By NANCY SCHWERIN
NORTH CHARLESTON — A group of eight St. John School students recently brought home several new golden trophies. The trophies made of yellow Legos were a reward for 10 weeks of innovative work. They created a robot that saved research scientists and medical supplies in the arctic.
The fourth annual FIRST Lego League (FLL) is an international robotics competition. Its inspiration was a similar competition for high schoolers called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) that began 11 years ago. FIRST was founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who has been in the news for his recent creations the Segway Human Transporter and the all-terrain wheelchair. Kamen wanted to get kids excited about science and technology.
In 1998, FIRST and the Lego Corp. created FLL. While the high school competition is on a national level, the junior competition for ages 9 to 14 is still working on a state level. Nationally, 2,000 students participated in 1998, and in 2001, 20,000 kids participated in FLL. The S.C. competition in its second year was held at Seneca Middle School. It was coordinated by FIRST Team 343 of Oconee County, called Metal in Motion. Last year, 14 teams competed, but this year the gym was packed with 36 teams. They’re looking to move to Clemson or the University of South Carolina next year, organizers told K.C. Kramp, a teacher at St. John’s and a team advisor.
“You would have thought a basketball game was going on,” said Kramp of the state FLL competition on Dec. 1 in Seneca. She and her husband, Steve, and the Knights of Columbus Council 6629 in Summerville purchased supplies and the $540 kit, which is necessary to enter the contest. The kit includes a robotics system, extra parts, registration, playing field setup and shipping. Steve Kramp was team coach, and Ron Neal, who also purchased supplies, was the assistant coach.
Teams are given a theme and scenario. The 2001 Challenge was Arctic Impact, which is based on the 1997-98 SHEBA expedition. During SHEBA (The Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean) more than 100 scientists spent a year in the arctic studying the atmosphere, ice and the ocean. The FLL challenge involved three scientists who are doing research in the arctic and who are stranded on an iceberg with two polar bears. The students’ mission includes rescuing the scientists, saving medical supplies, activating field equipment, and moving the fuel supply. For each activity that is successfully completed, points are earned. Penalties can occur that result in the loss of points. All activities must be performed in two minutes.
To get started, teams purchase the FLL kit. A 4-by-8 foot platform is built with special matting with a smooth white surface and cracks separating work areas. The field equipment is rendered from the more than 700 pieces of Legos within the kit, and the robot is built from the RCX microcomputer and Legos. The RCX unit is 3.75 inches long, 2.5 inches wide and 1.5 inches high. Legos are used to make wheels, movable parts and storage on the robot (to tote the scientists and fuel barrels).
The St. John’s robot was nine inches long, 4.5 inches wide and 5.5 inches high and proved to be quite agile. The team came in second place in the performance category for collecting 305 points out of 340. The first place team narrowly won with 310 points.
The 10 weeks prior to the competition involved design work, building the components and programming the RCX.
The kit comes with a commercially available package called the Robotics Invention System 2.0, part of the MindStorms line by Lego. Within the system is the software to program the RCX. The software is based on the technology used in the NASA Mars mission. It is pictured-based; the students create a program by connecting frames. Each frame is a different command, forward, turn left, turn right, backward, etc. The length of time for each frame can be adjusted so that the robot might move forward for seven seconds and turn right for three seconds. The St. John’s students also opted to use a rotating sensor, which marks the rotations of the wheels to determine the robot’s traveling distance.
The RCX unit holds five different programs. Each program completes one activity, for example, saving the scientists. After each activity, the robot must return to base.
When the program is complete on the computer, it is downloaded using an infrared sensor to the RCX microcomputer. This unit has an electronic window that displays numbers, one through five, for each program. Two team members are allowed to work the activities and run the programs during competition. They pressed the buttons on top of the RCX unit, which had been built into the robot, to tell it which program to run. The measurements and turns must be exact to perform the tasks.
After much tweaking and weeks of hard work, the St. John’s team came home with three Lego trophies. In addition to their second place trophy for performance, they won first for the technical interview and runner-up for design. The team members were Tim Kramp, Ben Blevins, Chelsie Erickson, Alex Bethke, Daniel Bethke, Jacqui Neal, Laurah Henderson and Xaver Hormillo.
Registration for next fall’s competition will begin in May 2002. For more information, go to www.firstlegoleague.org, www.metalinmotion.com, and www.legomindstorms.com.