Turning Lego into science

Left to right-Micheal Done, Spencer Chow, Ian Chow, and Micheal Schmidt of the Cummer Valley Middle School Viperbots test their robot before the second round of the competition
Left to right-Micheal Done, Spencer Chow, Ian Chow, and Micheal Schmidt of the Cummer Valley Middle School Viperbots test their robot before the second round of the competition

Growing up most kids are used to just playing with their Lego but this Saturday school kids from around the province used it to build robots and compete with each other.

40 teams from ages 9-14 came from anywhere between Toronto and Ottawa to compete in the provincial championships in the FIRST Lego League (FLL).

Normally a gym only sees packed bleachers for sports but this weekend there was cheering for kids who chose science instead.

“I heard of it and I really like Legos, so I’ve got to join,” says Ben Leuebke, a student at Wedgewood Junior School in Toronto.

Teams of students packed into corners of the gym to work out the last few bugs in their robot. Others stood around the playing surface with their team members shoulder-to-shoulder hoping the last two months paid off.

Toronto TV news crews buzzed around trying to get shots of the energetic kids or maybe the nervous smiles of competitors.

“I just like the building of the robots and working on the project,” says Carl Haflidson, also a student at Wedgewood.

The atmosphere was spirited. Even a lock and hold, which kept everyone inside for about an hour while security dealt with an outside matter couldn’t put a damper on things. They just turned up the music and let the kids enjoy themselves as they danced around the gym.

The FLL is a partnership between For Inspiration in Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) and the Lego group.

“The idea is to inspire kids that science and technology is fun and exciting and engaging,” says Dave Ellis, director FLL Ontario.

The competition has three components. There is a research project, the robot-building component, and an activity used to demonstrate the core values of the FLL.

Each team had to complete a research project based off this year’s theme, which was learning. The teams needed to create a new way to teach a topic of their choosing.

“They have to research ways that we can teach people something better. They had to pick a topic that they wanted to teach somebody and figure out a way to teach it better,” says Ellis.

The projects were put on display while the competition unfolded. They ranged from teaching about ancient civilizations using 3D goggles to helping perfect someone’s stride while skating.

The competition element took place on a tabletop built for the robots to carry out the missions set out for them.

Each team needed to build a robot, which could navigate the tabletop, interact with obstacles, and move small objects. The teams were also responsible for writing a computer program to control the robot.

The third portion of the day was to demonstrate the core values of the FLL by participating in a team activity in front of a panel of judges.

“The judges observe how they work together, collaborate, problem solve, outside the box thinking kind of concepts. Then cooperate to accomplish the task,” says Ellis.

The FLL has been putting on competitions for 12 years in Ontario with Durham College hosting for the last six years. This year before narrowing it down for the provincial championship there were 450 teams.

The winners of the event are able to choose where they move on to compete for the world championships. Teams can pick between the FIRST championship in St. Louis, the California Open at LEGOLAND, and the Australian International Open.

After six years of FLL competitions hosted at DC it’s safe to say the college will see school kids back again next year to use Lego as more than just a toy.