robot, presenting their project to a panel of judges and just spending time at the day-long event the team will be scored on how they exhibit sportsmanship and teamwork.

“We’ve come so far. We’re going to keep growing,” said William Varn, one of the team members. “We work together so well. That’s why we’re a great team.”

“It’s truly fascinating,” Given said. “I have never seen a group of children learn so much.”

She and Hirsch came across the program at a conference a couple of years ago. Last spring, they ordered the robotics kit and when school began in the fall they recruited the inaugural team.

“We looked for children who were willing to work, who had drive, who were willing to stick with it when they had a problem,” Given said.

The league isn’t limited to gifted-and-talented programs or even students. Teams can come from community groups or a group of children with a common interest in the program.

The fifth-graders on this year’s team will be able to continue in the program. The school hopes to have four teams next year. It also plans to introduce the program to Waccamaw Middle and Waccamaw High.

“At high school, there’s a whole other competition,” Given said. “They build big robots. I can see some of these kids moving into that.”

Zach Rosenberg, one of the team members, got a robot kit for Christmas. The students lobbied the teachers to open the classroom over the holidays so they could work on their project. They give up recess and stay after school to work on Oxy.

The project covers all areas of the curriculum, Carnahan said. Along with the enthusiasm it inspired in the students, Given and Hirsch have also been inspired, even though they claim they aren’t as adept as their students in robot programming.

“I have two teachers who have a passion to be life-long learners,” Carnahan said. “They went out and bought the kits with their supply budgets.”

But it’s the impact on the students that is most telling.

“They’ve created an invention,” Carnahan said. “What are they doing down the hall?”

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