Cover Story

The Salt River Titans Robotics Club participated in the FIRST Tournament and World Festival in St. Louis, April 27-30, using their Lego robot.

Salt River Elementary Robotics team participates in FIRST World Competition

By Richie Corrales
Au-Authm Action News

3-2-1, LEGO! The Salt River Elementary School Titans Robotics Club recently traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, joining more than 11,000 students from across the United States and 29 countries, to participate in a robotics championship called the FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League Tournament and World Festival. The event took place April 27–30 at the Edward Jones Dome and Convention Plaza.

The FIRST Lego League (FLL®) robotics competition asks student teams to use research, critical thinking and imagination to build robots to solve real-world challenges. Students had to complete as many of the 14 defined tasks as possible with their Lego robots, within a running time of 2.5 minutes.

“This requires several of the tasks to be combined into missions and a lot of teamwork to design and add appendages [to the robots] that can be used to accomplish the tasks,” said Keri Tuchawena-Norris, one of the club’s coaches. Teams who show the best robot performance and exhibit the FLL core values earn points.

The SRES Titans Robotics Club was founded in September 2010 by the 21st Century After-School Program, headed by SRES Counselor Greg Cameron and volunteers Dr. Bill Johnson of Scottsdale Community College; Vo Binh, a volunteer from Salt River High School who has helped mentor the robotics team; and Daniel Brown, who was a teachers aide at SRES. The program has proven to be a success, and there are many students on the waiting list.

The Salt River Challenge: Diabetes
For their FLL regional competition, the students had to focus on solving or improving a medical condition, and the SRES students chose diabetes. So first the students learned all the basic facts about diabetes and how it affects the body. Then they used math skills to program their robot so they could guide it through a course that is meant to represent the human body. They had to get their mathematics correct, because that is what guides the robot to successfully complete the course.

To accomplish their missions, the kids had to actually design and build a robot driving base, design and build key appendages, determine a desired robot path (by mapping and measuring distances and angles), and use sensors to position their robot at key reference points. The robot was then programmed to do all of the missions so that it can autonomously accomplish all of the tasks. The only time that the kids are allowed to touch the robot during competition (to change programs and/or appendages) is when the robot is in a specified location of the platform called “home base.”

At the FIRST tournament in St. Louis, there were 12 possible missions to complete, to earn a possible total score of 400 points. “Our team decided to take on five missions that could score a possible 300 points. We decided on only five basic missions because the team only had a couple months to prepare for the tournament and needed to focus on perfecting the programming of the missions and executing the missions,” said Tuchawena-Norris.

During practice, the kids were following their plans to execute the missions that they had designed. Two key elements that they were practicing were initial robot alignment, and minimizing the time needed to change programs/appendages.

“During our practice missions at the school, we were scoring as high as 295 points. When we actually went to the tournament, our highest school scores were 185 in a practice round and 165 for the real competition. Our robot just seemed to not want to cooperate while we were there, and the kids needed to reprogram some of the missions.”

International Friendship Day: Thursday
The SRES Titans joined many other student robotics teams and set up their display at the convention center. The Salt River students dressed in their traditional clothing to meet with the judges, a part of the tournament designed to show the students’ understanding of the FLL core values and to explain their robot design.

“When the team met with the judges, things did not quite go as planned,” said Titans member Jonathan Perez. “But that afternoon our team did a better job, and was confident that they would continue to.” When asked about the time difference, he said that they had all been waking up at 7 a.m. St. Louis time, which was really 5 a.m. Arizona time, and it was kind of hard for everyone.

“The judges asked us questions on what we were presenting and we all had to answer one at a time, and it was hard for some of us to answer the questions,” said Titans member Darrell Chiago.

“Our first practice run for the day was very hard at first, but by the second time we had all worked together in re-programming the robot and lining everything up,” said Dakota Larabee. “Then it was easier for us.”

“Every time we went up to compete in a mission it would make me very nervous, but it was very fun at the same time competing against different kids,” said Titans member David Ray.

The kids mingled with other students at the FIRST World Festival, exchanging buttons and wristbands and making new friends. “It was fun to hear their different languages,” said Ray.

Many of the teams dressed according to a particular theme, like knights or robots. Many wore tie-dyed clothing. And like the Titans, participants from other countries also wore traditional outfits on the first day. Team Chile wore matching hard hats to celebrate the famous miners who were trapped and rescued last year.

Competition Day: Friday
By the next day, Friday, the students were masterminds, working together solving problems within seconds in order to complete their robotic missions.

Tuchawena-Norris said the coaches tried to involve all the students in working with the robot. Each team member had several roles; the tasks included programming the robot’s mission, building the attachments, knowing the mission’s set of point values, and setting up a robot’s mission for the competition. The children learn teamwork and build self-confidence.

“The trip is an awesome experience for the children so far,” said Dr. Bill Johnson, who had attended the FIRST competition before as a spectator and thought it would be an excellent goal to have SRES participate.

“Their last challenge didn’t score so high during the first round in the competition because of the cameraman getting in the way at one point, which made them lose valuable seconds,” said Johnson.

He said that the Titans had completed 30 hours of training and have come a long way to get here and compete against other students, who train up to 30 hours a week over several years, such as a team from Holland. “They practice 20 to 30 hours every week and have been doing this for a long time, and Salt River Elementary school just started last fall,” he said.

The Titans worked very patiently and were calm at all times, doing their best not to panic when their robot experienced occasional glitches.

“The students did an excellent job and the coaches could not be more proud of them,” said Tuchawena-Norris. “They held their composure during the competition and at the times they were being judged. They did pretty well, knowing that it was only their third time competing in front of a huge audience and only working together as a team for the last six months. I feel as though we accomplished a lot this season, and the kids are already looking forward to next year.”

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