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Robotics team takes on real-world challenges

Students headed to state competition this weekend

Khela McGann/The Littleton Courier Marshall Doughty (from left), Asher Merrill, Trevor Blampied and Elyssa Anneser recently show off the “project” portion of the annual FIRST LEGO League Challenge. This year, Profile School’s robotics team built a desalination system to show how salt water could be used to provide safe water for drinking and irrigation in Somalia. (click for larger version)
November 30, 2011
BETHLEHEM — While the uninitiated might hear "robotics team" and instantly envision a group of youths building a jerky robot that communicates only with "boops," "bleeps" and blinking lights, that couldn't be further from the truth for 10 local students.

Profile School's robotics team is tackling real-world problems, learning the ins and outs of programming small "bots" to carry out "missions," and, probably most importantly for the seventh and eighth graders, they're discovering how to handle the challenges as a group.

The team, which recently qualified for the Dec. 3 state competition, is taking part in FIRST LEGO League's 2011 Food Factor Challenge — a world-wide program that incorporates three elements students must work on: core values, the robot game and the project.

The League, which is a partnership of FIRST and LEGO Group, has offered the challenge program since1999 with yearly topics including 2010's Body Forward, 2008's Climate Connections, 2005's Ocean Odyssey and 2002's City Sights.

This year's challenge was focused on "keeping food safe."

For their project, the Profile team focused on a very important part of most foodstuffs' existence: water. Furthermore, they had been watching and reading about Somalia's plight with drought and food shortages, and they decided to tailor their project to that African country.

Elyssa Anneser was in charge of much of the research for the project, including which solar panel the team needed to purchase to create a model of a desalination plant.

The science is simple —saltwater is heated to evaporate the water that is then condensed as a drinkable, usable product, and the salt is left behind — but Anneser said the cost of building three desalination plants in Somalia is much less than what governments and private companies are spending to constantly fight pirates.

One of the most severe droughts in living memory and subsequent food shortage has motivated some Somalis to turn to piracy as an alternative source of income.

But desalination is only one portion of the team's challenge.

The "robot game" is just a nice name for 2.5 intense minutes of two robots competing to earn the most points through the completion of a combination of "missions." The different tasks are laid out a board of which every participating team gets an exact duplicate so everyone has a chance to tackle them.

Though they have a coach, Stepehn Noga, it's completely up to the students as to how they design the bots.

Each mission can require a different attachment on the bot — such as for hauling an object versus dumping a tray of objects — so the students have to take the design of an add-on and the time it takes to switch them out into account.

Also a factor is speed and agility: Should it be able to turn on a dime? What size do the wheels need to be?

Trevor Blampied said he joined the robotics team because some of his friends were involved, but he also found that "it's really rewarding when your bot does all of the missions [well]."

Each mission has a different difficulty rating and corresponding point value, and its up to the students to determine whether they want to set up programs aimed at getting a lot of easy points or a few difficult ones. In the end, the battle of the bots is at the mercy of the clock, the speed of the students in prepping for each mission, and any possible costly hiccup the bot might face on the board.

The team learned that the chance of an unforeseen malfunction is very real, and so they're bringing two bots to the table this weekend: "Floro-bot" and "Cube-bot."

"Core values" is all about showing how the students have worked together to achieve their goals and meet the challenge. The team started out the year in September with team building exercises and has often stayed after school to work on the robot game and project.

"We learned to divide tasks and trust each of our members to get those tasks accomplished," wrote the team. "Our motto is 'Together we can accomplish anything.'"

The state championship is an all-day event this coming Saturday at Central High School in Manchester. According to its website, up to 52 League teams will participate in the competition that is open to the public with free admission. The event is being sponsored by BAE Systems.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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