Tech hosts competition for aspiring engineers

Ask an engineer about their favorite childhood toy, and odds are good that LEGOs®, K’Nex© or Tinker Toys will pop up somewhere in the conversation.

Toys like these have always been a staple in the aspiring engineer’s toy box, but recently some have been asking something else: could they be used to get children interested in engineering in the first place?

According to Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing and the FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL), they can, and they are.

On Jan. 23, Tech played host to a small army of young roboticists as they competed in the FLL state finals.

Jeff Davis, Associate Professor in the School of ECE and a key player in FLL at Tech said, “FIRST® Robotics is an organization that started…a while ago at the high school level. At some point, it branched out into this middle school effort of FLL. FLL is geared towards ages nine to 14, and, basically, this national organization comes up with a competition each year.”

According to Davis, the competition itself consists of multiple parts. The main show is the robotics competition, where students build and program a robot to complete a series of missions on a four-by-eight foot course. Robots have two and a half minutes to complete as many goals as possible, and the more they complete, the more points their teams earn.

This year, the theme for the event was called “Smart Moves,” and the competition reflected this with a series of transportation-themed challenges. The robots’ tasks included maneuvering through tight spaces, crossing bridges and determining where they could and couldn’t reach.

Previous years have featured themes like a Mars exploration, helping people with disabilities, and nanotechnology. Like this year’s competition, the robots’ missions were made to match the theme. For example, for the nanotechnology theme robots had to repair and bring supplies to a large LEGO® “bone” set into the course.

According to the FLL website, the theme for the 2010 competition is a focus on robotics’ role in the biomedical field.

A blurb on the FLL’s stated that, “[Participants] will explore the cutting-edge world of biomedical engineering to discover innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions, and maximize the body’s potential, with the intended purpose of leading happier and healthier lives.”

Many of the missions stem from a few simple operations.

“Typically the types of missions they have are…[going] out to some location and flipping a switch or getting some loops and bringing them back to base,” said Davis.

In addition to the robotics course, the challenge also has three other components: a research project, a technical report and a team-based project. While the research project is normally based around the theme of the competition, the technical report is more journal-oriented to keep over-involved parents from doing their child’s work. Students report on various challenges and technical potholes they had to overcome while working with the robots.

As for the robots themselves, FLL competitors are all given a LEGO® Mindstorm NXT robotics kit. The robot’s hardware is based around its motors, a microcontroller brain, and a set of light and touch sensors.

The robots come with a software suite designed to allow kids with little programming experience to create fairly robust programs.

“When they get the kit, it comes with software, which is a GUI-based programming environment. Basically, it’s a kind of drag-and-drop program with a palette of commands on one side,” said Davis.

The program started out with rather humble roots. According to Davis, Tech’s involvement in the FLL came eight years ago, when a student-faculty committee in the School of ECE decided to do some outreach work in education.

Several students mentioned having enjoyed working with these robotics kits and the School decided to hold a pilot program for sixth and seventh graders at Inland Middle School.The idea garnered a lot of interest with students, and those who took part thoroughly enjoyed it. According to Davis, at the award ceremony for the first competition, the winning teams were so excited that they started running laps around the warehouse the event was housed in, trophies in hand.

However, what started as a small competition for eight teams quickly grew into a state-wide, multi-level competition for almost 300 teams. Now, teams have to go through a handful of elimination rounds before even making it to the state finals.

Even then, the number of participants who came to Tech last month for the finals was not insignificant. Forty-eight teams took part this year, and the entire Student Center—from the ballroom down to Tech Rec—had to be rented out to house the event. According to Davis it takes at least 50 volunteers to keep things running smoothly every year.

However, the competition isn’t just about fun and games. One of the FLL’s goals is to foster an interest in math and science in younger students.

According to a statement on the FLL’s website, “FIRST® LEGO® League is a global program created to get children excited about science and technology. A hands-on program for ages 9 to 16 (9 to 14 in the U.S. and Canada), FLL uses Challenges based on real world scientific problems to engage children in research, problem solving, and engineering.”

Davis thinks the FLL is a good method of achieving this goal.

“Generally the goal is to promote interest in math, science, and engineering…There’s a desire to try to increase the interest level of students in the U.S. to consider careers in engineering and science. So this is a great activity, just because it’s so hands on. Your programming this robot, you see it boot up in the physical world, it’s in LEGO®, and everybody likes LEGO®,” Davis said.

Davis is also in charge of one of Tech’s Think Big housing groups, where students with an interest in a topic can live and work together. The theme for his group is, of course, LEGO robotics.