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Robotics event hones problem-solving skills
Anna Hout and Jefferson Barry of Team Virtual Vipers reset their Lego Minestorm EV3 robot for a second attempt at a mission on Saturday during a Lego Robotics competition at The Plaza mall. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

The PACE correspondence school office in The Plaza mall was buzzing Friday with students programming robots and finishing up research display boards for Saturday’s FIRST Lego League robotics competition, held Saturday at The Plaza.

Students from three homeschool programs — PACE, IDEA and Ketchikan School District’s FastTrack — as well as students from Ketchikan Charter School met to test their abilities in programming, research and life skills in Saturday’s competition. Some students are dual-enrolled in Holy Name Catholic School, through FastTrack.

According to FIRST Lego League information, students compete at events under the supervision of a coach to research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling or energy and are challenged to develop a solution. In addition, students design, build and program a robot using Lego Mindstorms technology, then compete by having their robot perform prescribed tasks on a tabletop course designed by FIRST Lego League.

There are certain values that must be addressed by teams for the competitions: discovery, innovation impact, inclusion teamwork and fun. These core values allow participants to explore the FIRST Lego League philosophies of “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition” — a term the organization uses to describe students working together in the spirit of friendly competition.

This year’s theme for competitions was “Into Orbit.”

Sixth-grade FastTrack team member Aliyah Glover, a member of team S.P.I.C.E. (Space Program of Ice Cream and Eggs,) said on Friday that her team researched the possibilities of plants in space, and the challenge of solving astronaut loneliness.

She said that having plants in space could solve some critical problems.

“Plants absorb CO2, carbon dioxide, and breathe out oxygen, and so if there wasn’t plants on earth, we’d use all the oxygen in the air up.”

She said part of their research included a trip to North Shore Gardens, where the owner taught them about the benefits of microgreens.

They learned that microgreens can be harvested in tiny amounts over a long period of time, making for a very efficient, healthy food source, Aliyah said.

She added that if astronauts are in space longer than expected, starvation could be a risk, and microgreens could be critically important to prevent that.

Another risk astronauts face, Aliyah said, is contracting scurvy or beriberi. Scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, and beriberi, by a vitamin B1 deficiency.

Aliyah showed a different team’s research display board, which was divided into three sections: problem, research and solution. The problem that team, the “Mars Mechanics,” was researching was the lack of exercise astronauts face. Their proposed solution was to have pet dogs accompany astronauts.

Sixth-grade “Mars Mechanics” member Lola Barry said her team consulted with Island to Island veterinarian Marna Hall on the challenge of safely transporting dogs into space.

Aiden Eldridge, a programmer for the Mars Mechanics team, said they had learned from Hall that it would be safest for the dogs, if they traveled into space, to be tranquilized for launch. Also, there should be a device created to help the dogs to walk on the floor of the spacecraft, rather than swimming through the air.

“They need to keep them exercising so they don’t get frail,” Aiden said.

To address how astronauts could exercise with their dogs, the team drew a design for a human/dog dual treadmill with straps to help hold both human and dog down on the belt.

In addition to the benefit of making exercise more fun for the astronauts, the team listed two other benefits of including dogs on space missions: to help maintain a healthy weight for the humans and dogs, and to reduce their stress.

Lola said that another important benefit would be to reduce loneliness. Aliyah added that growing plants also can help to alleviate loneliness.

“Especially for older people, we learned that taking care of plants makes it feel like their own children, or something. So it actually helps with anxiety, stress, depression and stuff like that,” she said.

Eighth-grader Jefferson Barry, a programmer for the “Virtual Vipers” team and a six-year veteran of the Lego robotics program, said his three-person team focused on solving the problem of loneliness and depression for astronauts. They postulated a solution where astronauts would use virtual-reality headsets to communicate with family and friends back on earth.

At Saturday’s competition, teams presented the boards displaying the results of their research, and gave talks about what they learned, in private rooms with judges.

S.P.I.C.E. team members William Hout, a fifth-grade student, and seventh-grader Joseph Gonzalez were at the robot game table Friday, working on their robot’s programming.

The robots are required to complete several “missions” on the regulation table top. When the two-and-a-half minute timer starts, the team’s robot completes as many “missions” as possible, as it runs its programs.

Some of those missions include sending Lego “carts” down a “space travel ramp” after loading two carts from the “base,” angling “solar panels” on an arm, bringing “core samples” back to base, and driving over a lumpy “crater field” of Lego bricks.

Certain missions earn different numbers of points for levels of accuracy. There also are penalties for certain mistakes, such as programmers touching their robot while it’s completing one of the 15 tasks available to teams to attempt.

Jefferson explained that when he first started, practices were held at the library, and there was a lot to learn. His second year, the event’s theme was “Nature’s Fury,” and his team researched tsunamis. It has taken a few years for Ketchikan’s teams to get authorized to hold an official FIRST Lego League competition.

The “Virtual Vipers” programmer team, on Saturday, won first place for their table robot missions performance. The team of Jefferson, ninth-grader Anna Hout and ninth-grader Emily Stumpf agreed that their success was due to their combined years of experience and the support of their teachers.

This was Emily’s first year as part of the competition.

“I thought it was fun,” she said, adding that the best part was “becoming a team, and getting to know each other.”

Second place for the robot missions category was the S.P.I.C.E. team; third place was taken by Team Galactic; fourth, by “Mara Mechanics” and fifth, by “Kermit Corn.” Team Galactic also won the category “Secret Judge Award for displaying core values throughout the day.”

“Virtual Vipers” also won the categories “Robot Design and Programming,” “Research Project,” and “Teamwork.”

The “Core Values/Teamwork” category was won by team “S.P.I.C.E.” and the “Overcoming Adversity” award went to “Mars Mechanics.”

Aljhan Millendez, a fourth-grader from Ketchikan Charter School, and a researcher for team “Kermit Corn,” said his group focused on solving the problem of “space madness,” caused by people spending too much time in space. This was his first year of involvement with a Lego robotics team.

Aljhan said the most challenging part of the program for him was building the robot, but he also enjoyed creating drawings for the project.

Each team can be comprised of as many as 10 members, Ketchikan Charter School coach and middle school math and science teacher Jacob Alguire said. As he and assistant coach Jeremy Minshall packed up their supplies after Saturday’s event, Alguire talked about his participation.

Alguire said he re-started the KCS robotics program last year. He said he has 26 middle school students in his Lego robotics classes, and 13 students in his after-school program for fourth- and fifth-graders.

Alguire said his biggest challenge was to step back and allow the students to do the work themselves.

“This is supposed to be a student-driven thing. I love Legos, I love robotics, I love science. So one of the hardest things is being able to take that step back and say, ‘No, the kids need to be the ones doing it,’ he said. “I only offer the barest amount of advice because I need them to be the ones that find the ideas, to find that sense of self-discovery. That really deepens that learning, and that connection they have with what they’re doing, which I think helps foster the growth and the STEM mindset that we’re trying to build towards.”

“STEM” is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in the context of education.

Alguire added that he is focused on his students’ futures.

“If these kids do have an interest in some type of technology career, we can kind of spark that before they take off,” he said.

Alguire added that more teams are always needed, and people interested in coaching, who could commit to lead a team for the three-month preparation period, should look into starting their own team. He explained that the Lego robotics teams can be part of a school program, but they also can be set up and run by individuals.

Alguire said that for him, the most fun part of the program is the robot games. The suspense of watching nervously as the kids’ robots execute the programs they worked so hard to create is riveting. He said he also is inspired by watching the kids demonstrate resiliency when things don’t go as planned.

“Seeing the kids recover from that, and persevere and go back to the table time and time again, is just awesome,” Alguire said.

“Virtual Vipers” programmer Jefferson said he’s stuck with the program for so long for a simple reason.

“Because it’s fun,” Jefferson said. “I really like it.”