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Education: Students design robots to handle disasters

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

In a classroom at Waccamaw Intermediate School there is a disaster waiting to happen.

But the students are prepared. They have a plan to gather relief supplies, clear the damage and rebuild, all in 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

The challenge is posed by the First Lego League robotics competition, an international event that calls on teams to bring technology to bear on real-world problems.

Waccamaw Intermediate formed its first team last year and placed second in the regional qualifier, sending the 12 students on to the state competition. This year, there are two teams, the veterans from 2012, who are now in sixth grade, and a start-up team of fifth-graders.

The teams will compete with each other next week at the region qualifier, but they have shared ideas on robot design, said Carey Given, a teacher in the gifted-and-talented program who coaches the sixth-graders along with her colleague, Kathy Hirsch. “They were kind of studying each other’s robots, but they were sharing,” Given said.

Nature’s Fury is the theme for the competition. Each team has to build and program a robot to carry out a series of missions on a 4-by-8-foot table. They can’t complete all the missions, so they have to decide which ones will earn the most points in the time allotted.

The missions are more complicated than those in 2012, said William Varn, a sixth-grade team member. But he said a new Mindstorms EV3 robot was easier to program.

An added, and unintentional challenge, was a flaw in the new robot that required the team to send it back to Lego for replacement. “That caused them to get frustrated,” Given said.

Working with the Lego robots is nothing like playing with the popular toys, said Tyler Fico, a fifth-grade team member. “Sometimes you get mad,” he said. “Two programs just wouldn’t work.”

Although they shared ideas along with a tabletop, the teams arrived at two different designs. The fifth-graders built a larger robot with larger wheels. The sixth-grade robot is more compact, but has larger attachments for carrying out the missions.

William said his team used ideas gleaned from last year’s competition to design this year’s entry. “We were a little confused” by the way teams used some of the robot attachments last year, he said. But as they thought about it, “we said, ‘that would work.’”

The teams also have to design a product that can be used in a disaster and make a pitch for it to a panel of judges. The fifth-graders devised a fire-retardant spray. The sixth-graders created a cover for pet kennels that organizes pet supplies in an emergency.

“I know the kids get a lot out of it,” said Rebecca Anderson, a fourth-grade teacher who coaches the fifth-grade team with Charlene Allen. “The best part is when kids realize their mistakes and how to correct those mistakes. They’re doing it on their own. That’s really exciting.”

The role of the teachers is to keep the project on schedule and keep the ideas flowing.

“You have four coaches who cannot program,” Given said.

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