MEMS robots claim grand championship

by Rebecca Burylo
42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

12/6/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala.  -- Young engineers at Maxwell Elementary/Middle School came home grand champions last month from the FIRST LEGO League regional contest using robots and will compete in the state competition Jan. 25 in Huntsville, Ala.

The team of nine middle school students called "Just the RAYS (for Really Awesome Young Students)" hopes to save more "lives" and "communities" from a hurricane disaster using Legos, programming and brainpower.

The FIRST LEGO League, or FLL, is a global robotics program for school-aged children to become engaged in science and technology through research and engineering to solve real-world challenges.

As a new STEM school, MEMS uses curriculum that concentrates on science, technology, engineering and mathematics and incorporates robotics into every classroom.

MEMS is the only school in the Montgomery area to have an FLL team, according to MEMS' robotics sponsor Becky Hill.

"This is the fourth year we've done the FIRST LEGO League. It's an international contest, so the challenge is released to everyone, everywhere. Here in the Montgomery area, we're the only team," Hill said.

This year's challenge is "Nature's Fury," where more than 200,000 children from 70 countries are tasked with investigating and generating solutions to combat natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis that may threaten a community.

Maxwell's team chose to tackle hurricanes, team member Julia Touchette said. An 8th-grader, Touchette has participated in the research portion of FLL competitions each year at MEMS.

"As a team, we research all about hurricanes, and we create our own solution to help people. Ultimately, the project is building us into the next researchers of our age," Touchette said.

Teams are judged on their project, a robot game and core values.

The project demonstrates the team's solution to help a community in an event of a natural disaster. The Maxwell students researched ways people can prepare for a hurricane and protect themselves during a storm.

They presented their findings, along with storm facts, through display boards, informational brochures and an original theatrical skit, "The Hurricane of Oz," to engage the judges and inform their audience.

The robotic portion consists of a motorized Lego vehicle and a game table with a topographical map outlining residential and commercial areas.

Will Phillips, a 6th-grade team member, explained the purpose of the game.

"The game is supposed to help people in natural disasters and get people to home bases or safe places so they won't get hurt and get supplies to them. Our robot can do a lot of stuff," Phillips said.

To earn points, students must construct and program their robot to move around the board and complete various missions like saving pets, securing downed power lines and clearing runways.

Throughout the competition, teams also must follow the FLL's core values and guidelines in order to develop critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and teamwork.

While feeling excited and nervous to move on to the regional competition, Touchette reminds her team members the reason why they compete.

"Yes, we want to win, but it's not all about winning," Touchette said. "It's about if somebody else wins, telling them 'good job.' It's about encouraging others and lifting them up."