Who says LEGOs are just toys?
When the Westside Robotics team sponsors Cecilia Teater and Katie Medina signed up their team for the FIRST LEGO Competition in January, they crossed their fingers and hoped that their team would take home at least some small trophy.
While sitting in the awards ceremony, the two were elated when their team, the Metal Brains, was called as the winner of the Performance Award trophy. They were then blown away when the team was called again for the Judges Award and then again for a bid to the next round of competition, the East Area Championships, in March.
“This was our first time, and we really didn’t know how they would do just because we had never done it before,” Teater said. “We were just hoping they would get a trophy because we knew how hard they worked on this. When they called us for the first trophy, we both said ‘Yes! We did it!” and we never guessed that we would get anything else or move on to the next round. These kids are amazing.”
The group is in its second year, and the dedicated team of 11 fourth- and fifth-graders meets after school twice a week to work on their LEGO League challenge. Each year the challenge changes, and this year, students were asked to pitch a project for astronauts on a mission to Mars.
On their own, the Metal Brains decided they wanted to create games the astronauts could play while on the mission. To meet all the challenge requirements, they then had to research gaming strategies, create their own games from scratch, come up with a way to the display the data they found, and find a way to present the games and information in under five minutes.
Oh, and all the while, the build team was also tasked with constructing and programming a LEGO robot that could maneuver through a course designed similar to the solar system and space.
“They have to do a lot, but they have come up with all of this on their own,” Medina said. “We are just sponsors; they do all of the work themselves.”
Together, the team created three games—Human Hamster Wheel, a game that gives the astronauts a fun way to get exercise, Strike 3, a game that tasks the astronauts to learn more about their team in space through a card game, and If I Could Ask an Astronaut any Question What Could It Be?, a game created with student questions from earth.
The team then decided a TV talk show with a panel of experts would be the perfect way to present and display all of their work and fit it into the five-minute requirement.
“It was a lot of work, but it was their idea and they just ran with it,” Teater said. “They came up with the talk show all on their own. They wrote the script, decided the parts and even decided on costumes.”
Abigail Colin said the presentation, and all of the work that went into creating it, has been her favorite part of this year’s challenge. She’s enjoyed fact-finding and helping write the team skit.
“It’s a lot of fun, and we all work well together,” she said. “At the beginning [the skit] was pretty bad; it probably took us a whole week to finally make it better. And now, we’re just working to make sure we know everything and make it the best.”
Sixth-grader Coby Norman, who is still eligible for the team by LEGO League rules, is in his second year on the team and said every day is different and that’s what makes robotics so fun. Norman and fifth-grader Yael Castillo are part of the programming team, which constantly challenges them.
“Whenever we finally get it to work and we see it do something right, we’ll go completely crazy, and then the second time it won’t work,” he said with a laugh. “It keeps you on your toes.”
Castillo said he joined the team when he saw LEGOs were involved, but he’s since come to really enjoy all aspects of the research, programming and problem-solving.
“I like it all,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun when we figure it out.”
Teater and Medina said the team is so dedicated that they have to nudge them out of the classroom at the end of each practice. If it were up to the kids, they would meet every day of the week, Medina said.
Fourth-grader Isabella Nava said the team likes to stay late because it’s so rewarding when they finally finish a project or find a solution to a problem. That, and why wouldn’t they want to stay when they’re all such good friends?
“We like being a team,” she said. “It’s fun to finish all of your work and the next time work on something different. The projects are fun, and we always have fun together.”