Seventh-grader Alex Kauffman and sixth-grader Logan Haralson operate a robot for a school demonstration April 14. Their robotics team won the Director's Award at the state competition in Anchorage and qualified to compete in Atlanta, Georgia on Saturday and Sunday in the FIRST LEGO League World Festival.
Photo by Layton Ehmke
ATLANTA Anyone who thinks of those little plastic building bricks that snap together as only toys hasn't seen what the kids from Aurora Borealis Charter School can do with Legos.
Add a few electric motors, some circuitry and a bushel of imagination, and you've got a small robot that's carried the Polar Bear team to the site of Olympics and Super Bowls, the Georgia Dome, where they're competing for the international championship for the FIRST Legos Robotics.
There were 8,500 screaming nerds in the arena cheering for their teams in a novel competition between robots.
The FIRST Foundation is funded by NASA, the CIA, FedEd and others interested in spurring the next generation of engineers. It was the brainchild of Dean Kamon, an inventor of medical devices and the quirky Segway scooters that balance on two parallel wheels.
Each year the collection of tasks the machines must perform is different, and this year organizers had the middle school level carry out chores that a handicapped person would grapple with daily: Feeding the dog, setting the table, opening a gate. It was a way to stimulate an interest in engineering and to support the notion of technology serving mankind.
The Polar Bears team realized not everyone is capable of fishing the Kenai River, one of the most world-known sport fishing rivers in the world. The team wants to give everyone the chance to enjoy it and they found a potential solution.
"We were shocked that the 2006 National Veterans Wheelchair Games will be here, and out of 384 river guides there is only one boat with handicap accessibility," said eighth-grader Marquee Lucas.
The team expects 400 to 600 disabled veterans to come to the area, many of whom will likely want to fish. On top of that, the team found through the Soldotna Visitor's Center, that there could be nearly 5,000 disabled visitors who come to the area during the summer season. Their design demonstrates how a person and thier wheelchair could be lifted into a boat and secured to a gyroscopic platform.
"We took this up because we are sad to see that nothing is being done. This is something we thought we could do to help," Lucas said.
Their innovative design won them that world title.
Eighth-grader Maya Chay said the team wanted to make a design so guides wouldn't have to change their boats. Knowing the real deal could carry high costs, she and her teammates plan to make a presentation to the Kenai city council regarding the city dock.
"I know it's a big investment, and would cost a lot, but at least it gets them thinking," she said.
The team did the best their school had ever done compared with year's past when they won the director's award at the state competition in Anchorage. So they were naturally ecstatic when they became international champions. They were up against 73 teams from 22 countries, no small feat for a little school in Kenai.
Programmer Alex Kauffman, in the seventh grade, joined the team last year because his older brother had been a member.
"It looked like a lot of fun," Kauffman said, adding that it turned out to be better than he imagined. Meeting people from all over the world with similar interests was icing on the cake.
Lucas has been part of the team for five years and will move up to the more advanced, high school robotics team next year if professional engineers can be recruited to serve as mentors.
"Every year that we have done it has gotten better and better," she said.
While some of the girls on the team have conducted the research or created the displays required to accompany the team's full presentation, Marquee focuses on the science.
"I really like the whole engineering, inventing part of it," she said.
Chay looks forward to the competition next year, that is of course if her team does well at state, first.
"All the other kids brought pins from their homes to give out to everyone. We only brought 20 Arctic Winter Games or Soldotna pins. We'll bring more next time," she said.
Teacher Suzanne Phillips says the kids have learned things they might have never gotten from their class studies.
"I watched these kids spend 40 hours trying to solve one little thing. What they learn about life ... is just terrific," she said. "The maturity that they have to get solving problems over and over again..."
The Polar Bears consisted of teachers Suzanne Phillips and Lee Chadwick, and students Alex Kauffman, Logan Haralson, Delissa Severson, Marquee Lucas, Maya Chay, Jacquie Pepper, Zac Kooly, Dillon Ball and Renetta Hensler.
Walter C. Jones is a reporter for the Morris News Service.
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