2017-01-13 / Front Page

Ready Player One

RSU 1 students use Legos to learn robotics skills
Times Record Staff

RSU1 STUDENTS compete in Thursday’s Lego Robot Sumo Competition. 

Eighteen teams put forth their best mechanized warrior, but at the end of the night, there could be only one Lego Robot Sumo Champion.

Thursday’s competition was part of the RSU 1 Lego Robotics Program, teaching middle school students the basics of programming and building robots.

“The goal is basically to give kids a chance to get up to speed on technology, teaching them to code through experience. You’re showing them how robots process information, how computers process information. Helping them think sequentially, logically, boiling tasks down to the clearest, most explicit, simplest steps,” explained Lawrence Kovacs, a teacher in RSU 1 who oversees the program.

While many may remember Legos as simple interlocking plastic bricks, the students use special Lego Mindstorms sets that include materials to build a functioning robot as well as a compact programmable computer that controls the robot’s actions.

A LEGO ROBOT used in Thursday’s competition 
PHOTO COURTESY BATH MIDDLE SCHOOL A LEGO ROBOT used in Thursday’s competition PHOTO COURTESY BATH MIDDLE SCHOOL “Even though they’re Legos, they’re not toys. They’re actually pretty advanced and expensive kits,” said Kovacs.

The sets were made possible through a grant from the George Davenport Foundation.

Using the kits, students learn the basics of programming and how to build a ’bot around their computer.

“The semester starts with very basic stuff, like making a motor turn or having a sensor be able to see a color,” said Kovacs. “Then we take it to the next level and have the brick say that color in vocal speech — see green and say green, see red and say red.”

Eventually, the students reach a point where they can program the robots to sense walls and retreat or even follow an object, keeping equidistant from it at all times. To win the Sumo competition, students had to use all of their lessons on programming and robotics, as well as think creatively about how best to knock out the competition.

The robots must weigh less than 32 ounces, fit within a 9-by-9-inch frame and be built only out of parts from the kits. Otherwise, the students are free to experiment with designs however they want. Some focused on mass and raw power, while others used tools like a ramp or flipper to upend the competition. No two robots looked exactly alike.

Each round starts with two robots in the 3 foot ring. After they’re activated, they must find their opponent and push them out of the circle — just like in Sumo wrestling, though on a much smaller scale. None of the students have remote controls. The robots depend entirely on their programming to keep them from driving outside the circle, find the other robot and push them out.

Teams from Woolwich Central School, Bath Middle School and the Patten Free Library entered the tournament, but only one rolled away the winner. It was Robbie Fitzmaurice and Soren Langord's robot Atlas that remained undefeated when the dust had settled.

“It’s the best kind of learning, because the kids don’t really know that they’re learning,” said Kovacs. “They’re having fun. They have an incentive to reflect on the performance on their bot: Make it fail, fix it, make it better, make it fail, fix it, make it better, and round and round again. It’s a journey. You’re constantly improving until it’s time to compete.”


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