Kids Fuse Legos and Robotics at Competition

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

Otto Voettiner's hands shook slightly as he lined up his team's robot and released it along a Lego-filled course. The robot, Billybot, had a seemingly simple mission: to cross the table, lift a red ring with its long, gray fingers and return to base.

The seconds ticked down. His eight teammates, all fourth- and fifth-graders from Mountain View Elementary in Haymarket, watched intently beneath furry hats bearing their school's cougar mascot. The "future MIT student," as his coach proudly called him, had completed the task correctly dozens of times. But something was off yesterday, and Billybot veered off course, crashing into a little Lego house.

Otto was cool about the crash and the resulting low score. "At least we have two more tries," he said.

More than 200 students, ages 9 through 14, had three chances yesterday to show judges what their personally designed, built and programmed Lego robots could do at River Bend Middle School in Sterling. Statewide, about 2,400 students donned team T-shirts and funny hats and took their childhood toy to a new level of sophistication.

Turning Legos into robots, complete with sensors and computer hard drives, has become a popular weekend pastime for a growing number of young students in the Washington region and beyond. Ten years ago, the Manchester, N.H.-based educational organization known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) joined forces with Lego to establish the FIRST Lego League competition. This year, 135,000 children were expected to compete in about 40 countries. The regional tournament leads to a state championship in December and a world competition in Atlanta in the spring.

The Mountain View team is one of the first in Prince William County, although it is helped along by mentors from Battlefield High School, also in Haymarket, which has made it to the world championship in a similar competition with much larger robots.

Neighborhoods, home-school organizations, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts all organize Lego League teams. Fairfax County has dozens, including seven from Oak Hill Elementary in Herndon. There's interest for more teams but not enough volunteer coaches, said Martha Cosgrove, a third-grade teacher at Oak Hill, who has coached an all-girls team for seven years. Her daughter, a member of the first team, is a junior in high school and spent her summer at an engineering program geared toward young women.

Cosgrove's goal is to reach out to students who are underrepresented in engineering and technology careers. That means going after more girls, Hispanics, African Americans and those who aren't in gifted programs.

But if yesterday's competition is any indication, the robotics competition, although growing, is still solidly a game for self-identified brainiacs. Most teams came from schools with gifted and talented centers.

Mountain View's students were handpicked from an enrichment program, said coach and third-grade teacher George Lombardi. As one of his students explained, "You have to be one of the smartest kids in the class to do it."

The students have eight weeks to put together robots and presentations. On competition day, they are evaluated on a range of objectives, including teamwork and the performance and design of the robots, a category that brought Mountain View a first-place prize.

In addition, the students had to research how technology could help address a real-world problem associated with climate change. The Cougars chose to study drought and came up with a poster-board presentation and a skit called "The Scoop on Drought."

Some of the children already sounded like scientists.

Paige Payne, 9, presented on an ancient Peruvian irrigation system with three kinds of "raised bed systems," including a "phreatic system, in which the systems are joined in areas where the groundwater table is close to the surface of the soil and there is a means for groundwater recharge such as an infiltration lagoon."

While the audience of parents and teachers let the information sink in, she asked, "Do you have any questions?"

Between events, the Cougars marched two by two through the middle school hallways. "We keep our heads up high/For we are the Cougars of Mountain View/Our goal is to reach for the sky," they belted out.

One second-grader followed, marching and singing along a step or two behind. Her mother, Laurie Payne, held her hand, and said that she wants to be on the robotics team someday, just like her sister.

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