Loudoun students use Legos to devise robotics for international competition

By Alison Lake
Sunday, February 13, 2011

To some, it might seem as though nine Loudoun County students are spending their free time playing with toys. Actually, these teens are using Legos to create robots, delve into practical applications of science and technology, and prepare to compete internationally.

Seven hours a week, the middle-school students meet in coach Mark Vanderlyn's home in Broadlands to build and program competition-grade robots. They design components and set computer chips to perform complex maneuvers.

"I have never been interested in sports," Kyle Dumouchelle, 14, said. "Lego League gives me the opportunity to compete and have the camaraderie that once was only afforded to sports teams."

Ashburn Robotics, founded by Vanderlyn in 2005, uses the work of nine students from Loudoun schools. Team members, who range in age from 13 to 15, are Alex Duan, Kyle Dumouchelle, Jacob Hughes, Kaustubh Rane, Austin Riopelle, Nathan Riopelle, Lindsey Vanderlyn, Michael Vanderlyn and Katherine Yang. Ashburn Robotics has won more than 15 state and local titles.

In April, the team will represent the Washington region with the aim of winning another title at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League World Festival in St. Louis. About 79 teams from more than 50 countries will compete.

Although the primary focus of creating Ashburn Robotics was to get students excited about science and technology, Vanderlyn said, accomplishing tasks as a team has been vital to the group's success.

"They all have strengths and weaknesses, but they discovered that to form a team, they needed to pull all their abilities together and support each other," Vanderlyn said.

On a recent Friday, the team performed a skit about how prosthetic arms enhance quality of life. With the help of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, members learned about the technology needed to create prosthetics. The students prepared costumes, dialogue and a stage backdrop.

Gathered recently around a large robotics table similar to one they will use in competition, the team members chattered energetically as they explained the parts of their robot and the tasks it can perform, such as dropping pills into a box.

"It is fun to be able to build a robot that can navigate through the course and complete missions," Lindsey Vanderlyn, 15, said. "You get a feeling of immense satisfaction watching the hours of programming actually work and the robot do exactly what you expected it to."

Another task the team must complete is raising the $20,000 needed for the St. Louis trip.

"With so many high-tech companies in our back yard, I am hoping we will be able to get a few of them behind our effort to go to St. Louis," Vanderlyn said.

"Programs like this are helping to cultivate this country's next generation of scientists and engineers. . . . Kids like the ones on my team and other teams may cure cancer or invent a clean energy source one day," he said.

To learn more about the group, go to www.ashburnrobotics.com .

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