Robotics program challenges Puesta del Sol students to apply problem-solving skills to environmental crises

Torin McGrath and Madeline Justice practice with their Lego robot a few days before the Jan. 25 Washington First Lego League tournament in Edmonds. - Daniel Nash
Torin McGrath and Madeline Justice practice with their Lego robot a few days before the Jan. 25 Washington First Lego League tournament in Edmonds.
— image credit: Daniel Nash

A typhoon threatens the coast. Civilians, animals and valuable equipment are all threatened by the waves. Conditions are bad enough to prevent any rescuers other than remote-controlled recovery automatons — robots. And the only operators competent enough to deploy them are a team of Puesta del Sol fourth-and fifth-graders.

Three teams of Puesta del Sol Elementary students competed in the Washington FIRST Robotics Lego League regional qualifiers in Edmonds on Jan. 18. One team, the Mustache Monkeys, will move on to the semi-finals; The Stormbots won a Core Values award for Inspiration and team Phenomenon finished in a solid 37th.

Lego League is the venue where kids a decade shy of being able to operate heavy machinery go to flex their engineering and problem solving skills. Here they can build and program Lego robots to complete objectives on a tabletop course — known as the “robot game” in competition — or develop concepts for theoretical robots to solve serious environmental crises.

In the game, competitors place their robot on a course with a number of preset missions, each worth points. Their goal is to complete as many missions as they can in 150 seconds. It requires a great deal of planning, testing and cooperation among team members.

“Success is probably more about teamwork and working together to solve these problems than anything else,” team adviser and fourth-grade teacher Jenny Ferries said.

On the Thursday afternoon before competition, the team members of the Phenomenons are huddled over their “Phenomabot.” Olivia Boysen, Sungjin Park and Ethan Tampa had already picked the missions they believed they could complete in the allotted time; the next step was to fine tune their machine to finish without a hitch, adjusting variables like gear rotations to the sweet spot that would send the Phenomabot exactly where they intended.

“We have to do it one step at a time,” Park said.

“We try to keep as many attachments on (the robot) as we can,” Tampa said. “We want to do more missions in one run … that’s how it has to stay, or we change all the attachments and all the programs in the middle and that takes up some of our time.”

For their concept presentation, the StormBots were tasked with imagining a robot that could aid in the removal of invasive oceanic species. Marine Water Quality Specialist Jeff Adams, one person among the team’s network of University of Washington experts, had presented the problem of invasive species to the junior roboticists earlier in the school year.

“I’m a doodler,” StormBots teammate Madeline Justice said. “So I started thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a robot that could find them?”

She sketched out the “SeaBot,” a small snake-like automaton that picked up invasive species with small suction cups. She consulted with the group, they developed a final draft design, and then they began work on a presentation done in the format of a news and information show.

Though it was clear the students had learned a great deal about environmental science, design and programming concepts through the League, perhaps the key was that they had learned while having fun. In that last practice before competition, every student present was fully engaged with the task at hand, setting up programs on their laptops, pasting together their presentation boards or affably debating over the settings on their clockwork champions.

Some of the students said they were nervous for Edmonds. Others were more outwardly excited. To commemorate the event, and jazz up their presentation board, Madeline printed up Pokemon cards for each of her teammates.

The western Washington semifinals will be held Feb. 9 at Jackson High School in Mill Creek.


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