LEGO competition comes to campus

Brothers Sam Porter, ll, left, and Rudy Porter, 13, of team Android 005, compete with their Lego robot at the FIRST Lego League Regional Competition held Saturday at the Siebel Center. Online Poster

Brothers Sam Porter, ll, left, and Rudy Porter, 13, of team Android 005, compete with their Lego robot at the FIRST Lego League Regional Competition held Saturday at the Siebel Center. Online Poster

By Nick Escobar

Kids ranging from ages 9 to 14 used LEGOs to solve everyday problems faced by the handicapped.

Nine teams from the Champaign-Urbana area and southern Illinois competed in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League Regional Competition. Four teams advanced to the state tournament, which will be held Jan. 21 and 22.

The event, put on by the College of Engineering’s division of special programming, aimed to attract kids to engineering and science. Each team constructed a robot using LEGO mindstorms – a version of the toy that allows for computerized movement – and programmed it with the Robotics Invention Systems program. The theme for this year’s event was “No Limits.” Students had to program their robots to do a series of different things that might be difficult for a person with disabilities to do.

The robots, no bigger than guinea pigs, performed tasks that included moving a CD, serving a LEGO dinner and climbing a set of LEGO stairs, among other things.

The robots moved by receiving downloaded information from infrared signals. Since teams were close together, two teams accidentally downloaded the other team’s program into their robot. One of the teams, “No Limits for a Change,” from Champaign’s Dr. Howard Elementary school, was “zapped” and had to forfeit a round of play. However, the team still managed to move on to the state competition despite its setbacks. The team, comprised of fifth-graders, remained optimistic throughout the day.

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“Our robot is made from teamwork, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s unique ways and ideas,” said Sinfony Rosales, a member of the team.

The first-place team, which scored 1,337 points, was “Utter Chaos,” a team of all girls from Urbana’s Home Hi Middle School for girls. The girls were happy and energetic throughout the day, singing a song they wrote before one of the rounds of competition. Most of the girls said they want to go into math and science at the University, while one said she is determined to study anthropology. They said their biggest problem was agreeing on the team’s name.

“For kids who are thinking of becoming engineers, it’s one of the best ways (to get experience),” said Katherine Allen, a member of “Utter Chaos.”

Also advancing to the state competition are “Hella’s Little Angels” from Flora, Ill., area schools and team “Storm” from Bureau Valley Junior High in Buda, Ill.

University alumni and current students volunteered their time to assist the teams, judge the competition and help with the event.

The teams were judged on robot performance, technical know-how, a research presentation and overall teamwork, each category comprising 25 percent of the overall score.

Teams had to research a building in their school or community and determine what problems the building presented to the handicapped. They then had to present solutions for the problems and create a plan to share what they learned with the public.

University alum Shawn Lindberg helped judge the research presentations. Lindberg, who is handicapped, volunteered because he heard they wanted people who deal with a handicap and had some engineering experience to help. He said he was blown away by how much the kids learned for the competition.

“One group went to Wal-Mart and got in wheelchairs and then had that person shop and observed people’s reactions,” Lindberg said. “That’s something I would expect college students to be doing, not middle schoolers.”

Awards for research, performance, technicality, teamwork and spirit were presented, along with a judge’s award.

Adam Gorski, master of ceremonies for the second year in a row and senior in engineering, donned a tuxedo, top hat and oversized microphone to help keep the competition’s atmosphere light. While the event is competitive, Gorski said the main goal was to provide a fun learning environment.

While the kids spoke like adults and answered difficult technical questions, they still chased one another and acted like kids at the end of the day. “The Striped Baguettes” from Urbana Middle School would smack into their coach in celebration, much like NFL football players.

“It’s nice to watch others do well,” said Andrew Weatherhead, member of the “Robo Monkeys” from Urbana Middle School.