Kids Compete with Lego Robots

Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:06 PM

Roberta had a lot to do in just 21/2 minutes, including destroying infected blood cells, repairing a damaged heart, putting a cast on a broken bone and dispensing medication. Everything had gone perfectly in a morning test run, but during the real operation, Roberta failed miserably. The bone stayed broken, the heart went unrepaired, and so on.

Luckily, Roberta is a Lego robot, and all her tasks were being performed not on a real patient, but on Lego models. A team of seven 11- and 12-year-old girls from the Potomac School in McLean built Roberta, hoping for a spot at the Maryland state championship of the First Lego League robot-building competition, which is being held next weekend in Baltimore. For the qualifying competition in Laurel last month, the girls had worked nights and weekends building their robot and programming her to move around a table-top playing field doing the make-believe medical procedures.

"I don't know what happened," said Kelsea Bowen of Falls Church. "It's so frustrating, because it worked perfectly this morning."

Then she disappeared into a practice room to see if she and her team could fix Roberta for Round Two.

Lego meets science, engineering

First Lego League is a worldwide organization that supports teams of kids age 9 to 16 through a two-part research and robots challenge. First, kids have to come up with a solution to a problem related to a different theme each year. They have to research their topic and present their solution to a panel of judges.

Then they have to build and program a robot made with Lego Mindstorms pieces to complete a series of theme-related missions on a tabletop playing field. This year the theme was about the human body and medicine.

First Lego League describes itself as a science and engineering program, but it doesn't require any special technical expertise. Kids and coaches say it's just as much about teamwork, thinking creatively and having fun. Kelsea was the main programmer on her team, though she had never done it before. Other girls focused on designing the robot, writing the research paper and even coming up with the jokes for their presentation.

"I liked how by working together we were able to figure things out," said 11-year-old Claire-Solene Becka of the District, who is also on Kelsea's team.

Try, try again

Lindsey Vanderlyn of Ashburn, 15, was on her First Lego League team for six years - and the experience paid off when her current team won the Virginia state competition in December. They will go to the First Lego League world championships in St. Louis in May.

"Every year, you learn more about what the robots do and how to actually do the research project," she said. "It was just really, really cool."

Kelsea and her teammates, including her twin sister, Sydney, learned this the hard way. They figured out that Roberta's light sensor didn't work because the light in the auditorium was different than it was in the science lab at school, where Roberta was built and tested.

Roberta did better in Rounds Two and Three, but Kelsea and her team didn't advance. Of the 20 teams that competed, only six moved on to the state final. Still, the girls want to try again next year.

"It's all of our first time doing robotics," said Claire-Solene, "It's just really fun."

- Margaret Webb Pressler

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