2015-02-20 / Front Page

Robotics team invited to South Africa

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Mason Burke, left, and Conor Ellis set their FIRST LEGO Robotics creation at the stating line of their planned routine during the state championship Robotics meet, held in Augusta Dec. 13. 
(Courtesy photo) Mason Burke, left, and Conor Ellis set their FIRST LEGO Robotics creation at the stating line of their planned routine during the state championship Robotics meet, held in Augusta Dec. 13. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNK — A group of 10 students who’ve made creative problem solving their mission now have a real quandary to conquer — how to raise enough money by May to get to South Africa, so they can represent their country in an international robotics competition.

Following up on their second-place showing at the FIRST LEGO League Maine Robotics Championship in Augusta this past December, the students now have a chance to go on to Johannesburg, South Africa in May as one of five teams invited to carry the U.S. banner into the FIRST Robotics Open Invitational Africa Championship.

RSU 21 performed well at the 15th annual Maine Championship. The district sent 12 teams and a total of 92 students to the state meet. There, they faced off against 75 teams from 45 municipalities, capturing the top two spots.


Members of “Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité, and Robots,” one of 12 robotics teams in RSU 21 including, from left Peter Lazos, Colby Ellis and Alize Hauser, stare down an official and the time clock during the state championship match in Augusta Dec. 13. (Courtesy photo) Members of “Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité, and Robots,” one of 12 robotics teams in RSU 21 including, from left Peter Lazos, Colby Ellis and Alize Hauser, stare down an official and the time clock during the state championship match in Augusta Dec. 13. (Courtesy photo) One group of 10 students, which dubbed itself the “Tesla Waffles,” scored the top prize, winning the right to represent Maine at the FIRST LEGO North American Open Championship at LEGOland in Carlsbad, Calif., May 15-17.

Meanwhile, the runner-up team, which calls itself “Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité, and Robots,” or LEF&R, pinned its hopes on a wild card berth to the big event. Or barring that, perhaps an alternate slot at the 2015 FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis. Instead, the LEF&R group was selected from among more than 26,000 competing LEGO League teams worldwide to attend the Africa Invitational.


Members of RSU 21 robotics team “Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité, and Robots,” celebrate runner-up honors, and a perfect score in the project portion of the competition, at the state championship meet in Augusta, Dec. 13. They’ve since been invited to represent America as one of five U.S. teams at the FIRST Robotics Open Invitational Africa Championship in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 5-7. Pictured are, front row from left: Nora Burke and Mary Hauser; and, back row from left: Isabel Hauser, Colby Ellis, Kevin McDonnell, Alice Hauser, Conor Ellis, Peter Lazos, Mason Burke, Brandon Hauser, and co-coach Dr. Emma Hauser. 
(Courtesy photo) Members of RSU 21 robotics team “Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité, and Robots,” celebrate runner-up honors, and a perfect score in the project portion of the competition, at the state championship meet in Augusta, Dec. 13. They’ve since been invited to represent America as one of five U.S. teams at the FIRST Robotics Open Invitational Africa Championship in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 5-7. Pictured are, front row from left: Nora Burke and Mary Hauser; and, back row from left: Isabel Hauser, Colby Ellis, Kevin McDonnell, Alice Hauser, Conor Ellis, Peter Lazos, Mason Burke, Brandon Hauser, and co-coach Dr. Emma Hauser. (Courtesy photo) That invitation arrived Jan. 28, which gives the students —all of whom are in grades five to eight at either the Middle School of the Kennebunks or Sea Road School — just a short window of time to raise the necessary funds if it hopes to make the show, scheduled for May 5-7.

Still, the team is confident in its abilities, in part because teamwork is the crucial cog in robot construction.

“The focus on cooperation is really important to the national and international organization, as well as to our team, and is what makes this, I think, such an excellent program,” said Dr. Emma Hauser, co-coach with John Burke of the LEF&R team.

Team member Mary Hauser, age 10, puts it another way.

“LEGO Robotics is like an array of fireworks, bursting into the air, with so many colors of all the talents of the students and coaches on our team,” she said.

FIRST Robotics — from the acronym “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” — was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen. Perhaps best known for the Segway scooter, Kamen has said his idea was to get students out of the classroom and into the workshop, where they might find practical applications for their studies.

“Kids, once they see a reason to learn something, they get passionate about it,” he said in June 2013, when he attended a kick-off event for the new Robotics Institute of Maine, at the South Portland campus of Fairchild Semiconductor.

“These companies desperately need the next generation,” said Kamen, making a sweeping gesture to the corporate executives gathered for that event. “And the schools, they desperately need kids to show up, realizing it’s not just theoretical nonsense.”

The LEGO League FIRST division for younger students was launched in 1999. It got up and running locally at the Sea Road School in 2011, thanks to Principal Steve Marquis. Underscoring the importance of robotics competitions to corporate America, 11 of RSU 21’s 12 FIRST teams are sponsored by Corning Life Sciences.

How it works

Each year in September, a new theme is announced that forms the project portion of regional meets leading up to state championship events. In addition to the main attraction, in which students use LEGO Mindstorm kits to build and program a robot to perform a set of given tasks, students also must research and present a solution to that year’s themed problem. Meanwhile, the third leg of the completion promotes a set of core values that stress teamwork and mutual respect.

“First Lego League promotes ‘gracious professionalism’ which is a great value,” said team member Isabel Hauser, 14. “It’s a life-long value that I will use throughout my entire life.”

This year’s LEGO League project was called “World Class: Learning Unleashed.” For that aspect of the competition, team members were asked to redesign how students gather knowledge and skills for the 21st century. Each team was tasked with teaching adults “the ways kids need and want to learn.”

For its project, the LEF&R team conducted research into creative problem solving — work that included video conferencing with Massachusetts-based creativity expert Rudy Ruggles. The team ended up not only creating a project, but putting it into practice.

The team created a role-playing toolkit for teachers to use in walking students through the various models and methods of creative problem solving. The team then tested its concept, which it called MindLab, on Ruth-Ellen Cialfi’s sixth-grade class. The concept worked well enough that the team garnered a perfect score for its project at the state competition. They now plan to continue development of the MindLab concept with an eye toward permanent adoption of the system.

“While some teachers use CPS, there is no organized curriculum to teach creative problem solving,” said team member Alice Hauser, at a Jan. 9 presentation to the school board. “We believe that because it is so important, it should be a part of the curriculum to which every middle school student is exposed.”

“It’s useful within the team setting,” eighth-grader Mason Burke said. “Since we had so many team decisions to make, from a team name, to the project topic, and which missions to have our robot attempt, CPS helped us work together instead of against each other.”

But, in the end, the LEGO League robotics competition is not just learning leadership and navigating group dynamics. At its core, robotics is all about exposing students to the world of science.

In recent years, STEM — an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” — has become the educational buzzword du jour, as schools have begun to employ Kamen’s projectbased learning approach to better prepare students for the jobs of the future.

“While being a part of the FIRST LEGO League, I found that engineering and technology is a large part of my everyday life,” said Kevin McDonnell, who, at 14, will “age out” of the LEGO division next year. “After just a couple weeks of robotics practice, I found myself using strategies from robotics in my math and science classes, from the use of educated reasoning when I came across a problem and had to troubleshoot, to using the scientific method to ensure accurate results.

“When I get to college, I hope to use this learning experience in my future career path, whatever it may be,” McDonnell said. “I now hope to become an engineer, or an architect.”

But before the LEF&R team can build on its success, it first needs to raise enough cash to make the intercontinental trip.

At its Jan. 9 meeting, the school board voted 10-1, with Arundel director Susan Sinnott Curran opposed, to give the team $1,000 in seed money toward a trip, should it win an invite to a championship round. Now with that invite in hand, team members are turning to community support, planning fundraisers and launching a promotional website.

“This team is comprised of girls and boys who are a remarkably well-spoken and talented group of children,” Dr. Hauser said. “They would love to have the opportunity to go to South Africa and represent their town, their state, and their country, and to facilitate ties between the United States and Africa.”

But even if their journey stops short of a plane ride to South Africa, the experience to date has been worthwhile, the students say.

“FIRST LEGO League promotes so many values — creativity, innovation, gracious professionalism, and teamwork — that when you walk away, you are left with a feeling that you have done something good, you’re a part of a team, and you’ve learned something while you were at it,” Alice Hauser said. “You find yourself applying the skills you’ve learned from FLL to so many different scenarios. This is an experience I won’t soon forget.”

Help fund the future

Invited to be one of five teams to represent the United States at the FIRST Robotics Open Africa Championship, an RSU 21 robotics team is raising funds to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the event, to be held May 5-7. The team which calls itself “Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité, and Robots,” or LEF&R, includes 10 students in grades five to eight at the Middle School of the Kennebunks and Sea Road School.

Anyone wishing to aid that effort can visit a website created by the students, www.roboticrepublic.org, which contains a link to Paypal donation site and a gofundme.org crowdfunding appeal.

Donations also can be made by mailing checks made out to LEF&R and sent to: P.O. Box 61, Kennebunk, ME 04043.

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