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Last updated: Mon. Nov. 19, 2012 - 12:24 pm EDT

Real-life tasks taught at annual robot games

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Awards were given in a variety of subcategories and included:

•Robot Design/Best Mechanical Design – Arlington Robots, Arlington Elementary School, Fort Wayne

•Robot Design/Best Programming – Electrical Expressions, Woodside Middle School, Fort Wayne

•Robot Design/Best Strategy & Innovation – Thunderbirds, Huntington Co. 4-H

•Robot Performance – Legocy Blue, Carroll Middle School, Fort Wayne

•Project/Best in Research – BGC Droids, Boys & Girls Club, Fort Wayne

•Project/Best Innovative Solution – iSenior, Woodside Middle School, Fort Wayne

•Project/Best Presentation – SeCret Service, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School, Fort Wayne

•Core Values/Best in Inspiration – The Steam Team, Arcola Elementary School, Arcola

•Core Values/Best in Teamwork – Legocy Gold, Carroll Middle School, Fort Wayne

•Core Values/Gracious Professionalism – Tigerbots Green, Yorktown Middle School, Yorktown

Say the words "robot battle" to most people, and they'll think of a city half destroyed in the victory of Autobots over Decepticons.

But at Indiana Tech on Sunday, robots battled for a greater good.

The 10th annual FIRST Lego League Indiana Qualifying Tournament, involving Lego robots built and programmed by area elementary and middle school students, happened Sunday.

More than 25 teams and 225 students competed in robot games that served several higher purposes.

Jenny Young, the tournament coordinator and an employee of sponsor Science Central, said one of the goals of the tournament is to get kids ages 9 to 14 excited about science and math.

"We want them to go on to careers in math and science," she said.

The league is a collaborative, international effort from the Lego toy company and FIRST, a nonprofit organization that looks for ways to fuel adolescent zeal for science, math, technology and engineering.

All of the tasks that the kids had programmed the robots to accomplish Sunday had something to do with challenges facing senior citizens.

Robots were judged on how well they negotiated stairs, operated a tiny stove, piled little quilts and worked in a miniature garden, among other undertakings.

Making a robot do what you need it to do isn't easy.

"The annoying thing about these robots is they are naturally inaccurate," said Woodside Middle School student Scott Whetstone, 13. "They're just toys after all."

Woodside student Matthew Fisher, 12, said the treads on his team's robot have to meet the competition surface in just such a way. Otherwise, it is hard to control.

"Last year we had the worst jam up over bacteria," said Arlington Elementary student Baelie McClane, 11.

The bacteria in question was actually a Lego facsimile.

"It got jammed into the tire," McClane said.

An even more challenging task than making a robot work may be teaching kids of various ages to work with one another.

So said General Electric employee Mike Bierbaum, who has been a Lego robotics coach for St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School for eight years.

Bierbaum said one of the most important aspects of the competition is that it fosters teamwork.

"The kids have this idea that you can be so smart that you work alone," he said. "But the truth is that the smarter you are, the more people you work with."

The older kids have to learn to delegate tasks to the younger kids, Bierbaum said, rather than do what they'd rather do: push the younger kids out of the way.

Bierbaum said he used to be involved in high school robotics competitions but shifted to younger kids when he realized that a love of math and science really needs to be fostered earlier.

Bierbaum was happy to report that his 10-person St. Charles team, all of them wearing lab coats and some of them furiously tapping away at laptops in the manner of movie scientists, had four girls on it.

It is sometimes hard to convince girls that they need science "just as much as boys and that they're just as good at it," Bierbaum said.

Huntertown Elementary student Olivia Sloffer, said she likes science and technology, but she is not sure she wants to make an occupation of it.

"I think I'll do it in my free time," she said. "I am more into interior design."

In addition to the robot games, each team was expected to research a senior health issue and come up with an innovative solution to it.

A team from Woodside suggested an app based on facial recognition technology that would allow family members to recognize emotions in the often inexpressive faces of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The kids from Arlington devised a system for locating lost items that involves echolocation, which is the way certain creatures use sound waves to detect objects.

"Bats use echolocation," said Vaughan Rea, 10. "So do dolphins."

Arlington celebrated its echolocation triumph by handing out bat-shaped clackers that had the effect of turning everyone into an unwitting Arlington cheerleader.


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