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Indian Lake middle schoolers enter the world of competitive robotics

By Tom Stephens - For Civitas Media

Two months ago, Indian Lake Middle School received two large boxes, each equipped with some small servos, Legos of all shapes and varieties, and a thin booklet of instructions, all courtesy of a $5,000 grant from Honda. From these two boxes a score of Laker middle schoolers have been expected to produce robots that can collect recycled material, transport methane gas, sort materials, raze a building, pick up salvage and sweep out the place, if needed. Each of these tasks takes place on a Lego-sized scale atop a surface the area of a standard billiard table.

For tools, the students are allowed brains and opposable thumbs. For their troubles, the Laker students will have chance to put their designs up against teams from other schools who received boxes with the exact same items. Called the First Lego League, the FLL conducts robotic competitions for middle schoolers, with regional, state and national tournaments being held every year.

This is not your father’s shop project.

This year marks Indian Lake’s first in fielding a competitive robotics team, but other area schools have had similar teams for years with the support, encouragement and financial backing of Honda divisions around west central Ohio. Why? Because these students are building scale-model robotics of those life-sized robotics in use at this very minute at Honda manufacturing plants in Anna, East Liberty, Marysville and Russells Point, indeed, all over the planet. Ten years from now, those same Honda plants are going to need thousands of skilled, highly-trained adults who can program, build, diagnose and repair robotics. What better place to start looking for these individuals than right outside your front door?

Judging from the response of the Indian Lake students, the future is in good hands. The turnout from Indian Lake included about 20 kids, so they were divided into two teams (one for each box), handed a list of the tasks that will need to be completed for the competition and told to get to it.

The two Indian Lake teams – named the Robo Warriorz and the Robo Lego Geek Squad – are in theory coached by teachers middle school teachers Christina Fullerton and Jana Core, both of whom said that the title “coach” in this endeavor is more of an honorary than functional one.

“We just stood back and let them get after it,” Fullerton said. “They know a lot more about this stuff than I do.”

Her point was made as Fullerton was attempting use a laptop to ‘fix a problem’ with a flash drive. She was politely elbowed aside by Jagger Hunt, a sixth-grader who took ten seconds to find no problem whatsoever with the flash drive before heading on to bigger and better things.

“This is what I’m talking about,” Fullerton said as Hunt and his teammates worked on a knotty programming formula. “We really haven’t had to encourage these kids at all. They can’t wait to start working on this stuff.”

Stuffed inside the boxes were two floor plans (Lego-sized of course) that look like bad modern art, with lines and geometric forms printed all over the plans at odd intervals and weird angles. David Snapp and the high school Industrial Arts class built two tables on which the plans are laid. The rest is up to the students.

Using the Legos, the two teams had to build a facility from the ground up, using designs of their own choosing. For example, a small rectangle on the floor plan has been reserved for a solid waste storage. Easy enough to build one out of Legos, until one factors in the condition that the solid waste storage must be both functional and hands-free. One of the 12 tasks that will be graded at the competition is the ability to build both the storage and a robot that can remove or deliver solid waste to that specific spot. Another involves using robots for completely razing a Lego building, picking up the mess, then sorting the rubble for waste and recyclables and moving it to another specific spot on the floor plan. On this scale, being a single millimeter off on the programming, or the design, or the engineering will cause the mission to fail.

Core said that since was their first year, the Robo Warriorz and the Robo Lego Geek Squad have focused on perfecting just three of the dozen tasks, rather than scrambling to work piecemeal on all 12. As the students spend more time in the “robo-lab,” Core and Fullerton expect to expand the the scope of their operations, but are currently content to walk before they start running.

The Robo Lego Geek Squad and the Robo Warriorz will participate in a “scrimmage” Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Anna Engine plant, but are entering their initial First Lego League tournament at Benjamin Logan Middle School Saturday, Nov 21. The public is invited to attend after 1 p.m.
Indian Lake middle schoolers enter the world of competitive robotics

By Tom Stephens

For Civitas Media