ISMS students prepare for state competition

COLUMBIA CITY — While most youngsters might be content making a rudimentary house or fort out of building blocks, talented students at Indian Springs Middle School are taking construction with the popular LEGOs to all new heights.A team of six 8th-graders from the Columbia City school, with scientific minds way too sophisticated for a Neanderthal newspaper reporter, are constructing robots with electronic brains advanced enough to compete against the best of the best in Indiana — and hopefully the world.And somehow their doing it while talking all at the same time in a techno-geek language only they understand.Teams from around the world have been working since September to compete in the 2010 FIRST LEGO League (FLL) “Body Forward” Challenge, a two-part robotics competition geared toward the biomedical engineering field.The ISMS contingent advanced from a field of 166 teams to the state finals this Saturday in Fort Wayne by placing sixth out of 25 teams in one of six qualifying tournaments Nov. 20.The state qualifier pared the 166 squads statewide down to 48.“They’re doing the same things Saturday that they did there (at the qualifying tournament) and they’ve had three weeks to perfect it,” said ISMS Science Teacher Michelle Urban.“They have a project that they did that they’re presenting. They get interviewed on teamwork, robot design and their programming because they computer program their mission. They have a mission field that they have to complete 12 tasks.”The fledgling scientists program an electronic brain, or RCX, that rests inside of various LEGO vehicles. Once the program is created, the building block machines move throughout a constructed platform, performing various tasks by turning wheels, tripping levers or moving a part from Point A to Point B.The tasks are designed to mimic certain elements of the biomedical field, such as inserting a stent into a vein, placing a cast, splint or brace onto a bone or making an injection.The FLL competition is judged in four areas: project presentation, robot performance, robot design and teamwork.Teams advancing out of Saturday’s state competition will advance to the FIRST LEGO League World Festival, to be held in conjunction with the FIRST Championship, April 27–30, 2011, at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.The ISMS team consists of Max Dryer, who performs the task of “aimer,” or the one who guides the vehicles toward their next task, Alex Walters, Robby Owen, Stacy Quinn, Jordan Lahr and Luke Walker.Training and practice sessions sound like an audio transcript of overlapping radio traffic, with up to six young, excited voices talking at once with sentence fragments and scientific jargon bandied about like a brainstorming session at M.I.T.The students, however, remain fluid in their tasks, understand each other completely and have developed an unparalleled camaraderie.“You get your robot to come out here, hit this lever down,” said Owen.“This will go all the way back to base,” came another voice at the same time.“You’re somehow supposed to get them over to that side,” added yet another team member.“How did we lose a stent?” asked Walters, who stopped working long enough to talk about the tight-knit group.“Ever since this started, me, Robby and Max have gotten out all our old LEGOS and started building more stuff,” he said.Urban, by rule, has a limited role in the preparation and participation in the worldwide competition.“I can show them how to program and show them the basic things of how you can build (the robots) with things like the gear ratios of the wheels,” she said. “Beyond that, the LEGO League takes pride in the kids doing it all by themselves.”Saturday’s competition will be held at the Gates Sports Center at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne.The competition worldwide has involved teams from more than 50 countries.FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is an international program for 9 to 14-year-old children to get them excited about science and technology and teach them valuable employment and life skills.