by Lou Mancinelli

Aakanksha Sharma (left) and Amelia Marcantonio-Fields, seventh-grade members of the Springside School LEGO Lions team, watch anxiously as their robot performs a task at Saturday’s FIRST LEGO League Body Forward Challenge, hosted at Chestnut Hill Academy. (Photo by Sharon Rankin)

More than 300 youngsters from three different states formed 37 teams –10 kids to a team – to participate in the 2010 For Inspiration of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO League (FLL) Body Forward Challenge regional tournament. The event, designed to inspire younger students to get excited about science and technology, teamwork and learning through a robotics competition, took place last Saturday in the gymnasium at Chestnut Hill Academy.

Since late September, students between 9 and 14 years old have been participating in robotics clubs after school to program an autonomous robot to perform specific tasks related to this year’s biomedical theme.

Students used the LEGO Mindstorms robot set and software, an interactive program that enables young students to experience electronics and programming on a simple fun level, to program their robots. The fruits of their labors were tested during the competition at the regional tournament Saturday on a biomedical themed playing field.

“It’s about helping kids see the value in 21’st century learning, like going out and exploring and using technology to our benefit, not just for convenience,” said event coordinator Robert Ervin, who has taught bioengineering at CHA for 22 years.

During the competition, robots completed tasks according to student programming. The robot, which looks similar to a remote-control Transformer toy with a Game Boy attached to it (though it is not controlled by a remote) was directed from its “base” in the corner of the rectangular playing field, which is a bit larger than a ping-pong table.

Students manipulated their robots around the field to complete tasks like connecting a fractured LEGO-bone (by nudging it in one direction using the body of the robot) and attaching a LEGO cast. Teams earned points upon successful completion of tasks, and were penalized for actions such as having to pick up the robot when it is not in its home base in order to adjust the robot to perform a different task.

Students rushed through the programs saved on the robot’s computer during the short session. In addition to the competition, students were required to produce a research project that explores a problem related to the human body. Students investigated innovative ways today’s scientists and engineers are working to fix the problems.

Putting their robot through its paces under the discerning eye of a judge are members of the CHA’s Vulcan Robotics team, From left: Steven Horvath, Matthew Hoffmann, Iam Mann, Noah Furman, Jason McCollough, Charlie Randall, Gib Randall, and research advisor and CHA head librarian Rene diBerardinis. (Photo by Deirdra Lyngard)

The competition and completion of the project stressed the core values of the challenge: teamwork, leadership and competing at a high level, according to Ervin. CHA’s Vulcan Robotics team completed a project about diabetes.

“Part of my job is to push bioengineering down, which means, bringing it to younger students at an earlier age,” Ervin said.

“They’ve been practicing for weeks,” said Theresa Gillars who was supporting her daughter’s Central and Southern New Jersey Girl Scouts team. “It’s been exciting and there’s been so much anticipation at home.”

Students use the Mindstorm software “the same way you download music to an iPod,” said Aakanksha Sharma, a seventh-grade member of the Springside School LEGO Lions team. “First we would build the challenges, while other students worked on the programming.”

Instead of dragging a song or album to an iPod icon, students use the online Mindstorm system by dragging commands – like “move forward three steps” or “left two steps” – to a blank screen that begins to fill as students prescribe a sequence of movements that serve as the programming guide for the robot’s course of action, Sharma explained.

“We’ve been practicing and getting ready for a long time,” Sharma said. “You have to be careful not to make mistakes. Sometimes you think you have it right but you don’t and you have to go back and fix it.”

At the competition, teams faced off against one another in two-and-a-half-minute rounds in which they attempted to perform as many tasks as possible. Precise movements with consideration for direction and timing to complete the tasks had been recalibrated and tweaked during the weeks leading up to the event. Between rounds, practice bays were constructed to allow students to make adjustments.

Each round began with each team’s robot racing from its corner base towards the center of the rectangular playing field. In the middle of the field was a LEGO bridge with one brace on each team’s side. The objective was for each team’s robots to grab a black brace set on top of the bridge and return it to its base.

Sometimes students realized they could not complete the task at hand. Other times, a simple restart of the prescribed movement was all that was needed to complete the task, but time was lost repeating actions.

“Part of what we do is on-time delivery,” said the announcer over the loud speaker, as time was running out and students were rushing to reattempt tasks or earn more points.

“I just wanted to see how robotics worked,” said Ramneet Sawhney an eighth-grade member of the West Hampton Middle School team from Burlington County.

“There were a lot of tasks that were hard to do but we just worked on it and did it,” said CHA fifth-grader Charlie Randall, who said his team worked about an hour a week since beginning the project.

The top nine teams from Saturday’s event will compete against the top nine teams from four other regional tournaments conducted throughout December and after the holiday break, according to event coordinator Ervin.

Those winners will go on to a national tournament. The high school at CHA has competed in the FIRST Robotics Competition since 2003, a similar competition for high schoolers. According to its website, FIRST, the governing board of the competitions introduces younger children to the world of science and technology and features real-world challenges to be solved by research, critical thinking, construction, teamwork, and imagination.

“I’m very impressed how young minds are getting together and using technology to create something, as opposed to just touching and playing video games,” said Lamont Kelley, of Southwest Philadelphia, who was there to support his son’s team.

“It was mentally challenging,” said Springside seventh-grader Amelia Marcantonio-Fields. “It’s not something you just do. You have to think about it what you are going to do first and think about it from the robot’s perspective, not how you would do it.”

For more information about the First LEGO League, visit An in-depth look at CHA’s robotics club program and its progress during the weeks leading up to and after the tournament can be found online at CHA’s school website, by clicking on the “Activities, Trips and Services” icon at the top of the page.