For young programmers worldwide, a robotics competition isn’t just a chance to win bragging rights — it’s a challenge to creatively solve community problems with Legos.
Forty students across three local teams took on that challenge this fall with the First Lego League, a worldwide initiative that aims to help kids in fourth through eighth grade learn to build and program their own robots while practicing problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
There are three chapters of the First Lego League in Ketchikan.
Two of the teams are based at the Ketchikan Charter School, while the “K-Town First Lego League” is composed of homeschooled kids and Fast Track students.
At a meeting of the First City Rotary Club on Tuesday at Cape Fox Lodge, Rotary members were addressed by Lori Ortiz, who helped coach the “K-Town” league.
“We’re here today because we have one homeschool community team — that’s PACE and Fast Track — and then there are two charter school teams,” Ortiz said. “But we used to have programs at Fawn Mountain and Houghtaling. … We’d like to see that energy regenerated.”
Ortiz said that she also would like to see Schoenbar Middle School and Ketchikan High School develop teams in the future.
Referencing a conversation with other Rotary members, Ortiz compared the program to the “rocket club” she remembered growing up with in school.
“What struck me was in our generation, it was all about getting to the moon and getting off the earth and now it’s about living on the moon and having the technology to solve problems here and there,” Ortiz continued.
She said that to help students during the First Lego League season — which begins in September — “you do not need to be an engineer or a programmer, you just need to like kids.”
“It has three components,” Ortiz said of the program. “The first part is that you identify a problem in your community.”
The First Lego League organization provides a theme each year — this year’s theme was “city shaper.”
Aliyah Glover, 12, Amelia Boor, 11, and Max Glover, 9, all researched potential problems in the First City on behalf of the “K-Town” league.
After students learned the theme — which was about how to build successful cities and solving the problems that come with city management — they were tasked with identifying a problem in their own communities.
“We went to the airport and we discovered there were problems like the capacity, because every single year there’s been getting more and more people coming in and there’s been getting lesser and lesser room,” said Boor, who is in sixth grade.
The problem that Boor identified during a field trip to the airport was the lack of ability for expansion.
“The problem with the airport is that we are not able to expand the airport, really at all, because on one side there’s the sea, on one side, where the planes come in, and on the other side, buildings,” Boor continued.
Fourth-grader Max Glover identified a problem with hydropower during droughts.
“So we had a solution: tidal power,” Glover said. “You just use this machine that the tide spins it. There’s tide books that you can use for it to see what tide will be (and) how much power you’ll get.’
Aliyah Glover also said that her team examined tourism as a potential problem.
“The other problems we looked about is that people cared about the tourists a little bit,” Glover said. “And how they were kind of taking over downtown and there was a lot of construction and people stepping out into the road to take pictures of totem poles. But we decided that people care more about — trash!”
With that, Boor and Glover launched into a short song about using the “three R’s” — reduce, reuse and recycle — to help better the community.
“If you want to be fantastic, recycle your plastic!” their song finished.
After the short performance, the girls shared creative ways that First City residents can help cut back on trash.
Boor and Glover suggested making toys, hats or headbands from recycled goods, hanging gardens from plastic water bottles, bringing cloth bags to the grocery store and even building a playground from recycled materials.
After all this research was done and the three teams created their poster-board presentations, it was time to program a robot for the competition.
The kids constructed their robots from Lego sets known as Lego “Mindstorms.” A “Mindstorm” robot “brain” can cost as much as $400, with the accompanying software totaling around $200, and a complete kit reaching a price of $500.
The robots are programmed by students using technology known as “block programming.” In this type of programming, each action that the robot performs originates from a “block” that the programmer placed in a computer system to represent the action.
Boor said that she did much of the programming on an Apple computer. She spent up to an hour during league meetings, which were held two days a week, coding the robot.
During a competition, the students use a robot that they programmed to complete various tasks on a puzzle board. The tasks relate back to the “city shaper” theme that was announced at the season’s beginning.
One example that the students explained during the Rotary meeting was making a swing more accessible for all children, including those with dis`abilities or in wheelchairs. In order to earn points for this task, the kids had to program their robot to interact with the swing in a way that made it more accessible for all.
There can be as many as 20 puzzling tasks for robots to complete, and there is a two and a half minute time limit. Students earn points for puzzles completed and also for the precision that their robot used when completing the puzzles.