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Learning with Legos in Williamsburg


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Three members of Mary Welsh Elementary’s First Lego League team observe a robot they programmed maneuver around a game board. Nine students will compete in a First Lego League regional tournament Dec. 12. Pictured, from left, are Hannah Wriglesworth, Jenna Lindhart and Hanna Jennings.

This Saturday, nine Mary Welsh Elementary fifth and sixth graders will join over 200 children from east central Iowa to take part in a robotic competition in Ottumwa.

First Lego League is a robotic design competition competition that aims to develop teamwork and professionalism while challenging the engineering and science skills of 9- to 14-year-olds. This year’s challenge involves preprogramming a robot to traverse speedbumps, maneuver around obstacles, overturn objects and pick up and transport game pieces to a designated spot on the 8x4 foot game board.

Since the project is about innovation and design, the Williamsburg team of Gifted and Talented students (GAT) was given all the necessary Lego brand pieces to build a robot — motors, wheels, a computer brain — but not instructions. Through trial and error, students modified the robot to accomplish various tasks on the game board.

“We had to give it bigger wheels, so it could climb over stuff and put an arm on it to grab loops with,” said sixth grader Blake Hughes.

While some students improved the construction of the robot, others tweaked the computer program that directs the robot through the game course. Fifth grader Hanna Jennings noted the students’ first attempts included programming the robot to accomplish tasks based on their distance from the starting line.

“It wasn’t working very well. Sometimes it would work because of the way you placed it. Other times it wouldn’t, because you placed it in the wrong place,” Jennings said.

With the help of a mentor (assigned to first-year teams), the students began to see how they could help their robot “see” the game course or “listen” to directions. Art Roderick, a retired mechanical design engineer for Rockwell Collins, introduced the students to censors included in the robot kit that would react to light, sound and touch.

“We actually hadn’t realized what the light censor could do, so for the first five practices or so we didn’t use the light censor. We just programmed it to go forward and then pivot,” said fifth grader Jenna Lindhart, noting that the light censor improved the robot’s performance.

With the addition of the light censor, the Mary Welsh team can program the robot to follow dark paths on the game board. Through a “smarter,” robot, the team has had greater success with accomplishing missions outlined in the game. But, students have also learned the robot is only as smart as they design it to be. Human error can make for some peculiar performances, like when the students forgot to program both wheels to rotate.

 “That happened to us once. We just sat there and it kept going in circles. It would have gone for at least an hour if we hadn’t stopped it,” Lindhart laughed.

Other factors students have had to consider in the robot’s performance included energy consumption and speed. While the students only have two and a half minutes to complete as many tasks as possible on the game board, they’ve discovered speed affects the performance of parts on their robot.

“The light censor has problems reading the lines when it goes fast,” noted Mary Jane Owen, one of two teachers advising the Mary Welsh team.


Lego First teams must also complete a community project based on the competition’s theme and present their work before tournament judges. Since this year’s theme was centered on transportation (“Smart Moves”), students decided to develop a solution to a transportation problem they saw affecting their school system — the illegal passing of school buses.

In attempting to find ways to better inform the public of this problem, some of the students met with Williamsburg School District Superintendent Carol Montz, school transportation director Rick Zimmerman and police chief Marty Koch to discuss solutions. After their discussion, the group was given permission to design signs to be placed in school buses’ back windows that read “Stop. We’re watching you.”

“People can see it from the back of the bus, so they won’t pass if they’re facing that side,” explained sixth grader Ben Slevinski.

The students also researched the state code on the issue, and typed their research, along with safety tips, in a letter sent out to all parents. The team will present its research through informational posters and a rap to the contest judges on the day of the tournament.


The Mary Welsh First Lego team will participate in three matches at the regional tournament in Ottumwa Saturday, Dec. 12. The best score of the three matches will determine how the team places.

Judges will award the Mary Welsh team members points based on the robot’s performance, their technical knowledge of the computer program and the robot’s parts, their ability to work as a team, their professionalism and their community project. Students can advance to the state level of competition by placing first in one of eight categories: team spirit, robot performance, judges’ choice, technical, teamwork, project, first-year rising star teams and the overall winner.

GAT advisor Barb Hagerty said regardless of the team’s scoring at the tournament, she is satisfied impact Fisrt Lego League has already had on team members’ science and teamwork skills.

 “It helps improve the children’s skills in communication, technology and cooperation. I liked the fact that they’ve had to be gracious to each other and work hard, and that the solutions would not always be there with this kind of competition,” Hagerty said.

Roderick, the team’s mentor, agreed that cooperation and people skills are all part of the game.

“They learn to listen to other people’s ideas and sometimes give up their own idea to work together,” he said.

UPDATED December 10, 2009 11:30 AM

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