First Lego League Robotics in the Classroom

When the teacher of gifted students in our neighboring elementary school first explained the benefits of Lego Robotics in her classroom, I did not consider this as a curriculum I would want to employ in my own setting. The minute she said the words “robot†and “programmingâ€, I was threatened because of my lack of confidence regarding such complex themes. After seeing her enthusiasm and dedication, however, I finally decided to undertake this with my students as well. This decision took me through the adventure of my lifetime as a teacher. The peaks and valleys were intense, yet I believe this to be such an engaging and meaningful way to access students that I feel strongly about sharing this information with other colleagues.

I used the curriculum with our fifth- and sixth-grade gifted students. This is the second year that we have entered into the competition, and we are rigorously preparing for this upcoming event sponsored by The First Lego league International for students around the globe. In August we get the materials needed to begin, and obtain the rules for the competition from the Internet around mid-September. The kit includes all the pieces team members will need to build their own playing field to the same specifications as the one at the competition. Students compete locally in mid-December and qualifying teams enter state competitions thereafter. The final tier includes national teams competing against each other.

The competition for which our ten-person team is preparing includes three segments, of which students find the first, The Robot Game, to be the most interesting. Their charge is to create a robot out of Lego parts, which they then program with an RCX Lego brick that contains batteries and connections for three motors and three sensors. Students then create a program with the included user-friendly CD Rom. Programs may be very simple, using big blocks, which direct the robot to move forward, turn, etc., or they may become complex as students learn to use different sensors for their robot. The programs are downloaded into the RCX through an infrared light tower, and then the robot performs the tasks as commanded. The complexity here is that the robot is not remote controlled. Once the robot commences, it is on a course that cannot be changed. During the competition, team members are allowed to touch the robot only when it is in base.

Students compete on a playing field set up on a table. Teams have two and a half minutes to navigate the playing field and perform the mission challenges. This year’s challenges have the robot:

  • picking up a pair of glasses and returning them to base,
  • moving a CD from one section of the table to another,
  • delivering up to eight basketballs to a hoop (which has one center slot for extra points), transporting pet food to two animals at the end of the field,
  • determining which bus stop sign is white or red (using a light sensor) and knocking down the white stop sign,
  • opening a gate and latching it shut,
  • delivering a tray of food to a table, and pushing the chairs in at the same table.
  • At the end of the robot’s run, it must climb a three-tier platform and rest at the top.

The key elements for success are building attachments that will perform the mission. During the two and a half minutes, the robot can be altered any time it returns to base. While it is in base, students change the programs and add the new attachments for each mission. Successful teams will incorporate several missions into one program. The robot can be programmed to move forward according to a light sensor, touch sensor, rotational sensor, or time in seconds. The attachments can be run with motors, as well. This year my team built an attachment that uses pneumatics. The most challenging part was designing a switch that would allow the air to release at the critical moment when we needed it (to push the ball into the basket). The possibilities for the robot game are endless, and the students come to my room after school and on Saturdays to allow enough time for preparations for the upcoming event. We have two mentors, an engineer and a computer programmer, who help us in problem solving.

The second segment of the competition is a research project. This project is multi-faceted, because a team must not only complete extensive research, but they must think of a creative format in which to present their findings to a panel of judges in five minutes. This year the theme for the competition is No Limits. Our research focuses on people with disabilities and how we might create a world without limits for them by generating or redesigning an invention, preferably one with robotic foundations. We are to research a location, invent a design for this location, and then market our invention to a relevant decision maker. This has been a great year for our research team because we decided to include service-learning projects into our research

The most important aspect of my team’s research project was the call to analyze a location and design something new for this location. Our team decided to enlist the help of Michael, a student who was born without limbs due to a birth defect. He told us that he felt most limited at the YMCA camp where fourth-graders have their annual three-day outing. He expressed his difficulty at navigating there in a wheelchair, and our research project began to unfold. The students decided to analyze all local and national parks to see if there were any wheelchair assistive devices for unpaved terrains. They were unable to find a vehicle that would accommodate someone in a wheel chair on an unpaved path. They also discovered that in our county’s parks there are 27 trails of which 19 are not accessible to someone in a wheelchair.

The students’ proposed concept was an all-terrain wheelchair with an adult transporter attached to the back of it. The rider in the chair has a toggle switch that can steer and drive the vehicle, but the rider in the back can override the toggle switch if the vehicle is moving into dangerous terrain. This device was designed as a modification of Segway’s Next Thingamajig, invented by Dean Kamen’s team of engineers. We will be meeting with Hamilton County Park officials and Dominick, to get their feedback about our design. At the competition, the students will perform a Mission Impossible themed skit, including an I-movie of the meeting with the Hamilton County officials, to present their findings to the judges.

The final segment for the competition is the technical presentation. During this segment students must defend their robot to the judges, explaining their programming and design decisions. As our team was very intrigued by steering and pneumatics, trial-and-error and research cost us valuable time in having solid programs and attachments. The design of our robot is complex, which should score some points for the team, but the thinking behind this is not solid, and the judges will want to see a robot that consistently accomplishes tasks, which ours does not. The goal for each team is to design a robust robot, with interesting programming, that does not have any excess parts.

Surely anyone reading this will think that this is the only aspect of my job at our school. In fact I do this in conjunction with a full schedule of other teaching activities. This opportunity is so engaging, that I find it rewarding to stay after school and watch my team problem solve and discover. This curriculum is appropriate for gifted students, as it is for any child that is willing to stay with a task and commit. I highly recommend Lego Robotics in the classroom, and hope you will try to investigate this as a resource for your students.The First Lego League link is a great place to explore this as a possibility for your students.

Email: Sylvia St. Cyr