2013-12-13 / Community

Solving ‘Nature’s Fury’ with Legos

By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer


Owen Chestnut, left, pulls the zip line taut as Mason Aiello steadies the Lego plane. Cousins who are both fifth graders at Sea Road School, Chestnut and Aiello are competing at the state-level robotics First Lego League competition Saturday, Dec. 14 in Augusta. Sea Road is sending six teams and nearly 60 students to the themed competition. This year’s theme is Nature’s Fury. Each team focuses on a particular natural disaster and attempts to find a real-world solution, such as programming a robot to send aid to citizens after a tsunami. 
(Alex Acquisto photo) Owen Chestnut, left, pulls the zip line taut as Mason Aiello steadies the Lego plane. Cousins who are both fifth graders at Sea Road School, Chestnut and Aiello are competing at the state-level robotics First Lego League competition Saturday, Dec. 14 in Augusta. Sea Road is sending six teams and nearly 60 students to the themed competition. This year’s theme is Nature’s Fury. Each team focuses on a particular natural disaster and attempts to find a real-world solution, such as programming a robot to send aid to citizens after a tsunami. (Alex Acquisto photo) KENNEBUNK — For the third consecutive school year, students from Sea Road School will participate in the First Lego League state robotics competition in Augusta.

Nearly 60 fourth- and fifth- grade students divided between six teams will make the trek to the Civic Center in Augusta Saturday, Dec. 14 to compete against nearly 70 teams from around Maine.

With Maine’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, there has been an incentive to incorporate engineering and design into the classroom, Principal Stephen Marquis said.

“It’s really a balance,” Marquis said of imbedding design and engineering into curriculum. “Lightning struck last year (at the robotics competition).” Marquis said that the incorporation of robotics as a subject is not required; however, because it fits within the demand for engineering and design, and because students at Sea Road have exhibited great skill, faculty and staff at Sea Road are running with robotics.

The First Lego League (F.L.L.) is part of an international S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program based in Manchester, N.H. The F.L.L caters to 9- to 14-year-olds, meaning Sea Road students are often the youngest competitors.

Yet, despite their fledgling status, a Sea Road team earned high rankings in 2011 and 2012.

Each year’s competition yields a different real-world issue that requires a solution. In the first year, 1998, the theme was Volcanic Panic. In 2011 the theme was Food Factor, wherein students had to improve the quality of food by finding ways to prevent food contamination. Last year the theme was Senior Solutions, and students were asked to solve a problem that older residents face.

The theme of this year’s competition is Nature’s Fury. Each team focuses on a particular natural disaster and collaboratively agrees upon a real-world solution to better equip citizens who live in the path of the natural disaster, whether it is an early-detection system, or a way to mend the after-effects of the disaster.

For example, one team from Sea Road has thoroughly researched tsunamis and, as part of their research, contacted a school principal in Alaska, said fourthgrade teacher Cory Steere.

“They learned about warning systems and what was required to keep citizens safe (during a tsunami),” Steere said.

The students used their research to put together a prototype, said Steere. The state competition on Saturday in Augusta will provide the students with a four-footby eight-foot walled table with a sort of post-disaster scene made of Legos.

For the competition, two groups race one another at adjacent tables. Each robot is expected to manipulate the disaster area by circumventing precarious areas while accomplishing tasks. Some of these tasks include hitting a lever that releases a plane attached to a zip line to land safely on a runway, or pushing displaced Lego people and animals back to their homes. Groups are given points for accuracy and completion of the tasks.

There is no set design for a robot, Steere said, nor is there a requirement when it comes to accomplishing tasks.

“It allows for unlimited creativity,” Steere said.

Owen Chestnut and Mason Aiello, fifth-graders at Sea Road, showed their robot’s prongs, which they added to make it easier to push debris out of the way and pick up objects such as Lego people and animals.

When asked why they enjoyed the F.L.L. competition, Aiello said, “I just think it’s fun to make a solution and a skit.”

“Yes,” Chestnut said in concurrence as he tinkered with the robot.

Said Steere, “This gives them the format to have the opportunity to learn while playing. To look at real-world solutions while using Legos – something that most kids are familiar with.”

At the state competition, students are graded on more than just demonstrated skill, such as core values.

“A lot of other elements are graded by judges, such as gracious professionalism, presentation and working as a team,” Marquis said.

Another aspect of the competition involves the collaborative spur-of-the-moment construction of a robot before the students are given an unexpected scenario they must find a solution to.

“The judges will watch how well each team works together,” Steere said.

Marquis’ interest in robotics was initially piqued when he and Steere attended the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conference in 2010 in San Francisco.

“We spent some time at the Lego robotics competition there and, after that, we were determined to start that here,” Marquis said.

Incorporating robotics into school curriculum, which Sea Road did for the first time this year, has been a goal of Marquis’ since 2010.

Grant proposals were written to a number of local organizations and foundations including the Education Foundation, Parent-Teacher Association and the Perloff Family Foundation. Because of sufficient funding, Sea Road students competing in Augusta do not have to pay to participate.

“For me, it is so much more about participation and collaboration and far less about place,” Marquis said. “... (To) this end, simply exposing a group of kids to another opportunity that may lead to future endeavors is most important. For many of our students, robotics and engineering is their sport or musical instrument.”

For more information visit www.firstlegoleague.org.

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