Lego robotics competition at La Roche College challenges kids
January 22, 2015 12:00 AM
Christian Farls, 12, a student at Providence Heights Alpha School in McCandless, nervously watches as his Alpha Bots team's robot performs a series of tasks during the Lego robotics competition at La Roche College in McCandless.
Christian Farls, 12, and Matthew Soller, 13, students at Providence Heights Alpha School, prepare their robot before the Lego robotics competition at La Roche College in McCandless.
Peter Alfaro, 11, left, and Alex Garcia, 13, students on the Aquinas Academy team, prepare their Lego robot for the competition Saturday at La Roche College in McCandless.
By Jill Cueni-Cohen
More than 60 teams of children ages 9 to 14 with a keen interest in robotics spent Saturday navigating their sophisticated, autonomous Lego robots through challenging obstacle courses at La Roche College in McCandless.
Teams of robotic clubs, home-schooled students in grades 4-8 and groups of friends who love robotics competed in the Western Pennsylvania First Lego League grand championship tournament.
The teams that are the most competitive frequently are not school-based teams, said robotics engineer Marcel Bergerman of Franklin Park, co-founder of GreenE Academy and a systems scientist at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
“They’re kids who spend more time on it,” he said. There are more than 25,000 Lego league teams in approximately 80 countries.
Teams of up to 10 members and two coaches participated in the challenge by programming an autonomous robot to score points on a themed playing field, developing a solution to a problem they have identified and showing how they were guided by the First Lego League core values.
One of the competitors, Ariella Grossberg, 12, of Franklin Park, an eighth-grader at Ingomar Middle School in the North Allegheny School District, started working with robotics and computers in the third grade.
She’s a member of one of the largest North Hills FIRST robotics teams, called Girls of Steel. FIRST is an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
“Most people think that girls can’t excel at engineering and math, but I don’t care what they say — I’m going to be an engineer someday,” she said, adding that being on the team gives her more experience working with robots as well as hanging out with like-minded girls. “I used to be on an all-boy team, but the boys overpowered me. There are some boys on our team now, but it’s mostly girls and I like that better.”
Also in the competition was Providence Heights Alpha School’s Alpha Bots team, which is a volunteer, after-school group of 11 students in grades 4-7. The school is in McCandless.
“The Alpha Bots have an advantage over some of the other teams because of the effort that is put behind learning computers in their school,” said Gordon Walton, tournament director.
Team member Sarah Pritchard, 12, of Franklin Park wasn’t thrilled about going to robotics camp last summer and joining the Alpha Bots team this year, but she has since decided that robots are fun to work on with her best friend, Grace Lunak, 13, of Marshall.
“After a week of camp, they loved it,” said her mother, Ruth Ann Pritchard. Her son Andrew, 11, is also on the Alpha Bots team.
Mrs. Pritchard said her children spend a lot of time on the computer at home, but they’re not playing games. “They’re actually using their brains, so I don’t mind them spending hours on the computer,” she said.
“To be able to understand and be comfortable with technology at this age gives my daughter confidence to know that she do anything,” said Grace’s mom, Lee Ann Lunak. “Learning to speak in public and present to adults is a bonus which will certainly help her later in life.”
Sixth-grader Christian Farls, 12, is in his second year of competing with the Alpha Bots.
“I was on another team before my school started the Alpha Bots, so I switched to be with my classmates,” Christian said. “I loved playing with Legos when I was younger, but this is the most fun, because I can work on them with my friends.”
“And we get to work with other kids from other teams and share ideas,” added seventh-grader Matthew Soller, 13, of Sewickley. Matthew started honing his robotic skills at summer camps this past summer and decided to join Alpha Bots for the first time this year. “This is the one competition where helping other teams actually makes your team better. It’s the most fun ever!”
Robin Shoop of Fox Chapel, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Academy, which judged the competition, said, “Robotics is the perfect organizer to teach computer science, which we believe is one of the keys to innovation. We use the motivational effects of robotics to encourage kids to pursue computer science, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
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