DOBSON — As some residents of Surry County were catching a few extra winks of sleep Saturday morning or maybe heading out on shopping trips, students massed in Dobson to work on robots.
Don’t be alarmed, this did not involve some sinister plot to take over the world, but the Surry County First Lego League (FLL) Tournament now in its fifth year.
Many adults remember Lego products as toys they played with as children, originating in 1949 as interlocking plastic bricks which could be used to build various structures. Lego is still around in a modern version that includes various figurines and interchangeable pieces that can be assembled and connected in many ways to make objects such as vehicles, buildings — and working robots.
That evolution has been merged with modern robotics technology and an accompanying initiative called STEM — an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — which is being emphasized by educators in response to industry demands for those skills.
Local educators realized in 2012 that the First Lego League program could support the STEM emphasis already under way in Surry schools and thus it was born here.
Fast-forwarding to Saturday’s tournament, the program’s evolution involved about 170 middle-school-age youths convening at Surry Community College for a day-long slate of activities. The event included 18 teams representing the Surry County, Mount Airy, Elkin and Yadkin County school systems.
Not all about robots
One purpose of the First Lego League program is to engage students in finding solutions for real-world needs, with the theme for this year’s tournament related to water issues. That is where robotics enters the picture.
Leading up to the competition, participating students were asked to develop a project dealing with the gathering, purifying or transporting of H2O.
“And we went with transportation,” Emily Jones, a ninth-grader at North Surry High School, said of the team she was working with, even though Jones has aged out of the First Lego League program. The North Surry student enjoyed the experience so much that she has stuck around to help others do the same.
“Absolutely, I loved it all three years,” Jones said of her time as a student team member which has continued with her present role as a volunteer. “I’m technically a mentor.”
Saturday’s event involved fully automated Lego robots built by the students to perform on a big board replicating real-life situations related to the theme of water.
“It’s like an obstacle course,” explained tournament official Jeff Edwards, who as coordinator of the Science Institute of Surry schools assists the various campuses in enhancing science programs.
“They build a robot and have to program that robot to perform certain activities,” Edwards added of its function on the course.
Examples of the water-related tasks tackled by the robots included replacing miniature broken pipes with new ones or turning a faucet handle.
Intense effort required
Developing the robotics project can be a meticulous process spanning several weeks, according to Jones, the student assistant.
“You have to figure out what you want to do before you figure out how to do it,” she said of projects requiring much research in the attempt to make technology applicable to real-word uses such as ensuring clean water.
Each Lego team at the various schools gets a basic robot body that Edwards described as a “brick,” to which they then incorporate their own individual designs and creativity.
This might include adding claws, arms, motors or sensors. Then a computer programming element is injected aimed at having the robots perform desired functions using digital-based technology.
“It’s a lot of trial and error, I’m not going to lie to you,” Jones said.
In the initial stages of each Lego tournament, teams meet individually with judges and are tested on core values, their robot design and presentation of their project.
Later, a Parade of Teams is held in the SCC gym to which the public is invited — then the highlight, the Robot Run through the obstacle course with points awarded as the devices successfully negotiate 18 stations along the way.
“And they have two and a half minutes to score as many points as they can,” Edwards said.
“What’s really special about this,” Jones said of the Lego tournament, is there’s a lot more to it than what people see, which is the Robot Run.”
The North Surry student said that along with the robot design, students learn problem-solving, communication, critical thinking and other skills, including how to work as a team.
“It’s communications skills — it’s people skills,” Edwards said.
While First Lego League Tournament participants are treated to a tour of the SCC robotics training facilities during the event, organizers stress that the skills students learn can be applied to a wide variety of other future occupations.
This is recognized by local businesses that sponsor the program, providing funding and mentors. Included are SouthData, Renfro Corp., NCFI Polyurethanes, Insteel Industries, PTC and the Surry County Economic Development Partnership.
In addition to the high-scoring team in the Robot Run, others are awarded in categories that also are important to the overall effort. During the initial stages of each tournament, teams meet individually with judges and are tested on core values, their robot design and the presentation of their project.
Trophies were awarded to winners of Saturday’s team competitions, including:
• Core Values Champion — The Aquabots, from Meadowiew Magnet Middle School.
• Project Champion — Team Cohesion, from Central Middle School.
• Robot Design Champion — The Ninja Falcons of Forbush Middle School.
• Robot Run High Score Champion — The Water Warriors, from Meadowview Middle School.
• Judges Award — The Blocky Bears of Mount Airy Middle School.
• Overall Champion — Team Cohesion of Central Middle School.
The student teams not only distinguished themselves locally Saturday, but also have the chance to advance all the way to national Lego competitions that mirror the growing popularity of that activity.
“This is like a scrimmage,” said Edwards, the event official. “Some of our students will go to a different city next week.”
So far, no kids from the local area have progressed to the national stage, Edwards said.
“We have had several teams go to state.”
And unlike athletic contests between rivals, the “competition” among teams is friendly, as students also learn from the mutual “cooperation” and interaction with their opponents.
“The term used by Lego is ‘cooperatition,’” Edwards said of the marriage between those two words.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.