Eight-year-old Natalie Hurley joined Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL) to “build with LEGO” and “meet cool people.” What she got was so much more.
Last May, as a second-grader, she and her fellow “LEGO Queens” of Junior FIRST LEGO League Team 248 embarked on an amazing adventure. Natalie and her teammates—Avery Dodson, Miriam Schaffer, Amber Yu, Claire Winton, and Lucy Clair Sharp—from Tulsa, Okla. were invited to the White House to present President Obama with their DISASTER BLASTERSM LEGO model and Show Me poster.
Engineering and LEGO Queens Coach Suzanne Dodson never expected her season to end with such an honor.
“I wanted (the girls) to get comfortable with motors, gears, and the ideas behind computer programming. I also wanted them to realize that you’re never too young for creative problem solving, and that if you’re willing to work hard, you can achieve just about anything,” she said.
The once-in-a-lifetime meeting with President Obama signaled that mission completed.
The 2013 Jr.FLL DISASTER BLASTERSM challenge tasked teams to explore the awe-inspiring storms, quakes, waves, and more that we call natural disasters. The hope was that participation would empower Jr.FLL team members to make a difference and to feel prepared if they learn about or face a natural disaster in the future.
In the case of the LEGO Queens, it did.
In September 2013, Colorado experienced the worst flooding in nearly 50 years after a storm dropped 17 inches of rain in one week. The floods killed eight people, destroyed about 2,000 homes and 200 businesses, damaged more than 16,000 homes, and crippled 200 miles of state highways and 50 bridges. About 6,000 people were evacuated from mountain towns cut off by floodwaters.
The LEGO Queens were particularly impacted by the idea that first responders couldn’t reach small towns because the bridges had been washed away. Inspired, the team set out to invent a flood-proof bridge that would retract when it detected rising waters.
“We came up with an awesome idea to help people,” Natalie said. “And engineering is mostly about helping people.”
The model the team designed mechanizes the bridge with motors and gears in the correct ratios. A computer program developed by the girls would cause the bridge to retract when flood conditions set in through a motion sensor in the riverbed.
The President spent nearly 10 minutes with the LEGO Queens, chatting about their project. By all accounts, the girls answered all of his questions while exhibiting excellent presentation skills and Gracious Professionalism.
“The LEGO Queens—an all-girl team that rocked tiaras while writing simple computer code—demonstrate that you don’t have to give up on being girly to enjoy science, technology, engineering, and math,” Coach Dodson said.
Inventor and FIRST® Founder Dean Kamen launched the 2015 FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC) season with the kickoff of a new robotics game called RECYCLE RUSHSM before a crowd of more than 800 people at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., hometown of FIRST headquarters. Nearly 75,000 high school students on approximately 3,000 teams at 107 venues around the globe joined the 2015 kickoff via live Comcast NBCUniversal broadcast.
RECYCLE RUSHSM is a recycling-themed game played by two Alliances of three robots each. Robots score points by stacking totes on scoring platforms, capping those stacks with recycling containers, and properly disposing of pool noodles, representing litter. In keeping with the recycling theme of the game, all game pieces used are reusable or recyclable by teams in their home locations or by FIRST at the end of the season.
At the kickoff event, FIRST Robotics Competition teams were shown the playing field and received a kit of parts made up of motors, batteries, a control system, a PC, and a mix of automation components worth tens of thousands of dollars—and only limited instruction. Working with adult mentors, students have six weeks to design, build, program, and test their robots to meet the season’s engineering challenge. Once these young inventors build a robot, their teams will participate in one or more of the 105 regional and district events that measure the effectiveness of each robot, the power of collaboration, and the determination of students.
NASA Administrator Charles Boden said, “I get excited about the start of another FIRST competition season, and I get inspired watching you work as teams building and operating robots that perform incredible feats. Before we send humans to Mars and beyond, robots will lead the way. Your work will be a vital contribution to space exploration.”
Sponsored by NASA, Comcast NBCUniversal, and Massachusetts-based PTC, the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff event is an opportunity for teams from all over the world to come together as a community to share in the excitement of seeing the new game unveiled. Teams at local kickoffs in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, and the U.S. watched the proceedings via live broadcast.
The stars are aligning for science and engineering as a new movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, George Lopez, Carlos PenaVega, and Marisa Tomei about a high-school robotics team made its debut in theaters in January. The movie, “Spare Parts,” is based on FIRST® Robotics Competition Team 842 – Falcon Robotics from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Ariz. and their famous robotic underdog victory against MIT, which was chronicled in the WIRED article “La Vida Robot” in 2005.
The team, led by FIRST® Senior Mentor Faridodin “Fredi” Lajvardi and currently retired Computer Science Teacher Allan Cameron, was comprised of four students who, in 2004, built an underwater robot for the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Competition.
Team members discovered a leak shorting the system in their robot, Stinky, during the competition. With limited time and resources, students stuffed the leak with tampons, impressed the judges with their creative problem-solving skills, and emerged victorious from the underwater robotics contest, besting MIT among other college teams.
Lajvardi credits the team’s innovative, creative thinking and victory to their participation in FIRST, which dates back to their “rookie” year in 2002.
“FIRST offers students the rigors and rewards of engineering during the six-week FIRST Robotics Competition build process, which taught my students creative problem-solving skills, collaborative teamwork, and innovative thinking skills that gave us more of an advantage in competitions,” said Lajvardi. “Students also built their self confidence through the FIRST experience, yet they learned how to ask for help from mentors when they needed support.”
In the movie, George Lopez’s character is a combination of Cameron and Lajvardi. All of the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were built and at times even operated during onscreen action by students and alumni of three FIRST teams: Team 842, Team 39, and Team 1726.
According to Lajvardi, the cast and crew of “Spare Parts” were amazed that the high school students were capable of designing, building, and operating all of the ROVs for the movie; the teams built a total of 24 ROVs. In addition to building and operating the ROVs, the FIRST teams also helped design the tasks the ROVs had to perform onscreen.
“‘Spare Parts’ tells an impressive story of grit, determination, creativity, and leadership in engineering,” said FIRST President Donald E. Bossi. “The characters—who are modeled after talented, real-life leaders—show the world you can work hard and have fun in science and engineering while accomplishing your goals through teamwork and individual success.”