FIRST® LEGO® Robotics Championship Tournament held at UND

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FIRST® LEGO® Robotics Championship Tournament held at UND

Entering UND’s Memorial Union on Saturday, February 5, it was impossible to ignore the rumble coming from the second floor. Climbing the stairs brought one face to face with the roar and thunder of hundreds of parents and children competing in the First Lego League (FLL) North Dakota Championship Tournament.

FLL is a global program created to get children excited about science and technology. Children ages 9 to 14 from across the U.S. and Canada are presented with real-world scientific problems which they are tasked with solving using research, problem-solving and engineering solutions.

For the 2010-2011 season, the challenge is titled “Body Forward,” and is based on current trends in biomedical engineering.

Using Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0, a programmable onboard computer with a motorized system, teams must create a program and engineer a robot to perform a series of tasks. The challenges range from “kicking” a ball, to identifying differently-colored panels that represent “bad cells” (using an optical sensor), to pushing a “cardiac patch into the heart.” There are 15 missions and all must be completed in two and a half minutes to reach a maximum score of 400 points. The overall task is very complicated, and each mission requires inspiration, insight and teamwork.

Points make the competition quantifiable, but the kids will tell you they would prefer their robot complete as many of the challenges as possible.

As the tournament gets underway, swarms of these creative kids are circulating around the ballroom, practicing their missions before the next round begins, putting the final touches on a robot or checking out the competition.

The teams come complete with colorful nicknames and costumes including the “Robo Raccoons” of Centennial Elementary in Fargo, the all-girl “B Cubed/Bio Bot Babes” of Hankinson, and Apple Creek Elementary’s “The Team Without A Cool Name,” to name a few.

As the competition gets underway, the volume in the room increases, fans hold up signs supporting their team. Teams are judged on robot performance, technical design, programming, and teamwork. In addition, each team gives a presentation on a topic for the judges. The highest honor goes to the team that best exemplifies the spirit and values of the program.

According to Dr. Reza Fazel-Rezai, a coach of the “BEST (Biomedical Engineer Stars of Tomorrow)” team and UND professor in the Electrical Engineering Department, “Teamwork is the first thing they learn. One kid cannot do everything.”

The competition requires the teams to create robots that can perform multiple tasks, meaning the solution for one problem may not work for another. This forces team members to think more holistically about the challenges they face, and more fluidly about their robot’s design.

“They also learn to develop their skills thinking and listening to others, developing the hardware structure and the software design,” says Fazel-Rezai. “I can see their interest in engineering.”

Behind every working robot are numerous iterations that did not work. All of the designs are created by the team members, not the coaches. “I try to stay back and let them do the things they want to do,” says Fazel-Rezai. “We shouldn’t help them in designing.”

It took BEST almost two months to build its first robot. The eight team members were split into two teams of four that designed and built two different robots to try out ideas. After testing, the team voted for one design and began making improvements.

"I think Lego League is great experience for kids,” says Fazel-Rezai. “They practice teamwork, learn to respect other team members' ideas, understand there are deadlines to complete a project, and much more.”

The North Dakota Regional Championship is one of more than a hundred contests held across the U.S. Winners of the tournament then enter a pool of possible teams that may be invited to the World Festival, held in St. Louis, MO. The World Festival is not a level of competition, but a celebration of the FLL season.

Craig A. Garaas-Johnson

News & Features Editor

Photos by Craig A. Garaas-Johnson

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