Fairfax students to compete in state Lego robotics competition

November 30, 2011

A group of Kilmer Middle School students might be the team to beat during the Virginia/D.C. First Lego League Robotics Championship this weekend at James Madison University.

The team of six Kilmer eighth-graders, called the Brainy Bunch, leveled its competitors during a regional tournament Nov. 5 in Ashburn. During that competition, the team was awarded the first-place champions title in its division of about a dozen teams. The Brainy Bunch scored high in the four judging categories: Lego robot design, robot performance, research and core values. The team also won first place for the performance of its robot, Alice, during a timed obstacle course competition.

Ninety-five teams from Fairfax County competed in some level of First Lego Robotics tournaments, organizers said.

The competitions provide an opportunity for students to show off their skills in science, math and computer studies, the parents of Brainy Bunch members said.

First Lego League is a robotics program for students ages 9 to 14 in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Similar leagues operate outside of North America and allow students age 16 to participate. More than 20,000 teams from 61 countries competed last year in First Lego League competitions.

Competitions, which have been staged since 1999, are sponsored by corporations such as National Instruments, Rockwell Automation, Vestas, 3M, Statoil and Lego.

The goal of the competitions is to get students excited about science and technology, according to the First Lego League’s Web site.

Even after their Nov. 5 win, the team members are spending the lead-up to the next competition reworking their strategy and making improvements to their robot.

“The tournament on Saturday and Sunday is the largest of its kind in the world — larger than the First World Festival in St. Louis,” said Nick Swayne, executive director for Virginia/D.C. First Lego League. “We have 96 teams competing from across Virginia and D.C. The World Festival can only accommodate 84 teams.”

Teams named first-place champions for their age group at the Virginia/D.C. tournament will be invited to the World Festival.

“We’re going to take them by storm,” said Jordan Ganley, 13.

If the team wins, “it will be the accomplishment of my nerd dreams . . . for the moment,” said Arthur Tisseront, 13.

“Nerd” is a sort of badge of honor worn by Brainy Bunch team members, all of whom are high-achieving students and plan on taking the entrance exam this winter for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the region’s governor’s school for the sciences. Jefferson has been named the top high school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report since the publication began its rankings in 2007.

All of the team members said math and science are among their favorite classes, both because they do well in them and because they enjoy the subjects.

Sometimes students who excel academically do not receive the same level of recognition as students who excel in areas such as sports do, said parent Clara Luckett, whose daughter Aly, 13, is on the team.

“I think a lot of what they get out of this is in working together [as a team],” she added.

Much of the First Lego Robotics competition involves team, rather than individual, challenges.

During competitions, students are tested in four areas — each worth 25 percent of the overall score: robot design, robot performance level in completing tasks in an obstacle course, teamwork in completing a task without robots and a presentation on a subject within the tournament’s theme.

“They give you a specific topic and you have to learn all about it,” said Dhriti Vij, 13. Teams under this year’s Food Factor theme were asked to pick a food production industry and research it for a presentation during competition.

The Brainy Bunch chose to focus on milk production food safety as a research topic and donned cow-patterned baseball caps as part of the team uniform.

Judges were looking for “in-depth perceptions of how things work,” said Ryan Gottwald, 14.

“These are different topics than we would learn in school,” Aly said. “At the beginning [of fall when the team began working], we would all come together and research. But then we got more specialized with what we’d do. . . . The guys did more of the [robot] programming and we [girls] did more of the research.”

In addition to what is shown during competitions, teams meet with industry experts — such as U.S. Food and Drug Administration employees, as the Brainy Bunch did — and help raise awareness by creating an outreach project.

“It’s a lot of work actually. . . . It teaches them perseverance,” said parent Quincy Zhao, whose son, Andy, is on the team.

Group members said they’ve learned to maximize their talents.

“It sort of forces you to work together,” Andy said. “It gives you a look of how you have to work together with people in a future job.”

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